Are science journalists being overly criticised?

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In the UK, there is no more famous scourge of bad science journalism than Ben Goldacre, author of the Guardian’s well-named Bad Science column. In last week’s column, Goldacre published a critique of an inaccuracy-laden piece in the Observer, penned by health correspondent Denis Campbell. This triggered a sequence of ripostes including an opinion piece from the Independent’s health editor Jeremy Laurence criticising Goldacre, a response from Goldacre criticising Laurance, and a defence of Laurance from Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre.

I have already commented on Laurance’s frankly appalling view of what journalism is, and I will leave that aside for now. Both he and Fox essentially argue that a critical overview of science journalism is necessary but both advocate a softly-softly approach that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin too much.

Laurence said, “While raging rightly at the scientific illiteracy of the media, [Goldacre] might reflect when naming young, eager reporters starting out on their careers that most don’t enjoy, as he does, the luxury of time.” Fox chimed in with “Ben was well within his rights to do his weekly column on the weaknesses in the Observer report on Omega 3 but he would not have prompted this backlash if he had done it in a different style”, and elsewhere, “I think it’s about the tone of Ben’s particular brand of critique.”

I will summarise these arguments: we like watchdogs, but we’d prefer it if they had no bite.

Both mention the difficult, high-pressure environment of the modern newsroom, which Fox refers to as “mitigating circumstances”. I disagree but there is certainly a grain of truth here about the life of a journalist. I have argued before that critics of journalism would do well to better understand such day-to-day routines, filled as they are with deadlines, editor-wrangling, dictats about what stories to cover, and many people to interview. In Flat Earth News, Nick Davies derides the culture of intense pressure for more stories in less time with less fact-checking, while simultaneously empathising with young journalists who are ground down by it.

You can understand why people who work in that environment might get a little narked with critics, especially when certain subtleties of the profession are commonly missed (hint: the journalist didn’t write the headline).  This isn’t helped by the typically ferocious nature of internet criticism. It’s easy to rain vitriol on a name on a webpage over a wrong headline or a dodgy stat, while forgetting that behind the name is a real people with a real livelihoods. So I empathise with science journalists who feel that their backs are up against the wall, or who feel that they are sometimes criticised unfairly.

But none of this means that people shouldn’t be criticised if they screw up or that during such criticisms, they should be given an easy ride.

The high-pressure nature of the job merely explains some of the mistakes that are made – they don’t excuse them. At the most basic level, as an employee of a workplace, you are contracted to do a job, with all the stress and pressure that entails. If you can’t cope with that and fulfil your obligations, then you’re in the wrong job. This is particularly important in science and health journalism, because the costs of error can be very substantial.

Then there’s the old canard that the critics have it easy. Laurance accuses Goldacre of having “the luxury of time” while Fox contrasts the day of a “jobbing journalist” to the “luxury of a columnist like Ben who gets to lay bare the flaws in those stories once a week”. That’s absolute rubbish. I can’t speak for Ben but it’s worth noting that his column is written on top of his activities as a full-time doctor. I can, however, speak for myself. In the upcoming week, I will be writing 6 lengthy news pieces for this blog and a 1,500-word feature for the Times, outside of my day job in my spare time. In fact, writing this piece is eating into that time. The critic’s schedule is no less hectic and indeed part of the reason that bad science journalism is such an irritation is that correcting it soaks up time!

During my day job, I have to answer enquiries from people who have been misled by an inaccurate headline. I respond to sensationalist coverage and provide a more measured take on things. I also provide some of the quotes that work into those news pieces, often dropping all my other work to meet a reporter’s deadline – furiously reading the relevant paper (if it’s provided, otherwise, hunting it), second-guessing the angle of the story, drafting a response, and getting it signed off. That high-pressure news environment turns my office into a high-pressure working environment.

And really, regardless of how intense the schedule of a journalist is, that defence really starts falling apart when you consider that many people cope with it admirably. You’ll note that some reporters hardly ever seem to draw the wrath of critical bloggers. Why? Is it because they’re part of some secret club? Do they know where the off switch is? No – it’s because they’re simply better at what they do. They’re more careful. They do their homework. They check their facts. And most importantly of all (because we’re all human) if they do make mistakes, they take it on the chin and engage with their critics (check out that last link for my own personal fiasco and its swift resolution).

Earlier yesterday, Petra Boynton asked for resources to help journalists avoid making common mistakes and I answered that the only things people really need are humility, a willingness to learn, and time. We’ve talked about time already; the other two are just as important because they ensure that if you make mistakes, you’ll make them only once, and that you maintain accountability and professionalism.

It’s the lack of such accountability that fuels much of the frustration with bad science journalism. In fact, those who repeatedly do the worst job have a habit of not holding themselves to account. Goldacre’s attempts to track the source of the article that started all of this were protracted and difficult. The article in question has since disappeared from the Guardian website with no correction or explanation, even though the Code of Conduct from the National Union of Journalists calls for journalists to do “her/his utmost to correct harmful inaccuracies”. Instead, we get one piece in another national newspaper and one blog post criticising Goldacre for his tone.

This is not the type of reaction that instils confidence in a softly-softly approach.

The bottom line is that if people like Laurance and Fox feel that the “self-appointed critics” of science journalism are being too harsh, there must be some evidence that a more cordial tone would actually yield dividends (after all, scientists like evidence). To my knowledge, those data are sorely lacking.

Of course, most of this piece has been focused on bad science journalism and we must be careful to avoid confirmation bias. As I’ve argued repeatedly, there is plenty of good science journalism out there that often gets lost amid the venom triggered by the worst exemplars. I’m currently judging the ABSW Science Writer Awards and it’s a joy; there is no shortage of truly excellent science journalism of the sort that takes specialist skills (and a lot of time) to go out and find.

The critic who thinks that all journalists are rubbish is a straw man, but we could certainly do more to collectively highlight good science journalism (in this, I actually agree with Fox). It would serve to show the world what the craft actually looks like when done well, and it would hopefully encourage the best practitioners, who might otherwise think that their entire profession is being condemned despite their high-quality efforts. This will contribute towards raising overall standards just as much as debunking the worst articles. Social media is excellent for this and there is clearly a culture developing on Twitter where science journalists who do excellent work get praised for it. That can only be encouraged.

But in the meantime, the watchdogs are still needed. Their bites and barks may be unpleasant, but so are the consequences of the errors that draw their attention. In the end, the best way to avoid such criticisms is to give people as little as possible to criticise.

UPDATE: Martin Robbins at the Lay Scientist has an angrier take 😉

Image by Joshua Sherurcij
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