This post might have to get filed under “careful what you wish for”, but Martin Robbins’ latest column about the cozy relationship between science journalists and the scientists they cover seems to have struck a nerve, if The Twitter is any indication. Here’s a good snippet:
Churnalism is a real problem in science reporting, to the extent that it feels a bit boring to keep going on about it, but the wider issue is this lack of actual, well, journalism. As I said in that piece; if journalists aren’t contributing original reporting, or providing context, or challenging statements made by university press officers, or even just adding informed opinion, then they’re not really doing journalism. Connie goes further still:
I have this thesis which is… science journalists have forgotten how to be journalists. They’re actually science communicators, and they go into the job and… the job was to tell you what science was doing and help you understand science, and I think that’s an incredibly important function, but don’t call yourself a science journalist if that’s what you’re doing, call yourself a science blogger, call yourself a science communicator, but if you’re going to call yourself a journalist then behave like a journalist, dig for stories, ask questions of science, ask questions of scientists, look at numbers, look at figures, and do what journalism does.
This applies equally to blogging and traditional media. I would be willing to bet the contents of my wallet – £3.50, a library card and a photograph of Carl Sagan’s head on a woman’s body I printed off the internet – that most science writers/bloggers/journalists if asked would admit that they are fans of science. I certainly am. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are times when it means that coverage lacks some much-needed rigour.
We’re always explaining new cures, explaining new science, but where are the guys who are really digging down, where are our Ivan Oranskys, where are our Gary Schweitzers, we don’t have them. It’s all very much “here’s a new cancer drug”, and I’m not knocking that, it’s really important, but actually we’re in a very deficit model of journalism at the moment.
A while ago, I argued that how science is funded was a critical element missing from science journalism:
Nonetheless, how the decisions to fund science are made, which delimit who will conduct research, and what areas will researched, is important. To put this another way, the NIH, which has a $20 billion budget, is one of the least scrutinized agencies out there. Sure, sometimes a congressman gets a bug up his ass about some project or another, which results in news coverage. Likewise, the amount of the total NIH budget gets coverage. But how that money is allocated–and most allocation is done by administrative fiat, not Congressional edict, except with very broad brushstrokes–is almost never covered.
I can’t think of another federal agency with a similar sized budget that lacks routine, comprehensive public scrutiny. Think of all of the shit the National Endowment of the Arts catches with its $145 million budget.
How science is funded–and what that means in terms of translating research into applied results–would be a fantastic story, and one that is woefully neglected. There’s a niche out there waiting to be filled….