Adapting to the new ecosystem of science journalism

Next week, I’ll be chairing a session at the Science Online 2010 conference called Rebooting science journalism in the age of the web. I’ll be shooting the breeze with Carl Zimmer, John Timmer and David Dobbs about the transition of journalism from sheets of plant pulp to wires and wi-fi. The title of the talk had been set before the panel was assembled but, being biologists at heart, we’re going to shift the metaphor from a technological one to an evolutionary one.

As a species, science journalists (in all their varied forms and behaviours) have found themselves thrust into a new digital ecosystem that presents fresh challenges to their survival. Some individuals will have adaptive traits that allow them to thrive in this brave, new world, while others are riddled with maladaptive qualities and face extinction. In this post (and hopefully, during the session), we’ll consider what the new ecosystem looks like, what opportunities and threats it presents, and how journalists can adapt to survive in it. Let’s start with opportunities (I’m bucking the trend by starting a blog post about science journalism on a positive note).

New niches to exploit

Thanks to new media, everyone with a computer and a connection has the ability to write about science or to comment on what others have written. The ability to produce content has been thrust into the hands of a broad range of people who are keen to talk about science to a mass audience. It’s a Cambrian-style explosion in the practice of journalism.  

This adaptive radiation has also brought in an influx of expertise, people who have both the skill to explain science and the knowledge to talk about it correctly. That means greater accuracy when reporting the findings of studies. It also means better choices in terms of what gets covered. I have argued before that this process of critically analysing a story before the point of publication is vital to ensure that bad science doesn’t contaminate the public’s news diet. A greater diversity of writers also means more coverage for smaller stories that might fall through the gaps of more mainstream publications. As an example, interesting papers on controversial issues like race, gender equality and religion are widely ignored, while the most recent panacea-of-the-day or evolutionary just-so story has no trouble in grabbing headlines. 

Meanwhile, science journalism itself is under greater scrutiny, held to account by the same watchdog service that it is meant to provide. If mistakes are made, they can be clearly and transparently pointed out (see the case of Carl Zimmer vs. George Will or virtually the entire medical blogosphere for more). It’s an era of “peer review within science journalism”, as the Knight Science Journalism Tracker ably demonstrates. In fact, the quick turn-around times and the proliferation of links in the online world- makes fact-checking easier to conduct, with primary sources and supporting material a mere mouse-click or Google search away.

Readers themselves can take part in this process. Long gone are the days when publication signalled the end of a story. Comment boxes have thrust readers and writers into direct contact and, while rants and vitriol are common, they can also provide constructive critiques and feedback that act as a form of post-publication peer-review. Other readers benefit by getting different perspectives on a story. Journalists and editors benefit by allowing the (often more knowledgeable) audience to correct flaws and provide insights. Good communicators bear their audience in mind, and what better way of peering into an audience’s mind than through a comment box? If used correctly, comments act as a tool for the smart journalist to avoid future pitfalls, get to know who they’re writing for, and be more selective about the stories they cover.

Finally, the changing ecosystem makes us consider which tools are still useful to us and which are obsolete. The inverted pyramid was a useful writing technique in the days of constrained print spaces and ruthless cutting, but becomes far less important online. The practice of always seeking quotes from experts can brighten prose but, as Vaughan Bell has said, when the writer is the expert and communicates with verve and clarity, seeking a quote is a redundant exercise in getting someone to say your words for you. Seeking ‘balance’ by presenting opposing quotes regardless of the actual balance of evidence is particularly inexcusable online. It provides a veneer of objectivity and allows journalists to seek refuge in the no man’s land between opposite viewpoints. But, as Jay Rosen argues, in an age of free information, powerful research tools and vocal experts, false balance is eagerly and trivially exposed.

These traditions are adaptations that arose in a different age. They are means to ends, not ends in themselves and, in the new ecosystem, they must be ruthlessly exposed to the forces of selection.  We need to brutally assess which aspects of journalistic practice work, which are no longer relevant, and which take us away from the very values of truth and scrutiny that journalism is meant to uphold.

Threats to survival

Traditional journalism does cultivate a special skill-set that isn’t easily appreciated by those outside the field, as Carl Zimmer describes in this interview at the Columbia Journalism Review. It involves always bearing the audience’s knowledge and interests in mind, and writing in a way that is clear, imaginative and finely pitched. It involves finding narratives to hold a piece together. It requires skills at interviewing and knowing the right questions to ask.  And that’s even before you consider the skills needed for in-depth investigative reporting. Despite what some have suggested, these abilities are not trivial or easy to develop. The web allows everyone to write, but not everyone can write well. You need talent, practice and, where possible, experience in working with editors. Editors are of crucial importance in helping budding writers to develop these skills and they provide a class and type of feedback that’s very different to the views of commenters.

Enthusiastic amateurs will not compensate for a decline in mainstream news reporting or the vast audiences that it reaches. Even the most successful blogs have readerships that are orders of magnitude lower those of mainstream publications. If such publications decline, the worry is that fewer people will be exposed to science stories, save those who actively go in search for it. Communities like ScienceBlogs or Discover Blogs provide a good model for pooling individual audiences and offering diverse content but, again, they largely target people who are already interested. As Dan Gillmor has repeatedly said, we have a problem with demand rather than supply. There is a risk that the science writing of the future will only reach the eyes of the converted.

You could argue that these problems also afflict print media, where people can skip stories, discard sections or avoid entire publications that don’t gel with their interests or values. But at least editors and designers can use layouts to lead readers towards content that they would never even encounter online. On the web, the trend for linking only to relevant content prohibits that, but a solution has arisen in the growing practice of sharing and curating information, rather than just consuming or producing it. Tools like Twitter and Delicious allow people to read the things that interest those whom they trust. They have turned all of us into each others’ editors and they provide fresh ways to hook people who are initially uninterested in science. Every month, the majority of my traffic comes through such sources, through sharing sites like Reddit or Metafilter, or through links posted on the most unexpected of forums.

But many people who use these tools forget that not everyone has access to the right technology or has the aptitude to use it correctly. Older age groups tend to read the web in a more straightforward fashion, rather than using interactive tools. And broadband is still not universal, not among the poorer parts of Western society and particularly not in the developing world. Relying on advanced online tools to spread science to wide audiences will lead to an information inequality.

While the internet gives informed specialists a voice, it also simultaneously magnifies the presence of the worst kind of journalism – the cutting and pasting of unchecked and unevaluated material. This “churnalism” is much easier online and, perhaps, more tempting, given the medium’s tighter deadlines. Once published, misinformation is immortal, and it can sweep social networks and newsrooms alike with pandemic fervour. Stories that do this gain greater prominence on news aggregators like Google News, giving them the illusion of importance and creating the conditions that promote their further reproduction. New techniques such as link journalism – using links to enhance or expand on original reporting – make it easy to spread biased or incorrect information if journalists don’t think when they link.

Meanwhile, sites like ScienceDaily, Eurekalert and Physorg provide the pretence of journalism while actually acting as staging grounds for PR. By collecting unedited press releases with pre-packaged quotes, they provide easy fodder for churnalism. The releases span a wide spectrum of quality and the aggregators have no quality control. No questions are asked about the research. Any and all releases are welcome. If anything, this is too much science coverage and it’s masquerading as journalism. Futurity, at least, has an editor (albeit, just the one) and it links directly to original papers. But, as John Timmer writes, it seems “little more than an attempt at organising a process” and cannot escape the “necessarily self-promotional” nature of press releases – institutions and companies will always want more coverage of their own research.

Where do we go from here?

To me, the future of science journalism will be about a marriage of old and new, fusing the best qualities and skills of different types of media. More journalists will start blogging and more bloggers will pick up journalistic skills. Partnerships can help to cement this process and many have already been set up – Conde Nast bought Ars Technica (a superb source of online science news), ScienceBlogs struck a deal with National Geographic, and Discover have their own stable of high-powered bloggers.

There will no doubt be fewer professional mainstream journalists. We’ve already seen a precipitous fall in newspaper employment, with no reprieving plateau in sight. And do not forget that, regardless of the rise of enthusiastic amateurs, mainstream media still commands the attention of far more readers. Who will be left to talk to them? It would be an absolute travesty if the reporters who remained were churnalists dragged across from a sports desk. To me, the key goal is to ensure that the survivors are the best of the best – the most skilful writers, most ruthless investigators and deftest storytellers, the ones who can add something extra beyond the skills or capacity of amateurs. This will need to happen not only in science, but in every sector where specialist knowledge is needed and churnalism is widespread. Whether this is the model the mainstream media chooses remains to be seen.

Generalist species tend to do better in changing environments than specialists do, but we will need specialists if science journalism is to continue with dignity. Mainstream science journalists will need the expertise to sort the wheat from the chaff, recognising not only the most robust and interesting research but also the scientists who can speak about that research in a clear and engaging way. I’ve been told before that part of the joy of journalism is in getting people to explain things that you don’t understand. As long as you have some general knowledge, it is okay to be unfamiliar with a specific subject- you can interview your way into a good piece. But in the online age, the experts who can explain their ideas clearly don’t need to do it through a journalist; they can just pick up the loudspeaker themselves. All they lack are the channels for reaching a large audience.

It’s a good idea for professional journalists to encourage these people, either bearing them in mind as a source for future stories, or by recommending them as freelancer journalists themselves. The old trope that scientists can’t communicate needs to be binned. It’s true that some aren’t good at talking to the general public (or have no desire to) but you could say that of any profession. It is increasingly easy to find knowledgeable scientists who can talk eloquently about their field, and many are already doing it of their own volition. Giving them the opportunity to do it in a mainstream setting allows them to hone their skills and gives them the invaluable experience with editors that I talked about earlier.

It is inevitable that more and more people are doing the job that journalists do; perhaps it is best to see them not as interlopers, but as trainees. Gradually, the business of discussing new papers (mere stenography to some) could be handed over, freeing time and resources for professionals to do what they should be best at – synthesising entire fields, finding and investigating deeper stories, and considering the broader place of science in society. If this could be achieved effectively, it might also allow the mainstream media to continue to employ journalists who are professional writers first, and experts second.

If more people are taking up the craft of journalism, then perhaps the professionals can adapt by taking on extra roles – those of editors, community organisers, curators and teachers. Andy Revkin, veteran reporter (and blogger), sums it up best. On leaving the New York Times, he said, “Among other goals, I want to help make scientists and scientific institutions into  better, more committed, more creative communicators. In a world of shrinking specialized journalism, direct outreach will be more vital than ever.”

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