Monday, 17 August 2009

In a land far, far away: the future of science journalism

So far I’ve discussed some of the problems facing science and health journalism. Here is one more that I’ve touched on but not gone into depth on, and it’s pretty crucial.

Alok Jha says: “Unfortunately science is basically the direct opposite of news, which is short, sharp, to the point, and science is incredibly the opposite of that, if you invert all those values. Now, which one is correct? Which one is wrong? Well, neither are. But to be honest, when you’re trying to shoehorn science into the news, it’s not the happiest of fits.”

According to Nick Davies, the particular problems faced by science journalism are that science is complicated and subtle, and the ‘news factory’ likes simple and clear stories. So, it struggles to get in the news, especially versus popular sports and celeb stories. Stories can get ‘distorted’ in the process of making them simple and sexing them up with an angle for the readers.

So science and news aren’t a match made in heaven. That’s a given. But, always liking to leave things on a positive note, I asked myself, and a whole host of very busy journalists, what possible solutions to the challenges faces by science journalism are?

Nick Davies pinged over: “In principle, it would help to have more specialist science writers, who would have a better grip on the underlying material and, therefore, be better placed to convert it into journalism. The trouble is that that costs money, which is precisely what is missing in newsrooms at the moment...” That’s why people such as myself are forking out a truckload of cash to get the training off our own backs.

Anyway, sounds pretty depressing. Not into feeling depressed, so here are some rays of light:

Critics, we like you

Criticism of science journalism is very healthy at the moment, which can maybe keep journalists and editors on their toes. For example, I do think for the most part coverage of swine flu has been pretty responsible. Of course there have been disagreements over that, but it’s just my general impression.

Blogging and tweeting

Jha says that some science blogs are brilliant, such as Ed Yong’s, who was poached to write for the Guardian’s science blog: “He’s just very measured, and his blog is great. He’s good at critical analyses. He complains now and then [about media coverage of science] but I don’t think he feels particularly superior to anyone.”

Jha says that one crucial difference between journalism and blogging is that bloggers tell the story they want to tell and journalists write with the audience in mind, and tell other people’s stories.  “Neither approach is necessarily better than the other,” he says. “They're just different. We're going to need both.” An example of the two can work in synthesis is how blogs informing journalism by putting their very specific and specialist knowledge out there, rather than just commenting on reporter’s groundwork – although criticism is sometimes vital, too, as I mentioned above.

As well as the internet, social media is finding a place in the dissemination of science journalism. Rowan Hooper, news editor of, says that New Scientist uses Twitter (@newscientist) to alert over 28,000 followers of stories on the website, and also as a “news gathering-tool… being able to see, real-time, what’s going on in the world.”

How can you get followed by @newscientist? Probably by being a scientist. Hooper would like to see more scientists tweeting, and says: “It would get really interesting because if scientists can talk directly to people they don’t go through journalists or even journals in the way that they used to – and then the game really changes. You’re not going to get much data out there in 140 characters, but they can make assertions, for sure. We’d check those out like we would any statement from scientists. I think it’s all healthy and interesting and a good way of getting information out there”.


Pondering on our chat about the future of not just science journalism but journalism as a whole, Jha tells me that he thinks that the role of the journalist will be streamlined as a reaction to bloggers and citizen journalists. “We'll be a leaner industry, probably more specialised and perhaps more professional. When you have a million sources of information online, how d’you know which to trust? Perhaps journalists will be the trusted guides, weighing things up, checking sources, guiding us to the most valuable information.” 

I can see his point. With the proliferation of all kinds of information sources it is tricky to sift the nourishing stuff from the useless, baseless, beige stuff - this is why good journalism in any form will become even more important in the future. However, ideally, journalists should already be doing this job, in my opinion, but I can see how that doesn’t reflect reality. I wonder how this specialisation will come to pass while journalists continue to churn and all the other multitude of journalistic sins? And where will the money come from? 

Or perhaps it is just a case of the cream rises to the top of the bloodbath, with the best journalists naturally being the best journalists because they specialise - and they're the ones that have work and so have a voice. 

Non-profit agencies

In Flat Earth News, Nick Davies talks about a non-profit investigative news service in the US that is successful. I don’t remember its name right now but here is a list. But, surely this model could be replicated for other specialist, time-consuming and butt-kicking work such as a specialist science agency?

Specialist sources

We’ve been talking mainly about the science journalism in the mainstream media. Hooper reckons that: “The way newspapers work it's often not the science journalists, who set the tone of a story so much as the subeditors and news editors who take a story and put their own spin on it. It makes a strong case for relying on specialist outlets such as New Scientist!” Good plug. But I do love the New Scientist, so I’ll let it go.

Another option, less to do with journalism, but more a kind of raising of science consciousness among the masses, is this:

A science literate society

Journalism cannot be held solely to blame for people’s misinformation. Jha says that journalism’s purpose is not only to educate, but to be interesting and entertaining and relevant, so people should rely other sources. For example, their education, and state information such as the swine flu website (when it’s not busy crashing). The pressured state of our newsrooms also shifts some responsibility for learning critical analysis onto the audience. Good luck with that, everybody.

Jha says that on that fundamental basis he agrees with Goldacre: ‘He [Goldacre] rails on journalists because they are a soft target, I think, when really what he wants is a more science-literate society.’

*** Next blog on how we achieve a more science literate society!

Friday, 14 August 2009

Can humanities graduates do it? Actually write science journalism?

I bloody well hope so. I am a future science journalist. I am a humanities graduate. I feel there’s a huge amount of work ahead of gaining background knowledge, contacts and plenty of nosing around to do if I’m going to do the best, most thorough, job I can. Seems like a mammoth task but my plan is this: work hard.

Hooper says: “You have to have a broad enough knowledge of stuff to know if something is genuinely new or not. And even if it is new, it might not be interesting. So you have to just judge whether that story is of broad enough interests. You have to bear in mind your audience. It might be something new but actually only a few geneticists are going to be interested in it... It’s not specialists, it’s members of the public. Will they care about it?”

Jha makes the point that “there are lots of very good reporters who write about science, and have no science background, but have reported science for ten years and I would say know more science than most scientists.” Also, non-scientists might ask questions from the perspective of relative ignorance that scientists might not ask, therefore serving the interests of the not-so science literate masses.

But then, surely even science grads are non-specialists when they are writing outside of their chosen field? Hooper agrees: “It helps if you have a degree in astrophysics and you’re working on some cosmos story, but that’s not going to help you on a stem cell story.”

However, there are advantages to being a science grad, says Hooper: “The best thing to be said for having a science degree or scientific training is the similarities with journalism. It means you have to question claims, look for evidence to support what’s being claimed. That’s what you do as a scientist and that’s what you need to do as a journalist, so there is that sort of similarity.”

Connor infers a degree of agreement with Goldacre about the fact that humanities graduates are the bane of science journalism: “I’d like to see more science graduates in science journalism… They understand that science is complex, the world is complex.” Connor thinks humanities-background science journalists might make the mistake of simplifying stories into pitching two scientists against each other without giving the context about their credibility needed for the reader to fully understand the significance of what’s being said.

Connor also tells me he’s concerned that Goldacre’s attitude could put off science grads from entering the profession. He says: “It’s not true that they can’t write. And they have the intellectual hinterland…”

But surely anyone with the intellectual hinterland to comprehend science, regardless of their degree background, should be able to write it? This smacks of an intellectual superiority complex to me. Jha says: “Surely everyone, anyone, should have the opportunity to write about, play with and enjoy what science is? If not then scientists are just talking to themselves.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Is science journalism a danger to public health?

I love Twitter. About a month ago I clicked on a tweet to discover this:

In brief: A month ago a mud-slinging match started between Steve Connor, science editor at the Indy, and Ben Goldacre. On his blog,, Goldacre wrote: “mainstream media's science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly.” Connor responded in an Indy column saying critics did not understand the time and money constraints of the mainstream media. He tells me at the Indy the past year has seen a 30 percent cut in newspaper income and a third of journalists have lost their jobs because of the recession.

It’s true some health stories are misleading and this is an extremely serious business. A well-publicised case wrongly linked MMR and autism, the product of decades’ tangled mess of analysis and reporting by lifestyle and other non-specialist journalists based on the work of a scientist with a ton of vested interests (Andrew Wakefield). Throw in a dash of hysteria via lobby groups of concerned parents and it becomes the most vexed issue of science journalism to date. Serious business, as increasing numbers of children are contracting measles and mumps. Read more here

Alok Jha, science correspondent at the Guardian, thinks that in his chapter on MMR in Bad Science, Goldacre makes a mistake lumping science journalists with lifestyle journalists that misinterpreted the scientific evidence. Jha says:

I think Ben’s a bit disingenuous, because he writes ‘science journalist’, and then when you read what he writes he doesn’t talk about science journalists. That’s a slight issue, and he’s admitted that, but I think he uses it so that it’s polemic. So, I don’t use his arguments massively seriously.

Rowan Hooper, news editor at, says: “Bad science [journalism] can damage your health – but remember – so can bad doctors. If anyone knows a doctor who is good at analysing statistics, perhaps one who is also a good writer, we might ask him to try and assess the deaths that can be attributed to poor science reporting and those attributable to poor medical practice.

Enough of this verbal sparring, boys – the biggest problem facing science journalism’s credibility is churnalism, the “cut and paste” recycling of press agency and PR copy into stories. Hooper says: "You might not have taken the trouble to verify things with independent experts and the danger is you have taken them at their word when it may well require extra reporting." This can result in inaccuracies and “loony claims about cancer”, for example. In Nick Davies’ book, Flat Earth News, he blames pharma PR-led stories on fabricated disorders, such as female sexual dysfunction (my example) or  “social anxiety disorder – otherwise known as shyness”.

However, despite errors and bloopers by editors and journalists that encourage a skepticism towards science journalism – which might be dangerous if readers ignore stories when they do provide vital and accurate information – I’d argue science journalism is not a completely “broken” profession.

MSM’s treatment of stem cell research is something that Jha states as an example of “critical friend” science journalism done good: “Members of the science journalism community took the issue on board and analysed the effects and talked to audiences about why this is important.” The result: new legislation passed through government to allow the creation of hybrid embryos, for example, and therefore possible future advances to public health.

Also, MMR might actually have had, in some ways, a positive influence on subsequent health coverage in the media, for example SARS, or depending on which camp you sit in H1N1 (some good and informative, some shown to be overblown in the context of ordinary flu stats). There does seem to me to be an air of not wanting to fuck up in the same way again. Ever. Jha puts that down to newspaper editors realising that they need people on their staff that can be responsible to sort out complex issues.

Jha says he doesn’t know many scientists in UK who complain about science coverage – bar one or two. Evidence for this is a paper published in Science by a UCL researcher (Steve Miller) who interviewed 1,000 stem cell scientists to see what they felt about stem cell coverage in the media, and virtually all of them were happy with it.


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.