The Sciences

The Huffington Post's Frankenjournalism

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJan 9, 2012 10:17 AM

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Last week, the Huffington Post unveiled a new science section. Science bloggers and science writers aren't sure what to make of it. Some, such as Mark Hoofnagle, are cautiously hopeful. As he notes, the Huffington Post has up to now been notorious (at least in the science blogosphere) as a "clearinghouse" for "liberal crankery," featuring things "like Jenny McCarthy's anti-vaccine crankery, or Bill Maher's anti-pharma paranoia." Can the site turn a new leaf? "Time will tell," he says. Carl Zimmer, using more restrained language, also noted the Huffington Post's reputation for "checkered coverage" of science. But he is willing to give the new section (called HuffPo Science) a chance to prove itself:

I for one am ready to give the Huffington Post another look. If they can bring real science to their huge readership, that will be a great thing.

Orac, unsurprisingly, is not taking such a charitable view. He remains skeptical and asks "scientists and science-based bloggers to think a bit before joining up (or even after having joined up)" as writers for the new section. This is why, he argues:

The quackery is all still there. So is the antivaccine propaganda. It hasn't gone away. It's just (mostly) not in the medicine section, Apparently the editors tried to keep things science-based in the beginning, but it's infiltrated the section since then. At least, the soft woo has, such as supplements, diet woo, and acupuncture. The hardcore stuff like homeopathy, antivaccine pseudoscience, and the like is posted elsewhere on HuffPo. It's still there, though, and it still taints the reputation of the entire enterprise.

This latest evolution of the Huffington Post, with its hydra-headed model--an (unpaid) assemblage of amateur and professional voices, combined with appropriated and original journalism--is quite the mishmash. Not too long ago, journalistic ethics watchdogs fretted about the wall crumbling between editorial and advertising. The success of the Huffington Post makes those worries seem quaint. For it has blurred the lines between what is fact-based and what is half-baked, between what is original and what is purloined. On this note, an interesting comment at Orac's site related to HuffPo's new science section could also apply, in a larger sense, to the entire website:

If I have a bucket of icecream in 1 hand and a bucket of poop in the other and just the tiniest spec of poop gets in the icecream, the whole bucket is ruined. Yet no matter how much icecream you put in the bucket of poop, its still just a bucket of poop.

To put it more delicately, is the Huffington Post's journalistic product tainted by some of its unsavory associations and practices? In this anxious age of media upheaval, that doesn't appear to be a question that many in the profession (including the high priests) are much interested in. (Where's Jay Rosen when you need him? Oh, wait, here he is, talking about how HuffPo could be an ideological innovator in journalism.) Well, I don't know about you, but when I scroll around the HuffPo site, I see a jumble of indistinguishable content. It's all thrown together on one canvass, separated only by news and subject categories. Maybe the new science section, in pursuit of of some journalistic cred, will keep the New Age bloggers and assorted cranks off its main page. That would constitute a small achievement of sorts. Headlines like this are problematic, though:

In Vitro Meat: Will 'Frankenfood' Save the Planet or Just Gross out Consumers?

The story itself is a straightforward, well-written summary of a notable scientific development and its implications. But it is not served well by the headline's unfortunate use of a politically charged, biased term (frankenfood). It is too soon to judge the worthiness of the Huffington Post's new science section, but based on the website's ill-fitting and unsightly Frankenjournalism model, we have a pretty good idea of what it is going to end up looking like.

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