Some ways in which science journalists demonstrate they don’t understand science journalism

This afternoon Ananyo Bhattacharya, the Chief Online Editor for the journal Nature, posted a piece on the Guardian website entitled “Nine ways scientists demonstrate they don’t understand journalism”.

While he makes a few valid points further down the article (the last 3 have nothing too controversial in them in any case), the crux of his argument appears to be that journalists should have free scope to write headlines as sensationalist as they like, be able to ignore caveats to research findings at every turn, and use 300 word maximums wherever possible for the sake of keeping the journalism ‘exciting’.

Bhattacharya dismisses several sites such as The Conversation as ‘a little bit dull’.  These sites are basically outlets for academic news which allow more space and scope for detail.  My issue with this characterisation by Bhattacharya is that – in comparison to ridiculous headlines, misrepresented scope and tiny pithy little articles, anything would look a little bit dull.

I’m not suggesting that science needs to be dry and uninteresting (although that does appear to be the straw-man that Bhattacharya is trying to build).  However, the current state of science journalism seems to go down the following route:

  • Big shocking headline
  • A sentence outlining the key (often exaggerated) finding.
  • Another couple of sentences saying where the work was carried out, and probably a quote.

That structure in itself is not necessarily flawed.  The problems arise when that big shocking headline is beaten into shape by journalists (or even university PR offices) from some secondary finding, or particular niche application of the science at hand.  When this happens (as it commonly does), there is rarely a single paragraph explaining that this is what has happened, or that there are caveats to the main story. How often did the myriad Katla volcano eruption ‘warning’ stories last year include caveats that actually, the data being (mis)presented were easily falsifiable by anyone with experience in volcanology?

On the one hand Bhattacharya says short 300-700 word articles are the norm because of  “respect for the readership”, yet on the other hand ignores the fact that outlandish headlines, followed by speculation based on tiny bits of the science are doing nothing for the reader other than misleading them. He claims readers don’t want to read much, yet also that headlines are not taken as representative of the story as a whole. He can’t have it both ways.

The argument might be made that the articles are focussed on the ‘interesting’ parts of the science; those which have implications for the general public.  My response to that would be that it is particularly condescending and misleading to present the public only with these headline-grabbing microstories, rather than the actual science.

Large parts of science coverage across our media have basically grown out of a mentality which values a punchy headline (or – perhaps worse – useless equations) rather than any attempt to explain the science to the populace.  Science journalism is completely failing to communicate science, and Bhattacharya’s best response is basically ‘actual science is not as exciting as what we do at the moment’.  What could possibly live up to the current expectation of exaggerated headlines?  Just because it’s what we do at the moment does not make it the right way to go forward.

Science is important to everyone, and it’s important to engage with the public.  The problem comes when the default position by journalists across the board is basically to cherry-pick the one bit of data from a paper that can make a good headline.  It does the science a disservice, it does the public a disservice, and has more in common with story telling than journalistic reporting.  Worst of all it leads to things like this having to be compiled.

There is a place for that kind of coverage, certainly, but to assume that the best we can expect of science journalism is what we have at the moment is a particularly depressing opinion to hear from a highly positioned new-media bod at one of the leading scientific outlets in the world.

Brian Switek made an excellent point on Twitter earlier:

How are we supposed to engage the public (and particularly tomorrows scientists) with research when all the media teaches them is that everything will either undoubtedly kill them, or fix everything?  How much of the public disillusionment with science is to do with the fact they see sensational claims in headlines which never come to anything in reality (and which the original publication made clear was never going to happen)? Time for something different.  Claiming scientists have unrealistic expectations of accuracy and clarity in journalism simply suggests journalists don’t understand what they’re writing about.

EDIT: There’s an excellent piece just been put up on the Dinosours! blog which expresses what I think many of us feel, and done more eloquently than perhaps I managed in a 20 minute rant before leaving work.

EDIT 2: A note on “science journalism is completely failing to communicate science”.

I’ll leave the final word on the matter to Ed Yong.

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About Pete Rowley

Earth Science researcher. Enjoys a good rant, beer, and watching films with Angelina in them. Dislikes reality TV, crowds, and unreasonable people.
This entry was posted in Education, General, Media & Perception, News, Science and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Some ways in which science journalists demonstrate they don’t understand science journalism

  1. Pingback: Science journalism: no longer even pretending to be educational « DINOSOURS!

  2. Mike Simpson says:

    There is an a priori assumption behind all this which is: journalists are necessary for the dissemination of news. Only a very few years ago, that was true. The only way for a scientist (or indeed, any other sort of researcher) to tell people about their work was via the press and media. So the scientist tells the press officer and the press officer tells the journalist and the journalist tells the reader: could we have some honey for the Royal slice of bread?

    But you don’t need journalists and you don’t even necessarily need ‘press officers’ (although I would recommend the use of experienced communication professionals – like myself, hem hem). Here at the University of Leicester we use our Newsblog to communicate directly to people through our own website, which can then be shared using all that new-fangled social media malarkey. We do still produce press releases for journos – old traditions die hard – but Newsblog allows us to write as much or as little as we see fit about topics that we deem to be interesting without having to either provide some ‘journalistic’ angle or run the risk of misrepresentation.

    This is the future. ‘Science journalism’ will one day be an outdated concept, almost an oxymoron.

    Here’s a year-end round-up with links to some of our best Newsblog stories from 2011: http://bit.ly/xjPLth

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