ScienceBlogling Ed Yong asks a good question about scientific embargoes–the practice of giving reporters press releases about to-be-published research on the condition that they don’t publish before a certain date: “Does science journalism falter or flourish under embargo?”
Opponents of embargoes believe that the practice, to use Ed’s phrase, leads to shoddy ‘churnalism.’ But it’s not clear to me how one investigates published research.
First, most science journalists lack the expertise to criticize much of what they cover–it’s not that they’re stupid, but they’re not going to know more (most of the time) than the researchers in that field. Moreover, it’s not clear exactly how one could rigorously critique a paper one hasn’t seen yet (sometimes the paper isn’t even released ahead of time). Fundamentally, however, it’s just not clear what there is to investigate. This isn’t like a corrupt politician, or denying the use of torture. The paper will out there: anyone can comment on it.
This, to me, highlights one of the fundamental problems inherent in science journalism: covering research findings, unless it’s really shoddy science (which happens), is ‘churnalism.’ The only way it couldn’t be would be to write an informed critique of the work, and, heaven forbid, the best people to do that aren’t journalists, but working scientists in the field. They can do so formally, in journals, or informally (blogs, etc.). And as Ed notes, the public at large needs this translational filter (even if the filter doesn’t always work so well).
Sadly, there are many areas in science that would benefit from investigative journalism:
- How are proposals really funded? As I’ve noted before, there is never a detailed article about how things get funded–only vague generalities. Compare that to the attention to detail found in political reporting.
- Are grants and funded projects meeting their goals? If not, why not?
- What are the priorities of the funding agencies and the sections within the funding agencies? Are the funded projects addressing those goals? Hell, most working scientists would like to know that.
These are just a few areas where an enterprising investigative journalist could make his or her mark. But a published paper?