Rebooting science journalism, redux

My post of a few days ago on rebooting science journalism stirred more (and more interesting) discussion than I anticipated. After writing a very long response, I decided to just write a short response in the comments section. But once I'd done that, I thought, Well, maybe this should just be its own post. So here it is.

Vaughan Bell rightly complains about the journalistic convention of the obligatory quote. I'm with you on this, Vaughan. Good quotes can enrich a story, leaven its texture to provide some variety for the reader, articulate contrasting views, or give insight into a person's character and thinking via her language (sometimes providing the rope with which the quoted hangs himself). But they're often used de riguer, even though writing without quotes (or with few) can (but doesn't always) adds richness of its own. One of the pleasures of writing my first piece for Slate was being told I could not use quotes (though I was expected to do all necessary research and reporting), precisely because I was to vest my authority (that of informed opinion rather than final-say expertise) in my argument rather than in quoted experts. The judicious writer best serves the reader when he (the writer) uses quotes not because they lend authority or provide a pro forma Proof of Diligent Reporting, but because they truly add something.

As to the rest: I'm with Dan Ferber on his points about the skills involved and the critical distance required to do certain kinds of reporting/writing about science.

As to how easy or hard science journalism is: Bora, I can only ask: If good fact-based writing and reporting, especially deep investigative reporting, is "way easier" than journalists think it is -- if it's easy and something any smart person with a bit of time can do well -- then why do we see so little really good stuff out there? If it were easy, wouldn't we be just choking on it? If it were easy, why would we find the exceptional work -- the work of a Zimmer, a Skloot, a Yong -- exceptional? They're exceptions because they're good, and because doing good work is hard, and it requires unusual accumulations of skills and experience.

If it were easy -- and I suspect not even Carl Zimmer finds this work "easy," though it seems to come easier to him than to most, the prolific soundrel -- then we'd be choking on great science writing. Instead, it's rare enough that when we find it, we celebrate it and pass on the links as something especially worth attending.

We need to get past this turf battle and look to the question of how to create the most robust, richest media landscape we can. Neither Ferber nor I are arguing that bloggers and PIOs and scientists-who-write should go home and let the big boys and girls take care of this science communication thing. We both welcome today's richer, more diverse, more lively media landscape. And I think I can speak for Dan too if I say we're quite aware -- intensely aware -- that certain institutional structures of the MSM press work against quality science journalism of every ilk, discouraging both accurate, unhyped reporting of findings, and deeper investigations into science's institutional and cultural foibles, follies, and frauds.

But I also feel strongly -- "All I'm saying," as they say -- that as the media landscape changes, it's important to create some sort of structure that provides funding and other support (legal protection, perhaps, or funding for same) for certain difficult, time-, skill-, and resource-intensive kinds stories. And to do that, we need to recognize that some stories require a skillset that is most commonly though not exclusively) found among reporters/journalists/writers who've learned how to dig in places where others won't or can't dig, either because the digging is too dangerous (as is oft the case with would-be whistleblowers) or because only a few have the tools to pry the rocks apart.

It's not a matter of deifying MSM journos. It's a matter of providing the money required to fund such work, no matter who has the skills to do it.

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Agree with your comments about quotes. I find that the most useful quotes are those that are carefully timed so that my reaction is, "Ah, yes ... that clarifies things!"

As to how easy or hard science journalism is: Bora, I can only ask: If good fact-based writing and reporting, especially deep investigative reporting, is "way easier" than journalists think it is -- if it's easy and something any smart person with a bit of time can do well -- then why do we see so little really good stuff out there?

I'm in your camp on this one. Bora succumbs to two pitfalls - first, looking over the fence and thinking, "Hmmm. That's not as tough as they think it is"; and second, seeing the hubris in journalists and not that in bloggers (where hubris is, heaven knows, not exactly unknown).

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

Sigh. I did mean to write about this, in reply to the original post, but things have gotten so busy I've wound up writing a late solstice post excusing myself instead!

I think there's a little crossing of wires going on that I'd like to try clear up in my head at least. I don't think "defending" either "side" helps and an appreciation that it's involving a comparison of different things might help (hence you can't expect to compare them on a like-for-like basis).

Hence me writing, I agree with the "We need to get past this turf battle and look to the question of how to create the most robust, richest media landscape we can" aspect.

When I recover from the silly season in a few days time I might more sense and have something constructive to say...!

Where's Chris Mooney in this debate? That's not a lament; though I find his absence--recognized science communications expert!--in this discussion glaring.