Journalists Unclear on the Concept

No, this isn’t another “How dare those journalists muddle the explanation of some scientific topic” post. The concept here is journalism itself, as seen in Ed Yong’s discussion of different modes of science journalism. Writing about the recent World Conference of Science Journalists, he talks about some controversy over what “science journalism” actually means:

Certainly, the idea that journalism equated to talking or writing about science in any form was unpopular. In the opening plenary, Fiona Fox drew a fine line between science communication and journalism, the latter characterised foremost by a process of scrutiny. Gavin McFayden, Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, described most science news as “stenography” or a “cheerleading operation”. Over Twitter, Ivan Oransky explained to me, “For many, including me despite my MD background, you can only be a journalist because of conflicts”

These comments espouse a division between science journalism as either a cheerleader or a watchdog, as noted in a recent Nature editorial. To many, journalists only succeed in blowing the trumpet of science, regurgitating content from published papers and press releases when they ought to be subjecting it to further scrutiny by questioning statistics and hype and exposing dodgy data, fraudulent practices, and conflicts of interest (some scientists would add that they don’t even do the first job particularly well).

I am not a journalist by any stretch, but this strikes me as a kind of ridiculous distinction. I mean, isn’t the central idea of journalism “to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society“? There doesn’t seem to be anything in there about only publishing stuff that journalists enjoy writing…

I mean, sure, “regurgitating content from published papers and press releases” sounds fairly awful, but then, I doubt that aspiring political journalists are queuing up around the block for the chance to write “Traffic checks lead to 20 alcohol-related arrests ,” but that’s the job. As dull as it may seem to the people tasked with writing it, these stories are news, and need to be reported.

The same thing has to carry over to science journalism, if the term is going to make any sense at all. Yeah, a story like yesterday’s Team May Have Found Intermediate Black Hole isn’t a great deal more than what you would find in a press release, but it’s news, and part of the job of a journalist is to report the news, even if it’s not terribly exciting to write.

(But, really, how can you call a story about a black hole 500 times the mass of the Sun dull?)

This isn’t limited to science journalism, of course– what Ed describes is just a local realization of a more global problem. Non-science journalists also seem to have lost any real grounding in actual news, which is a big contributor to the current desperately stupid media landscape. But I don’t think anything is helped by having leading science journalism brush off the basic business of reporting new results as something that is beneath them.