Sunday, 9 August 2009

Science journalism in crisis?/Will I have a job when I finish my MA?

Was speaking the other night to Mikey, the deputy editor of Men’s Health (thanks JT for the introduction) and he said something that relieved me… a lot: there’s a dearth of specialist health journalists with the right contacts, going to the right conferences, and all that jazz. Fitness and nutrition journos, sorted; health hacks – harder to find. They almost-but-not-quite poached one off a broadsheet. While this is not good news for Mikey, it is music to my nascent science journalist ears.

Especially because I have been working on an assignment for the course which involved answering the question: “What are the challenges facing science journalism?” Where do I even start?

Easy: scepticism. Ben Goldacre graciously obliged over email with a polemic viewpoint – Thanks! Self-sacrificing of him, who relies on science journalist blunders for 90% of his material, to posit that we should just get rid of science reporters all together:

We need fewer science writers, and more editors. Radio 4 is the best place for interesting, challenging popular science, and there are some fascinating structural issues here. 70% of the words in a Radio 4 documentary come directly from the mouth of the scientist who has done the work. This makes for better clarity, better diversions, better nuancing, greater accuracy, and so on.

You're in very big trouble, when academics and other bloggers can do it better themselves. I think the mainstream has talked itself out of a role in popular science, except for wacky dumbed down stories about miracle vegetables. It won't be missed.

I have a few of problems with this (except what he says on science blogging, on which more later). You might say that’s because I am about to join the ranks of evil science journalists (shudder, shudder, gnash teeth) myself, but it’s not only that. Here’s why:

Editors sometimes make bad decisions too. Think MMR. Whose choice was it to commission generalist and lifestyle journalists to write about this complex and incendiary issue?

Also see this shocking example of hypocritical editorial stances from the Mail. [VIA] In Britain the Daily Mail ran a series of anti-vaccine stories while in Ireland their campaign urged: “Roll out the Vaccine now”. Which stance reflects the bulk of scientific evidence? Do the editors care as long as they stir up a bit of controversy and sell some papers? 

Goldacre uses the example of Radio 4 as what he sees as best practice science editing. The BBC, while they’re not disinterested in ratings, are relatively freer to act out of public service, whereas the news factory clearly has to sell, sell, sell. I don’t know how he proposes to change this, beyond, like a white knight coming down from the clouds riding a unicorn, buying up the MSM and turning it back to it’s less commercialised roots.

Also, there is another issue at work here, and it’s not purely semantics. Editors and producers are, essentially journalists. They package the words of the scientists into tiny soundbitey portions. I chatted to Alok Jha, the Guardian’s science correspondent who makes the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcasts. He says: “Someone will have spoken for half an hour and only 90 seconds gets used in the final programme. Their words are juxtaposed against other people's, advancing a wider argument that they themselves may not be making.”

Who has the control? Ultimately, not the scientists, still the journalists, so it’s not really the panacea that Goldacre suggests.

Besides which, historically, publicity-shy or perhaps slightly arrogant scientists may have impeded the progression of science. For example, back in the day there was a bloke called Slipher that worked as an astronomer and made loads of important discoveries. But it was left to others, including Hubble, about 15 years later, to shout about things like ‘the universe is expanding’.  Why? Because, as Michael Brooks writes in his book 13 Things that don’t Make Sense: “Slipher had a habit of not really communicating his discoveries”. It follows that specialist communicators are a boon, to tell the public what they deserve to know about taxpayer-funded research.

Sometimes what you need is a straight report of what’s happened and then you can discuss it after that.” Says Jha, “Frankly, if we didn’t exist, neither would the blogs, because they wouldn’t have anything to complain about or link to.”

Jha tells me he’s had this debate in the office before with (probably) Goldacre. He says scientists that wanted to communicate their stories would end up basically being reporters, because that's the way the industry works: “It’s no accident that newsrooms work in the way that they do, however messy they are… this is the best way that you get news into newspapers.” I don’t know about this. But it would be an interesting experiment to get a scientist to work in a newsroom and give feedback on their experiences. Any volunteers?

“Get rid of a whole swathe of journalists?” Steve Connor, the Indy’s science ed, tells me, “We need more good science journalists, not less.” He explains that not many people have time or inclinations to pore over hundreds of science papers in journals in the same way journalists do. (Looking forward to it, already.)

Chomping at the bit to find out more about the (crisis?) state of science journalism, I asked my interviewees three questions (or rather more if you’re poor Alok Jha who I had on the phone for almost 25 minutes). These were:

  • Is science journalism a danger to public health (Goldacre thinks it is)?
  • Can humanities graduates write good science journalism (Goldacre thinks major prob with media is humanities grads “wearing ignorance like a badge of honour” – from Bad Science)?
  • What’s the future of science journalism? (Please let there be one).

As well as Jha and Connor I also spoke to and Rowan Hooper, the news editor of the New Scientist, and even Nick Davies. I’ll blog my scintillating findings in instalments this week. Will tweet as I publish.  

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