Journalism of the Gaps

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.

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Some dashed off thoughts -

I'm a working reporter, who's used you as a source (I hope not too badly) and think that most analyses miss the simple point you touch on: i and others have to make a bloody living.

The big, investigative stuff, I'd love to do it. But that requires time and my landlord isn't willing to wait on rent. Gathering data is a tough business, more so than a lot of people think. Good reporting isn't a hobby, and can't really be done that way, any more than teaching physics can be. You have to put the hours in.

The quick-hit stuff is bread and butter for most of us. it pays the rent, btu then we have to find time for the bigger stuff. David Dobbs has a book deal and a regular gig at the Atlantic; I and the vast majority have to sell stuff every day. Huge difference.

I should add: as a writer I have to assume that the reader might not know anything. In the sciences that can be an issue because unlike baseball, physics (for instance) isn't part of the cultural vocabulary. I don't need to explain the rules of baseball when I write a story about the game between the Yankees and Rays; I have to do a lot more explaining to make a story about charm quarks make any sense at all, and I have word limits. (Even online outlets have those, because they want people to read the whole thing). I elide a lot of things when I write about physics and don't always get it as right as I would like. But as you know it isn't easy to do, always. You didn't just dash off your book in a few hours.

I think sometimes there's a real misunderstanding of just what it is we do all day. (Kind of like with public employees: people don't see you at the parts of your job where you are doing the real work).