To begin, I’m not necessarily saying these are attitudes of journalists but perhaps may be of some editors and media business decision makers.
This post was stimulated by an interesting comment thread is developing over at The White Coat Underground – a fine blog written by practicing internist colleague, PalMD. Pal wrote a short post on one of his pet peeves: the lack of journal citations in mainstream media articles of recent science and medicine stories.
On one hand, the space taken by such a citation in print would be perhaps a line or two more than the text, “Researchers at Highfalutin University…” But in online editions, where space is endless, would simply require a hyperlink to the original publication.
A reader named Joanne who is apparently in the journalism industry wrote back to PalMD and commenters here, here, and here (< those are cost-free hyperlinks to the original content) where she suggested that the average reader doesn't care about the original story, the idea wouldn't fly, is "ill-advised from a business standpoint," and that those of us who are interested in original sources should just use PubMed and the author names.
Now, I will admit that I have never been at an editorial meeting of a major market news organization. But I fail to see how adding another couple of lines in print is going to harm circulation and advertising revenue.
For example, newspapers have increasingly added to the end of long-form articles a list of non-byline contributors. Correct me if I’m wrong but that may serve the writers more than it does the reader – but I’m sure there must be a business reason as well.
Well, here’s what I wrote in response:
Ever participated in an editorial meeting in a major market news organization? I didn’t think so.
Sad to say that this is the kind of condescending and dismissive thinking that is causing pedestrian “we’ve always done it this way” journalism from getting crushed in the new media landscape. I’m sure that PalMD and every other sci/med blogger can tell you about the number of average newspaper readers who come to these blogs and inundate us with PubMed citations to support (or misinterpret) their points. Yes, average readers today do at least care about primary literature and will at least read a scientific abstract.
This is also why people who get it, like Maryn “Scary Disease Girl” McKenna [former newspaper journalist and author of Superbug blog and book] above, are kicking ass and taking names, moving forward, being successful – and still being REAL journalists. [Here is Maryn's comment for reference]
I wrote a blogpost and then an old-fashioned e-mail to my regional newspapers about this very issue noting, as did Orac, a simple hyperlink to the study in the online edition would substantially increase a story’s value without sacrificing space. The editor, Sarah Avery of the Monday Science & Technology section in the Raleigh News & Observer and Charlotte Observer newspapers took this to her team and – voila! – hyperlinks now appear in stories in this section. [Note added: colleagues have reminded me that Ann Allen in Charlotte is also responsible for the success of the Sci/Tech section there.]
The practice has yet to filter to the rest of the organization but it’s a start – and why I still take the dead-tree editions of the N&O on weekends: they are responsive to readers.
But in defense of Joanne, I detected from this passage in her last comment a feeling of disgust and fatalism about her own field:
Your suggestion may seem tenable to you, as medical professionals, but it is never going to happen. The reality is that the public is lucky health/medical reporters even exist at this point. The media business is in a sorry state right now. Just as physicians claim not to be able to do certain things and remain in business, there are certain things that would be ill-advised, from a business standpoint, for the media, too. If you can’t find it on PubMed using the date information and researcher names in the story, then you probably need to try harder.
Indeed, if we are arguing about whether mainstream print media can add a single primary literature citation to a story, traditional journalism is in bigger trouble than I thought.