On cheerleaders and watchdogs – the role of science journalism

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The recent World Conference of Science Journalists included a wide variety of delegates, from professional hacks who cover science beats, to enthusiastic freelancers and bloggers like me, to people working in press offices and communications departments. And with such diversity, it was perhaps inevitable that people should discuss which of these gathered attendees actually counted as journalists? And what exactly does science journalism entail?

Certainly, the idea that journalism equated to talking or writing about science in any form was unpopular. In the opening plenary, Fiona Fox drew a fine line between science communication and journalism, the latter characterised foremost by a process of scrutiny. Gavin McFayden, Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, described most science news as “stenography” or a “cheerleading operation”. Over Twitter, Ivan Oransky explained to me, “For many, including me despite my MD background, you can only be a journalist because of conflicts”.

These comments espouse a division between science journalism as either a cheerleader or a watchdog, as noted in a recent Nature editorial. To many, journalists only succeed in blowing the trumpet of science, regurgitating content from published papers and press releases when they ought to be subjecting it to further scrutiny by questioning statistics and hype and exposing dodgy data, fraudulent practices, and conflicts of interest (some scientists would add that they don’t even do the first job particularly well).

Tied into this idea is the concept of “investigative journalism”, which I mentioned in an earlier post on the embargo process. That prompted other bloggers to ask what “investigative journalism” means in the context of science. Physioprof asked, “What kind of ‘investigative journalism’ could science journalists possibly engage in that relate to scientific discoveries per se, and not things like corruption or fraud?”

What we have here is a conflict about the very meaning about the word ‘journalism’ (and to a lesser extent, the phrase ‘investigative journalism’). It’s a semantic têtê-a-têtê fit for a place among even the nerdiest of scientific disputes. I am not even going to attempt to solve it here, but I do want to discuss the distinction between cheerleader and watchdog, between uncritically waving the banner for science and actually digging into it. And to me, there are two ways of watching the dog.

The first is to look behind-the-scenes, into the world of funding, the lives of scientists and the wider narrative behind the published papers, analysing and exposing as you go. These are the activities that I suspect most journalists would describe as “investigative journalism”. Indeed, on the WCSJ’s session on investigative science reporting, all the case studies presented fell into this category. Brian Deer spoke about his incredible investigation that exposed the fraudulent “data” included in Andrew Wakefield’s Lancet paper on MMR vaccines and autism, while Luc Hermann talked about Pfizer’s attempts to spin claims about its drug Zoloft.

To these tales of “corruption and fraud”, I would add stories about the process of funding science as Mike the Mad Biologist describes, and the narrative features that Kim Hannula mentions. In her words, these include “stories that incorporate the history of ideas, that pull together a long series of studies into some kind of coherent tale that gives me a sense of what a community of scientists think, or have thought in the past, or currently disagree about”. All well and good, and these are particularly the kinds of stories that the best journalists, with their “news noses” and ability to draw out narrative threads, should be best-placed to uncover.

The second aspect of the watchdog role comes into play when actually reporting on scientific discoveries. Some would argue that this function is only fulfilled by critical and sceptical analysis (see Ben Goldacre as an example), while simply reporting on new research (as I do on this blog) counts as mere cheerleading. But I think that stems from an assumption that a piece which doesn’t criticise hasn’t involved a process of critical analysis. It all depends on the point at which this scrutiny happens.

When I decide on which papers to write about, I consider not only how interesting they are to me and my readers, but crucially whether they seem decent or not. I read through every single primary paper that I write about before I put a single word down. Are the conclusions solid? Are the numbers big enough to make for statistically meaningful conclusions?  Are they actually asking any interesting questions in the first place? Then, having ditched all the evolutionary psychology and happy that I’m left with some half-decent papers, I actually get on with writing. If during the writing process, something seems askew, I abandon it. I don’t always succeed in my selections, but when I fail, my commenters eagerly let me know, and I listen intently.

In this model, critical analysis takes place as a sort of quality control before the point of writing and it manifests not in the form of written diatribes, but in the very presence or absence of stories. Even if your goal is to simply communicate science, you can merge the cheerleading and watchdog functions, and fulfil the latter before a single word is written.

Part of the failure of science journalism is in cheerleading without this initial watchdog step, particularly through regurgitating PR material. That is churnalism and it’s the mechanism through which crap reports about equations of happiness, superfood panaceas or evolutionary just-so stories proliferate in the press – bad news (pun intended) for both science and journalism. If the dogs were truly watchful, crap stories would either be covered critically or they wouldn’t get any airtime or column inches at all. The price of failure is that the sheer mass of undeserving material is squeezing out other stories for space or reader attention, be they investigative exposés or more straightforward descriptions of genuinely interesting work.  

To sum up, we have two possible ways of acting as a watchdog – uncovering the hidden stories behind scientific discoveries, and casting a critical eye on those discoveries either visibly through the actual text or invisibly through the process of selecting what to cover.

Writing skills are essential for both routes. As I’ve said already, the first investigative route seems especially suited to good hardcore journalists, people who know a thing or two about snooping out stories, cultivating sources and getting the most out of interviews. The second analytic route requires either some form of expertise – enough scientific background and interest to tell the wheat from the chaff.

The problem, then, is two-fold – many journalists lack the expertise to go down the second route and most of them lack the time to devote to either one, as I discussed in greater length in my earlier post on Flat Earth News. Perhaps there are ways to fix both problems.

It’s not just professional journalists who cover new discoveries any more. They are joined by an army of enthusiastic and passionate amateurs – bloggers – who not only have a degree of scientific nous necessary for critical analysis, but (through comments) a mechanism for receiving feedback on what they’ve written. These people (*waves hand*) are already covering new, breaking research and their numbers include many writers who are excellent at explaining science to the general public. All they lack are the audience figures of mainstream media and the same prior access to embargoed publications that working journalists have.

In terms of daily news, journalists could restrict their coverage of papers-of-the-day to brief summaries of key information, and link across to the best bloggers, who have the knowledge and space to unpack the science in more detail. The bloggers benefit from having mainstream audiences diverted to their sites, while the journalists benefit from having both more time and more column inches for unearthing the deeper stories that their profession should be known for.

(Incidentally, regular readers will know that I think that the worlds of bloggers and journalists aren’t quite so clear cut as the somewhat simplified model above would suggest. There is a growing number of excellent journalists who are also bloggers, and I hope to see such hybrids become ever more prominent).

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