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The Sciences

Science Journalists are NOT the Problem

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJune 19, 2007 10:40 PM

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Something that makes me very sad is going on over at Tara's blog, I'm afraid. A number of commenters, who seem to be largely scientists, are beating up mercilessly on science writers for various sins, largely misquotation (which wasn't even what Tara's post was originally about). The comments got as nasty as this:

So why should we be interviewed and questioned? Contact us and ask us to write a piece on some topic. If the resulting language is terrible, then have the editor work with the scientist to improve it. I think the journalist is entirely unnecessary.

As someone who has both written about science and edited various types of journalism, I can assure you, journalistic writing is a specialized skill, and although some academics and scientists get it, many do not. The journalist is most emphatically necessary. But more importantly, whence this totally misplaced beating up on science writers in particular? We say this in the Mooney-Nisbet talk, and in fact said it this morning at the Center for American Progress: Science journalists as a whole are probably the most specialized and best trained journalists around. Many hold Ph.D.s, sometimes even in the fields they cover. If anything, the problem for science journalists is that many of them are losing their jobs, as major media organizations cut specialized coverage and go with, essentially, fluff. Crying Paris Hilton. When it comes to the media, science reporters are the least of our problems. A couple of other points that arise in the context of this discussion after the jump:

1. I check all my work with scientists whenever there's any doubt in my mind whatsoever as to its accuracy. My entire book, Storm World, was read over by various helpful scientists (none of whom had anything like the negative outlook on the media being expressed over at Ateiology). That said, no self-respecting journalist would give a scientist or any other source veto power over whether an article runs. Not gonna happen. 2. I second Carl Zimmer that I don't have a lot of trouble getting interviews with most scientists most of the time. On the other hand, Carl and I have books and thus may be better known than other science writers, and this may facilitate things for us. 3. I also second Jennifer Ouellette that sometimes scientists get too miffed about being misquoted. Don't get me wrong: Misquoting sucks. Good journalists, and I hope I'm one, use tape recorders whenever possible to try to avoid this. Nevertheless, and although there are certainly major exceptions, when misquotation occurs the consequences are rarely very large. Most of the time it's just "fish and chips," as Andrew Sullivan puts it: By the time you get the paper and read the misquote, it's being used to wrap somebody's lunch. The more you're in journalism, the more you realize that life just goes on, and it is the rare case indeed in which a misquotation seriously impacts someone's career. And more generally, the idea that all journalists should be punished for one journalist's error...well, that's just unfair. 4. Scientists *do* however need to be more savvy about the media, but that's very easy: Do your homework on the reporter who contacted you. This is what Google is for, no? You can find out what kind of journalist he/she is, (science or political), what he's written before, whether he's been involved in any past controversies, whether he has an ax to grind. Once you find this out, adjust your expectations accordingly--or, if it's a journalist you don't trust, avoid the interview. Or if it's somewhere in between--you're not sure what to think--ask to see your quotes to check their accuracy. (But for God's sake don't demand veto power over the story.) 5. And finally, scientists could do worse than learn about framing, especially if they're going to talk to the media. But that's a whole 'nother can of worms....

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