The poor coverage of science in the media is an evergreen topic in blogdom, to the point where I’ve mostly stopped clicking on links to those sorts of pieces. This ScienceProgress post about newsroom culture bugged me, though, and it took me a while to figure out the problem. The author worked as a reporter in North Carolina over the summer, covering science topics, and writes about his dissatisfaction with the journalistic template:
I had one editor who required that I give him my story pitches using six words or fewer. But the message wasn’t even simply to shorten; it was to make it punchy. Cutesy. Puns and clever twists of phrases signaled good writing. “Hooking the reader” meant playing with language to get your punch line across as glibly as possibly. A short article was a point of pride.
Cleverly packaged writing is not inherently bad writing, of course. The ability to explain something in a succinct way suggests an impressive grasp over language. It reflects a clear line of thinking. Extra words can take readers on tangents, overcomplicate an idea, and dilute a focus. Writing concisely is a tremendous skill, requiring years of practice.
Yet something strange happens when you take a deep-seated journalistic template and apply it to all subject matter unconditionally. A subject burdened with as much uncertainty and complexity as science requires a bit more nuance in depicting it.
It took me a little while to put my finger on what bugged me about this piece, but in the end, I think it’s that last sentence. Specifically, it’s the fact that you could replace “science” with any number of other words, and have it be just as true. I’ve heard similar complaints about the distortions imposed by newsroom culture from tax policy experts, health care policy experts, foreign policy experts, American history experts, and so on. Any field more complex than weather reporting isn’t particularly well served by the journalistic template, and I’m not so sure about the weather.
This problem is not unique to science. What is unique to science, at least in the blogging corner of science, is what comes after the statement of the problem. Namely a stubborn refusal to do much of anything about it.
I’ve read similar complaints about the distortions imposed by the media from experts in a wide range of policy and social-science fields, but all of those fields also have people– often the same people doing the complaining– working to craft their message in a way that allows a more accurate portrayal within the template. They don’t just gripe about the media and wish for things to be different, they work to shape their message so as to achieve their goals in spite of the uncomfortable fit with the journalistic template.
And there’s a good reason for that. The journalistic model didn’t just come out of nowhere, imposed by some iron-fisted cabal of Perry White/ Jonah Jameson editors. It exists because while it may not be a good format for conveying nuance to the satisfaction of experts, it’s a very good format for conveying information to the proverbial person on the street. Journalists write short, punchy articles with much of the information loaded into the first few paragraphs because it’s an effective technique for getting the stories out to readers who aren’t necessarily willing to read a 10,000 word treatise on some subject.
The journalistic style is there for a reason, and it’s not going to change any time soon. If you want your field to be covered in the media at all, it’s going to have to fit in a short, punchy article or quick video clip. Which is why you have foreign policy experts and health care policy experts and all the rest out there working on shaping their complex messages into a form that can fit in the standard media format.
Science, at least the online corner of it, seems to me to be unique in the insistence that the subject can’t possibly be condensed, and that it’s unreasonable to even suggest that it might. There’s this persistent image of science as a noble and pure pursuit that can’t be sullied with trivial concerns like keeping stories about it to a reasonable length, or compressing the key points down to elevator pitch length. Whenever the subject comes up– pretty much any time Chris Mooney says anything– the discussion runs smack into a stubborn insistence that science is irreducibly complex, that it can’t possibly be broken down into a format that fits the journalistic style.
This is, of course, nonsense, as even a passing familiarity with the work of people like Dennis Overbye and Carl Zimmer would show you. They write really good stories about science that manage to convey an accurate picture of the key ideas within the standard journalistic model. Look closely at one of Overbye’s physics articles for the Times, and you’ll find that he’s doing exactly the thing that people claim can’t be done– the articles are reasonably short, with a good hook and a punchy opening, and you don’t hear all that many physicists denouncing him for it.