Science journalists: lazy, credulous, overworked?

June 29, 2009

Last week some elder colleagues of mine were Twittering about the lack of skepticism among science journalists, particularly in cases where scientific journals are perceived as strongly dictating story selection, a practice that was characterized as “lazy.”

They were referencing a special report on science journalism published by Nature. Here’s the full list of stories.

My former boss at SciAm.com, Ivan Oransky, highlighted a piece on the invention of newspaper science journalism as an outgrowth of the Progressive era’s faith in perfecting the world through science and technology.

It’s an eye-opening article, written by Boyce Rensberger, the influential former director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Fellowship. David Dobbs made the point that if science journalism was so recently conceived of, and in a specifically cheerleading mode, it could explain why members of our profession are content to report journal articles as the main news of the day.

As someone who has always secretly wanted more guidance from veterans in his field, but hasn’t always known where to turn, I inserted myself into the conversation. I’d love to hear some of those folks (Rebecca Skloot was the third) elaborate on how they think skepticism is apportioned in our profession, so those of us working in it can improve what we do. 

For starters:

  • Do reporters in particular beats tend to be less skeptical than reporters in others?
  • Is there something about those beats that drives them toward or away from skepticism?
  • Is there more skepticism in web-only publications or in web-print? And again, in what subjects or types of content?

I feel more comfortable engaging with a separate piece by Toby Murcott, a former BBC science reporter, on “toppling the priesthood” of science. I’m not sure what I think of the specific strategy he recommended — that science somehow be “opened up” for journalists to help them cover it more analytically — but I concurred with his description of what it’s like to be a reporter covering a science beat.

I have a PhD in biochemistry and three years postdoctoral research, so if I am reporting a discovery in my field, I can make a reasonable attempt at understanding the technical detail and will have a sense of the overall history, evolution of ideas and current debates. I will know who is a leader in the field, and who is an outlier; I will be able to distinguish majority views from minority ones. Yet as a science journalist I am expected to cover more than just biochemistry. I need to be able to report on findings in cosmology, ecology, particle physics and much more. To draw on the knowledge of scientists in these fields, I must first find out which scientists are most relevant, and have a sense of their opinions and place within the field. All of this takes time, which reporters often don’t have.

This is partly why so many journalists resort to doing the bare minimum: reproducing press releases. Many journalists will telephone or e-mail one of the main contributors given on the press release to ask a few supplementary questions; but there is rarely the time or the expertise to go into the full story of how an item of research came to be, and how it fits into the bigger picture.

(See my previous post, on bullsh-t and science journalism.)

Interestingly, Murcott makes one of the same points Rensberger did: science journalists are not respected by their peers!

As science correspondent for the BBC World Service, I regularly experienced the quiet frustration some elements of the newsroom felt with science journalists. My colleagues felt that we reported on published papers without significant analysis, depth or critical comment: we just translated what scientists said.

Indulge my defensiveness for a moment: Would these “other journalists” be, say, the hard-hitting business journalists who saved us from the financial meltdown? Or maybe the genius White House correspondents who kept us from invading Iraq? I know he’s talking about the BBC. But you get what I’m saying. If science journalism is less than uniformly skeptical, it’s hardly the sole offender.

I’m not saying science journalism isn’t “problematic” by the standard of cultural perfection, or even optimality. As Rensberger alluded to, we’re still coming out of a cultural conception of science as revealed truth, which muddies the perception that science can be a powerful tool for defending subtle elements of the status quo. The science stories I see on sites like Yahoo News and CNN.com are often pure entertainment, which is fine. We all like that stuff, to some degree. Stoned wallabies making crop circles? You need to know about that before you die. (I’m sure other science news orgs had their own jokes like we did at SciAm.com about what kinds of stories would get pageviews. It wasn’t only sex. I think monkeys were high on the list.)

To Murcott’s point, I think we’re all trying to topple the priesthood in our own way, meaning we can disagree on how to get there from here. My colleagues above would probably not agree with Murcott that science needs to be “opened up.” They’d say, cultivate sources, find better stories, give more context. I don’t disagree. I do think Murcott is right to point to structural institutional effects, which are at least transiently relevant. 

  1. To have a science news web site, you have to put up — what? — a good dozen pieces of content a day, including news and light features, especially multimedia, and with breaking news on top of that.
  2. For “news” to mean something other than what’s in the journals that day, you need good beat reporters. By no means do any of them have to be MDs or PhDs. But you have to acquire some of the specialized knowledge of your beat somehow, and having it upfront could mean the difference between burnout or room to breathe.
  3. Once you’ve got experienced, knowledgeable reporters, you can start to approach something like the Wall Street Journal Health Blog. And even if you have to throw up a lot of fluff to attract eyeballs, with forethought and skill, you can still insert the kinds of stories that deserve to be read: conflicts of interest in biomedicine, DNA evidence in the courts, regulatory agencies gone rogue.

I don’t have any numbers here, but from what I remember of Digg Science, I feel like there’s a healthy market for muckraking, although maybe interspersed with enough fluff that we don’t all get too depressed.

To speed the day, Murcott recommends opening up peer review reports to journalists. (To be published in most scientific journals, a manuscript has to survive scrutiny by several independent experts in the field.) My immediate reaction was, “Pff, whatever. I’ve had access to that in some cases, and the reporting uncovered it all.” And I had no journalism background going into this line of work! I’m the kind of person who got into the field for journalistically “incorrect” reasons, in particular a semi-idolatrous relationship with science.

As it stands now, I’m inclined to reassess how to put my skills to best use. Maybe I need to divide my time between academic pursuits and journalistic ones. I think it would be fun to be a cross between Sally Lehrman and Evelyn Fox Keller, using science and critical theory to expose ways that scientific discourse enforces damaging ideas about race, class and gender. Any good daily journalist is doing the same thing, just on shorter deadlines and with less theoretical baggage.

If you’ve read this far and consider yourself a working journalist, I’d be interested to hear how you handle the pressures of the job and what motivates you to get up in the morning.

Update [7/1/09]: Brandon Keim, a writer for Wired Science, has posted a really compelling reply to my final question. See also the comment below by Robin Lloyd of Live Science, who radiates Zen. I’ll say something more explicit about my own motivations soon.

10 Responses to “Science journalists: lazy, credulous, overworked?”

  1. John Pavlus Says:

    interestingly, after making it to the end of this post I seriously wonder if I should *ever* consider myself a journalist. Although I rarely self-label that way as is.

  2. JR Minkel Says:

    Ah, so I failed to lure you over to the profession. What do you consider yourself, and what are the ethics of your self-label?

  3. John Timmer Says:

    What gets me up in the morning? Every now and again, you know you took a seriously complex subject or series of experiments and presented it so that a big audience could get it. Not as often as you’d like, necessarily, but it’s incredibly rewarding when it happens.

  4. Robin Lloyd Says:

    Thx for invite to enter this dialogue. I love science journalism and science writing, and I love daily journalism and online communications and databases, and I work with a team of kind, extremely bright but not pretentious, hard-working people who probably feel the same way, so I think that is what motivates me. I’ve also had enough jobs/careers by now that I know this one suits me better than other things I’ve tried. So go make mistakes, I say, and you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be. Kind of simplistic, but that’s the best I’ve got now. As for pressures, many tricks: time management and not over-committing; writing/editing just 1 line at a time to make it seem easier; discipline like saying to myself, ‘you can get up for another soda after you write 1 more graf’; mind-clearing techniques; keeping it simple. One way I keep it simple is by limiting engagement w/the politics and opinions, while remaining teachable and trying to be an active community member. I try to be mindful of how I spend time.

  5. JR Minkel Says:

    Robin: I’ve come to agree with you about making mistakes. What do you mean by limiting engagement with the politics and opinions? Could you give an example?

  6. John Pavlus Says:

    @JR – probably just “writer” and/or “filmmaker.” RE science my ethics is pretty simple–be as accurate as possible with facts–but the greater god I serve is to create or communicate fascination with a subject. On the hacky/simple end of the spectrum I guess we tend to call that “gee whiz” but it’s what I loved as a kid and what I continue to love, and if what I produce can spark that in someone else then I feel that my labor has meaning. But when I think of journalism I think of shoe-leather, triangulating sources, always-on skepticism, exposing/unearthing brand new information and afflicting the comfortable… and that’s just not what I do. The value I add to information is primarily emotional. Reporting and other journalistic skills are involved in that, but to truly call myself a journalist would feel unearned.

  7. John Pavlus Says:

    I also agree a lot with what Brandon said.

  8. Robin Lloyd Says:

    Example: reading journalists’ tweets and blogs less often (present company excluded of course). or at least reading fewer of them. easier said than done by me. we’re not idiots. we’re basically gonna do good work w/o constantly worrying about what the others will say and what the latest trend or controversy is. which goes back to good time management practices.


  9. [...] Science journalism: Toppling the priesthood by Toby Murcott. I did not react at the time, but JR Minkel and Jessica Palmer did and got some interesting responses in the comments. The article was brought [...]


  10. [...] Science journalism: Toppling the priesthood by Toby Murcott. I did not react at the time, but JR Minkel and Jessica Palmer did and got some interesting responses in the comments. The article was brought [...]


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