Whacking Science Journalists

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorOct 1, 2010 11:30 PM


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There's been a fair amount of fretting over science journalism lately. It's taken the form of earnest criticism and parody. (For an arch rejoinder to the latter, see this post by one of the science reporters at The Economist.) Even Jay Rosen, whose meta mind scans of mainstream media tend to focus on political journalism, weighs in. There's not much I can add to the critiques, except to note that they seem to treat science journalism as a monolith. When in fact, there's the spot newspaper or web story; there's the deeply reported and nuanced pieces you see in Science and Nature; the explanatory, (sometimes narrative-driven) features in the likes of Discover, Scientific American, New Scientist, Wired, etc. From my view, it appears that newspaper reporters receive most of the barbs. Yet critics don't really make the distinction when raking science journalism over the coals. It's as if a particular NYT or Guardian piece singled out for some egregious failing represents all science journalism: Did you see that terrible false-balance story today? Yet another reminder that science journalists suck. Science journalists have been tied en masse to the whipping post before. In fact, I've been a little surprised that Dorothy Nelkin and her seminal book Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology, have not been mentioned in any of these current discussions. Here's a 1988 review of the book that distills Nelkin's take on science journalism:

A central theme of Dorothy Nelkin's Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology is that science journalists all too frequently perpetuate "this idealization of science as an ultimate authority." In general, she argues that too many stories contain too much hype and not enough of the context in which the scientfic advances take place. Rarely do science journalists look behind the immediate story, she says, and they often blindly accept theories and findings that are controversial or open to alternative explanations. As a result, science and scientists have largely escaped the critical reporting that has been directed at virtually every other profession.

The reviewer, who is now the news editor at Science magazine, later notes that Nelkin is unfairly indicting all of science journalism based on a narrow selection of stories, which is the same problem I have with the current crop of critics. At any rate, I wonder what people make of Nelkin's critique today. (It predates the uprising against the he-said, she-said type of story that is a whole other ball of wax.) I wonder what folks make of how scientists are treated by the press today, and whether other parts of Nelkin's critique holds up in 2010. On a related note, I really wanted to blog in full on this excellent post by Heather Pringle at Archaeology magazine. But I'm running out of time today. Here's an abbreviated take: I read the paper she refers to and last week, an archaeologist friend alerted me to this story about it. There is much to say about both the journal paper and this particular news story, but for now, I'd encourage those interested in the debate over science journalism to read Heather's post and think about 1) how the groupthink in southwestern archaeology was wrong for a long time about an emotionally charged issue (and some of that groupthink still persists), and 2) how some archaeologists tend to interpret their findings through a prism of the age they live in. So, in an attempt to come full circle, let me ask: in the story I refer to just above, who is responsible for the sensationalist angle and tone: the scientist or the journalist?

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