I’ve seen a bunch of links to this interview with Peter Aldhous, mostly focusing on this quote:
I think for most science journalists, their model of journalism is explanatory. It’s taking the arcane world of the high priests and priestesses of science and translating what they do into language the ordinary mortal can understand. And I think that’s incredibly valuable and very important if we’re to have an informed society. But it is a different mindset from thinking that part of your job is to keep an eye on these guys and check that science isn’t being used and abused, that there isn’t corruption or fraud. And once you get into that mindset, you’re going to approach things differently. I’d argue that science journalists who have that mindset and wed it to what their training would allow them to do, in terms of data analysis and even studies done as part of the story, it can be very powerful.
I’m very much not a journalist, but this strikes me as a little off, in that most of the time I’m around journalists talking about journalism (on-line or off-), they talk a lot more about the investigative checks-and-balances sort of thing than translating holy writ for hoi polloi. On more than a few occasions I’ve heard journalists explicitly disavowing the translating function, and saying that the primary responsibility of journalists is not reporting but investigating.
Now, of course, I’m not dealing with a representative sample in any respect. As a non-journalist, the only journalists I hear from are mostly at or near the top layers of the profession, not the toilers working at the Bloom Picayune. And the investigative stuff is a lot more glamorous than writing or lightly re-writing press releases from research labs.
At the same time, even taking Aldhous’s description and prescription as given, I worry that there’s a huge gap between these two models. That is, the investigative sort of data-driven stories– which I’m all in favor of, mind– are great for those issues where there’s a deep public interest and a possibility of fraud, and the translate-for-the-laity model (we’ll leave aside for the moment my problems with the “ordinary mortals” framing) primarily draws on the very cutting-edge stuff, but the vast majority of scientific research falls between those. It’s done by people who are honest and hard-working and so not doing anything to demand investigation, but it’s making use of well-known principles to explore phenomena some distance back from the cutting edge, so it’s not particularly sexy to translate.
I’m not sure there’s anything to be done about this– after all, the vast problems wracking journalism these days are all about finding a paying audience, and it’s hard to monetize solid but unglamorous science (at least not until it actually turns up in useful devices). But from the perspective of someone who isn’t at either of those extremes, it’s hard to see a journalistic shift from mostly explaining to mostly investigating as all that big a win. Moving from “String theorists say we’re living inside the holographic sticker on God’s MasterCard!” to “Pharmaceutical researchers are a bunch of sleazy crooks!” doesn’t do any more to pick up the kind of science I was trained in and most of my close colleagues work in.
There was a time when I thought blogs could provide that sort of journalism of the gaps, but I’m less optimistic about that these days, what with blogs being declared dead, again. If there’s a way to drive attention to stuff that isn’t wildly speculative and probably wrong or expensive and possibly fraudulent, I’d love to see more of that.