Nobelpreisträgertreffen

A non debate

I am a science journalist. This is a blog. Does that make me an imposter, a moonlighter, a fraud?

Yesterday I took a day out from the Lindau meeting to discuss the relationship between science blogs and science journalism at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists in London. I began by showing a slide on which I gave the audience a taste of the blogospheric wrath directed at science journalists in recent years. Here are some examples:

“There are still science journalists who try hard to get a story right, and some of their pieces are excellent — but they are shrinking as science blogging advances.”

Neurologica June 24, 2008

“Other than the fact I am constantly undoing the damage science journalists do, I dont really care what ultimately becomes of professional science journalism… Cause scientists can be citizen journalists now… we dont really need you.”

ERV December 21, 2008

“Why should we be interviewed and questioned? Contact us and ask us to write a piece on some topic. If the resulting language is terrible, then have the editor work with the scientist to improve it. I think the journalist is entirely unnecessary.”

Aetiology June 17, 2007

There is indeed a sense that science journalism is under threat. Several media outlets in the US, for instance, have recently slashed their science staff. But this has nothing to do with blogs stealing audiences. The reasons are falling circulations and advertisement revenues, partly because of the economic situation and partly because of the migration of readers to the Web versions of newspapers and magazines, which struggle to make money. This problem is not peculiar to science journalism, but science journalists are often first to face the chop.

The Web absolutely is uprooting traditional media business models, with audiences having become accustomed to getting professional content for free. But science journalism is here to stay because there is an appetite for it – one that presumably will grow as people grapple with issues like climate change, pandemics, population growth, the energy crisis, not to mention the astounding advances taking place in our understanding of the subatomic world, life itself and the universe at large. The same is true of science blogging.

If I were to dredge up the differences between science blogging and science journalism, I might point out that blogs are narrow in scope – you’d have to cherry pick a lot of blogs from the terabytes of drivel out there in order to even get close to the coverage offered by a good science magazine. I’d perhaps claim that most blogs are patchy in technical level, it being difficult for science bloggers to write posts without their colleagues in mind. I’d hazard that many blogs are banal (frankly, I don’t care whether you moved house at the weekend unless you wow me with your literary genius). And I’d say that blogs lack the breadth of opinion and accountability that readers get from a well researched piece of science journalism (bloggers are unlikely to find a scientist or colleague who is willing to be quoted on their blog, instead linking to other blogs and online content).

Bloggers simply are not in the business of delivering relevant, wide ranging coverage of scientific developments to a broad audience. And the old argument that bloggers are better placed to serve the public on account of their greater technical knowledge doesn’t really stand up. Would the public be better served if political journalism was killed off and politicians left to tell us how it “really” is? Scientists get off lightly. Much science journalism amounts to mere cheer leading.

It’s completely unsurprising that bloggers have a low opinion of journalism. Blogs are the antithesis of the traditional media. They grew out of a counter culture that runs deep among Web enthusiasts and which seeks to break down the gate-keeping role of “old” institutions (one of the points of discussion at the London conference concerned unsavoury plans by the particle physics lab CERN to issue guidelines to bloggers that would prevent them from ‘leaking’ results from the Large Hadron Collider). Witness the success of Wikipedia and the unstoppable rise of Open Access publishing, which is transforming the way scientific research is published. It’s empowering. We’re living through a revolution in the way humans communicate.

It’s time bloggers cooled off from their self-serving rants about the failings of science journalists. Earlier this week at Lindau I caught up with author of A Blog Around The Clock, Bora Zivkovic, who described his interest in “destroying” any journalist who he believed screwed up and then didn’t fall on his sword before the doyens of the blogosphere. Such macho attitudes benefit nobody. Critique what science journalists do (we like to receive feedback on our work, and science bloggers are among its most avid consumers), but better to invest your time crafting killer posts and encouraging your colleagues to start blogs of their own.

Blogs and journalism complement each other. Science blogs can be science journalism, e.g. when bloggers post live from conferences or unveil an important upcoming result. I sometimes get leads and technical background from blogs, while the keener among my readers may find extra context and opinion by mining the blogosphere.

Furthermore, tools such as blogs (whether exploited by scientists or journalists) offer potential for more authentic science coverage that takes us away from the ill-fitting conventions of hard news, which tend to frame science as a series of unconnected breakthroughs. At the London conference, editor of The Times, James Harding, remarked that covering science was similar to covering religion because both undergo changes that take place over decades.

Science communication is a continuum: from primary datasets to lab notes to scientific papers to review articles to monographs to textbooks to trade journals to books to magazines to newspapers, radio, television…. The Web spans all of it. Blogs, plus newer Web 2.0 tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, are enhancing and blurring the continuum (in a small way so far). Each has its own norms and values, and each carries greater responsibility as its audience grows.

I’ll leave the reader to judge whether this sermon qualifies as blogging or journalism (I do apologize for the dire lack of links – I’m used to handing over copy to an editor who does all that). But really, if you’ve got this far then it doesn’t matter.


 » Matthew Chalmers completed a PhD in physics and works as a freelance writer. i-ec50973aaa80d157198edd29ee8b77f8-chalmers45.jpg

Kommentare

  1. #1 Coturnix
    Juli 3, 2009

    Interesting mis-attribution. I told you I do not enjoy it (destroying journalists), but that the journos are destroying themselves and I am not interested in softening their fall. You have read my post about the Ethic of the Quote, and now you tried to prove me correct?

  2. #2 Thilo Kuessner
    Juli 4, 2009

    Show, don’t tell.

    Don’t tell us why science journalists would be needed or why blogs are bad. Just show us better articles.

  3. #3 Michael Kenward
    Juli 6, 2009

    Such horrifying examples of why bloggers consider science journalism to be a waste of time.

    Thinking about this, I detect an important difference between bloggers and journalists. Blogging is all about the writer. Journalism starts with the reader in mind.

    Would anyone bother to blog if their name did not appear on the piece?

    Sadly, too many journalists also expect a byline, and their employers pander to this craving, but some of the best science writers do so “anonymously”. Look no further than The Economist. I trust its facts, although not its embedded opinions, far more than I would trust a million bloggers.

  4. #4 Fischer
    Juli 9, 2009

    That’s what I love about this non-debate. Just twenty minutes ago I read someone whining about anonymous blogging (again!), and now Michael Kenward comes along and claims that everyone blogs to read their names on the web and how the best writers are anonymous.
    (though Kenwards comment strikes me as particularly clueless even by the standards of this debate, but that’s another issue)

    Anyway, I think Thilo is spot-on here. People should just write quality posts or articles and let the reader decide.

  5. #5 Matthew Chalmers
    Juli 10, 2009

    Hi Bora – i did read your post about the ethic of the quote. I agree that by posting entire transcripts or audio/video footage of an interview the reader can get a more refined view of that person’s opinion (more interesting, I think, is how the Web’s limitless space might alter the way scientific progress is made and reported – e.g. by posting raw datasets for others to mine, or for documenting research more authentically than permitted by four sheets of A4 in Phys. Rev. Lett., for example).

    However, it’s completely unrealistic to expect consumers of mainstream journalism to have the time or inclination to go that far unless there is a particular reason. People learn to trust the judgement of certain titles or reporters, for instance.

    And if my interviews with scientists are anything to go by, such raw transcripts would make for pretty tough and dull reading anyway.

    Best, Matthew

  6. #6 Coturnix
    Juli 23, 2009

    Correct – very few will read the transcripts. But if you don’t link to them, you are suspect. Automatically. Mistrusted on the face of it. But if you do post transcripts, you are at least potentially trustable. A few reads of transcripts by a few will make or break your credibility and then people will go by your authority, or not….as long as you keep NOT hiding the transcripts from them.