I am about to lead a discussion of science and medical blogs with a group of journalism students in a course entitled, Medical Journalism. While many of the students are specifically majoring in medical and science journalism in a master's program, some are undergraduates in general journalism and mass communications looking to get a flavor for medical writing for print and broadcast.
My question to the valued readers of this humble blog is:
What would you tell these young, knowledge-seeking minds about how science and medical blogs and bloggers might contribute to their future careers as "conventional" journalists?
For example, I have been a big proponent of journalists seeking the input of science bloggers when writing articles pitched via press releases from journals or research institutions. Many bloggers are practicing scientists, physicians, physician-scientists and other allied health professionals who
1. possess highly-specialized expertise
2. demonstrate the ability and desire to communicate complex science and medical information to broad, less-specialized or lay audiences
3. are far more likely to respond to media requests promptly (i.e., on deadline) than the average "big-name" expert source pitched by medical center news service offices.
As a scientist-blogger, I have been fortunate to develop a somewhat scholarly reputation in journalism not because of any formal journalism training, but rather that journalists with online savvy keep tabs on my posts and have developed professional relationships with me.
My guess is that wise sci/med journalists keep a cadre of RSS feeds in their news aggregators from science bloggers so they can get well-parsed information and commentary whenever a major story breaks. I view this as a symbiotic relationship because the vast majority of sci/med bloggers want to share their knowledge without any desire for competing with journalists for jobs, a concern I sometimes hear from professional writers.
So what advice do you have for journalism students or practicing journalists on how to interface with science and medical bloggers?
Medical/science journalists should not feed phony "controversies." Medicine and science are not areas where it's necessary to present a "balanced" view if the scientific facts do not support an opinion (e.g.: the whole vaccine controversy). This is a case where expert bloggers can help the journalist understand whether or not a real controversy exists and point out cases where so-called "research" that supposedly supports an opinion is not really valid research.
Don't be afraid to ask us to explain something to you. Most likely than not, we are willing to explain challenging topics and be more patient with you than a busy researcher that initiates little outreach. We might provide several links for you to read on your own. Expect that.
Ask us who we'd recommend you contact (or whose papers to check out) if as a follow up.
This is a bit late, but I agree with you to a point regarding the use of bloggers as sources. However for me, the major question remains this: how does a journalist "verify" that you, as a health or medical blogger, know what you are talking about? For the sake of consistency I'm going to use variations of the same example in each case.
Do you, as a journalist select a blogger because the blogger is repeating what you as the journalist already think they know? Is the blogger willing to steer you to other sources who disagree? For example where does the blogger stand in the long running bio vs psychosocial debate. If they will not or cannot provide legitimate leads to legitimate sources who have a different point of view, are they on the up and up? Is it reasonable to say that journalists should not be cheerleaders for any one agenda? Health and medicine are chock full of them - both financial and ideological. The example of the bio vs psychosocial debate is just one broad area - there are many others.
If you believe the above to be true, how does a journalist differentiate between bloggers with a specific ideology (aka agenda) - public health vs the germ theory biomedical model using the same example? Not that ideological adherence is inherently bad - it just requires transparency. If a source isn't transparent, then you need to move on.
Does the academic research blogger move beyond labeling dissenters in a pejorative manner(disease mongerer, Big Pharma crony etc)? If they do not, how might that prevent the journalist from finding legitimate sources that might nullify their theory? It could be said that academic research lives and dies on prestige, power and recognition is it reasonable to suspect that labeling is one way to deal with anything that threatens the theory or area on which the researcher stakes their reputation?
These are just a few of the many questions to ask and areas to explore- after all this is a blog not a book.
I do believe journalism has to reinvent itself in order to survive which includes bringing bloggers among others into the dialogue, but on the other hand, the discipline of verification in order to provide accurate facts in meaningful context remains the same no matter what the method.