A Critic of Science Journalism Dons a Masquerade

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorDec 9, 2011 2:55 PM


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There are two recent critiques of science journalism that paint very different pictures of the profession. One of them, an editorial in Nature this week, is more broadly aimed at the news media in general, and decries "scientific ignorance of the press," agenda-driven stories, and "journalism that favors attitude over accuracy." The criticism is directed at British newspaper reporters and editors:

With stories ranging from ludicrous (wind turbine attacked by aliens) to downright irresponsible (promoting the link between childhood vaccinations and autism), the fourth estate in the United Kingdom has hardly covered itself in glory when it comes to science and scientific issues.

Indeed, according to Sarah Mukherjee, a former BBC environmental correspondent, the struggle for UK journos on the enviro beat is to avoid being superficial and part of a herd. (Come to think of it, that's a pretty universal struggle for everyone in the press.) But Nature, taking particular issue with the lack of rigor in science reporting, says

there is a sense that the situation is more acute in tabloid-driven Britain, particularly given the distasteful news-gathering techniques that are now under the microscope like never before.

I'm not familiar enough with science coverage in the UK media to have an opinion on Nature's assessment. I'd be curious to hear what British science reporters or bloggers think. Interestingly, David Whitehouse, another former BBC correspondent (1988-1998), has a different sort of beef with his colleagues. It boils down to this: science journalists were better at their jobs last century (like when he was at the BBC, I'm guessing):

There has never been a golden age of science journalism, but certainly there were more characters, better writers, more newsgathering zeal, and more originality in the recent past.

Well, as you might expect, these are "fighting words" to the average, self-respecting science journalist, which is how veteran science writer Paul Raeburn put it in his rebuttal at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker:

We've heard these criticisms before, and I should probably ignore them, but, as The Dude put it in The Big Lebowski, "This will not stand, man."

The Dude would be proud. But Whitehouse also made it easy for Raeburn, who writes:

He [Whitehouse] begins his argument with the contention that "science, and communicating science, is too important to be left to the scientists." It's unclear whether he believes that, or whether he's setting that up as an observation that he wants to challenge. In any case, as anyone who reads news online now knows, scientists are communicating to the public more broadly and effectively than ever before. Where once Carl Sagan stood, a thousand blogs now bloom. Science communication is clearly not too important to be left to the scientists.

Raeburn also observes that Whitehouse

makes the odd argument that the widespread availability of science news has led news outlets to become "bland clones" of one another. To me, the situation seems quite the opposite. With fewer restrictions on science news, the big news organizations can no longer manipulate the supply chain and dominate the coverage. With expanded competition, news organizations and science writers now have more incentive than ever to do good work.

Whitehouse, though, is on stronger footing when he accuses

many journalists being supporters of, and not reporters of, science. There is a big difference. Many have become advocates for science that are too close to the scientists they report on. Anyone who has downed an orange juice at a scientists and journalists bash will not have to look far to see them compete to see who can be the most sycophantic. At one such gathering I remarked, tactlessly, that I was surprised, and disappointed, that half of the scientists there didn't hate half of the journalists! Scientists even run prizes for science journalists! Jonathan Leake, science and environment editor at the Sunday Times said recently, "Science in the daily media is too often reported in the same deferential way as political journalists used to report politics in the 1950s." Because of this back slapping closeness, many journalists lack detachment and by implication judgment about the stories they cover.

Raeburn acknowledged these and other points:

Reporters are, as he says, far too dependent upon press releases. But that has always been true. And he says that too many science writers have become supporters, not reporters, of science. I've made the same argument myself. Writers and bloggers have every right to be supporters of science, if they choose, but we need a strong corps of reporters who see themselves as critics, shedding light in dark corners.

Raeburn then notes that the "only example" Whitehouse provides "to make his case is that of climate-change coverage." Yes, that kinda jumped out at me, too. So I googled a bit to see what he might have written about the subject and this column in the New Statesman popped up from 2007. In it he explains why "global warming has stopped." (To see how he arrived at this, you'll have to go and read it for yourself.) Similarly, in 2010, Whitehouse wrote a piece for the UK's Global Warming Policy Foundation and reproduced at WUWT, titled, "The climate coincidence: Why is the temperature unchanging?" It turns out that Whitehouse does a lot of writing for the UK think tank that is a known clearinghouse for climate skeptic-oriented commentary and research. He is their science editor. Strangely, this affiliation wasn't mentioned in his bio for the Huffington Post piece. Let me be clear: Whitehouse being the science editor for the Global Warming Foundation doesn't (and shouldn't) disqualify him from penning an opinion piece for anyone, including the Huffington Post. But it's a bit peculiar that in a column critical of science journalists and climate reporting--that his connection to a climate skeptic think tank was not disclosed to Huffington Post readers. One last thing. Whitehouse is absolutely on the mark with some of his points in the column, including this one:

Journalism is about not taking sides, or about being a cheerleader.

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