Neuron Culture

Effect Measure — inspired by a thoughtful note from bird-flu ace reporter Helen Branswell — ponders the implications of the increasing lack of specialization, and thus deep subject-specific expertise, among MSM reporters.

The conclusion we draw from this is that if you really want to know what’s going on

in the flu world you shouldn’t depend on newspapers as a source of information but go to the next (meta)level, where news, comment, the peer reviewed science literature and the gray literature of official reports, press releases, and rumor filters are done better (or at least different) than most any newspaper or wire service. We can’t do without the wireservices and newspapers. They are an essential part of the news infrastructure. But just as a bridge is necessary to get from place to place, it isn’t the sole means for getting from one point to another. It is infrastructure. In today’s world a wireservice or newspaper can no longer be depended upon as a main source of news, either because it is is incomplete, presents only a biased fragment of the truth or has become a stenographic tool for official sources. The days when these were the sole source of news are over, anyway. The internet has transformed everything.

This has happened so fast that there has been a lot of dislocation and loss of valuable journalistic talent. We can’t do anything about that. We have to take the world as it is.

This strikes me as a more constructive and helpful way to view the MSM v citizen media/blogosphere question than who’s more or less corrupted or jaded or co-opted. It highlights not just cultural preconceptions but the economic limitations of each side. MSM journalists are increasingly hard-pressed by the economics of MSM to have the time and breadth of knowledge needed for deeply informed, perspective-giving reportage, but can still be good at getting the facts; citizenjournoss and bloggers often have deeper background knowledge but aren’t in a position to do the original reporting. Together than can get some good things done.

I would note that one value of the biggest, most serious MSM outlets — places like the Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic — is that they DO have journalists who specialize and have deep knowledge of (and contacts in) their beats.


Comments

  1. #1 Coturnix
    February 7, 2009

    Science coverage in these outlets is good because they can afford a whole stable of people, each expert in one field only. If Zimmer was forced to cover, on a daily basis and without time to research, everything from astronomy and physics to archaeology and materials science, he would do a bad job, too. But he is given time to pick his own area – evolution – to study it for years, and to write whatever the heck he wants on any given week. So Carl is an expert on what he is writing.

    A small paper with one science beat reporter will have to cover everything and will thus cover everything poorly. I covered this in the last segment of my radio interview last week – for science reporting, one needs a distributed net of experts, each weak on everything and each exceptionally strong on one thing only. And that is: science bloggers. If it’s physics news, you go see what physics bloggers are saying. For evo-devo, you go to PZ, for circadian stuff, you come to me.

    If a newspaper and a large net of bloggers could strike a deal, that would benefit everyone.

    Another note – every time we bash science journalists, someone comes up in the comments and says: Hey, how about Zimmer, or Judson, or Mooney, or Dobbs? My answer is, not just that they are free to write only about their area of expertise, but they also are bloggers, and had plenty of time to learn how to behave online and to upgrade their ethics from journalistic so-called ethics to bloggers’ ethics (see Jay Rosen’s post he linked to in a comment to one of your previous posts on the question). This is why they are good. And the fact that only a handful of such names keep popping up is a proof that such good science journalists are rare.

    [btw, I had to sign out in order to post this. Signed in, I cannot. Contact Overlords to have this problem fixed - occurs on a couple of other blogs, it has something to do with MT commenting settings]

  2. #2 David Dobbs
    February 8, 2009

    Thanks for writing, Bora. The limitations of small papers that you point out echo closely Helen Branswell’s comments in Effect Measure’s post; she defended an all-subjects-reporter colleague (whom I take it had been slighted about his flu reporting) along similar lines, noting that he had too much ground to cover to do them all in the sort of depth she was able to bring to her flu coverage.

    I see your point about the potential value of replacing such uneven coverage of issues with what amounts to a new network of specialists. But that has problems too, at least as a complete replacement. First, if the scientists are no longer working as scientists, but just blogging/reporting full time, then they’re essentially specialist reporters, no? So you’ve returned to specialist beat, only without (at least so far) a way to pay them.

    If, on the other hand, these blogger/specialists are still working scientists, I don’t see how we can rely on them to steadily have the time and sense of critical distance to be optimal reporters. Sources, yes, commenters, yes, lenders of perspective, yes; but reporters and diggers-up of scattered important information, no. And while they have have knowledge, but they also have obvious biases. And for some stories they will lack a needed critical distance — for sometimes the most important story about a discipline is a story the discipline doesn’t see or doesn’t care to acknowledge.

    Again, these aren’t problems that the MSM solves perfectly, either. But the MSM does provide some structures and support and platforms that give it strengths the blogsphere lacks, just as the blogosphere serves to counter and check some of the weaknesses of the MSM.

    I’m not saying these things can’t possibly be replaced in some online form of journalism/blogging/reportage. But if we’re seeking to replace the MSM — or have to, because it fails economically — we best recognize its strengths and try to make sure they carry over to whatever might replace or supplement it.

    Finally, Zimmer and Judson and Mooney and I are free to write in chosen areas, and to get some depth in our reporting, only because of the MSM. Zimmer may (or may not) make enough with his books to support him; but his books sell well partly because he publishes regularly in the Times. My own MSM income is essential, and while I enjoy writing on the web, there’s no way I can make a living writing only for pixels instead of print — and no online-only outfits would run the longer pieces that most engage me and that I feel are my best and most socially important work.

    As to blogging ethics shaping sensibility: My ethics and sense of relationship to audience were shaped by my work in print media (magazines and books, as I’ve only a few short pieces in daily papers) and can’t be said to be some new ethics created in or “upgraded” by my blogging or accepting the blogosphere. Blogging lets me link, and converse, and track an issue steadily, and it makes it easier to state revisions of opinion — but while those are valuable additions, but they are changes not of ethics but of practice. (Meanwhile there are things I lose when blogging, such as the time to research in depth and to explore a story in depth at one go.) The ethics Rosen cites for MSM journalists don’t conflict with those of the blogosphere. His point, it seems to me, is not that the blogosphere has better ethics, but that it has them, and they’re expressed in ways different than in the MSM (via links, e.g.), so folks, quit saying the blogosphere doesn’t have ethics.

    Rosen’s much stronger and emphatic point, meanwhile, is that the blogosphere v MSM argument isn’t getting us anywhere, so, follks, quit beating this question by attacking “the other.” I agree with him. The point is not which is better or deserves to die or has great or lousy ethics or good or awful writers. It’s that they bring different strengths and weaknesses and possibilites and constraints, we’ll make the best of both realms if we try to cross-fertilize strengths while avoiding or improving upon weaknesses.