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David Whitehouse: The Pathetic State Of Science Journalism

Science journalism is not about taking sides, or about being a cheerleader. It’s about shaking the tree, about asking awkward questions, about standing in the place of those who can’t ask such questions, and being persistent, unpopular and dogged. It’s about moral authority, something science in BBC News has lost.

There is no faster moving, more important, and vital area of human initiative than science. It’s what feeds our bodies and our minds, clothes us and keeps us warm, prolongs our lives and extends our capabilities. No one who uses a credit card, a cell phone, takes a pill or just gazes at the stars can ignore science. It tells us our beginnings, and informs us of the promise and the pitfalls of the future. It can turn humanity into gods, and sometimes devils.

If scientists take public money for their research they, individually and collectively, have an obligation to make some effort to communicate their work to their paymasters. But science, and communicating science, is too important to be left to the scientists. An essential component of the scientific enterprise is the science journalist, and there as the saying goes, we have a problem.

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. I remember doing science journalism before the internet when we used fax, phone, crude email and ingenuity. Each science journalist on each outlet, be it broadcast or print, was working by the dead reckoning of their judgment. There was a lot of common ground in stories covered, and a lot of disparity making the competition more intense than it is today.

The internet has seen coverage of science issues in the news media becoming more homogenous. Information is more readily available to all, not just a privileged journalist. It can travel faster, and it is easier to see what stories competitors are doing. The result has been that news outlets have become bland clones of one another, hardly adding much value over the equally accessible scientists own blogs or non-professional journalists, and real scoops are far less common than they were. The spectrum of stories being covered has narrowed to a worrying degree. Many survive as a science journalist just by paying attention to press releases and reproducing them, as long as others do the same. A recent BBC analysis of its science coverage in its own news reports revealed that 75% came from press releases, and only a tiny fraction contained views not expressed in those press releases.

This lip service is not good enough, and editors should wise up that science journalism has lost its edge and demand reform. It has also become uncritical and therefore not journalism. Too many who profess to practice journalism are the product of fashionable science communication courses that have sprung up in the past fifteen years. It’s my view that this has resulted in 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.

Journalism is about not taking sides, or about being a cheerleader. It’s about shaking the tree, about asking awkward questions, about standing in the place of those who can’t ask such questions, and being persistent, unpopular and dogged. It’s about moral authority, something science in BBC News has lost, and it’s about old-fashioned scoops. It’s not about being part of the spectrum of communicating science – which is something that scientists and non-journalistic broadcasters should do – it is a vital aspect of democracy. It is neither an extension of the scientific establishment, nor even its friend or on its side, and it is fundamentally different from science communication.

That some active and contentious scientific topics, like climate science with all its unknowns, complexities and implications, are placed beyond debate because they are deemed “settled” is wrong. Good journalism is the antithesis of a crude expression like “we’ve gone beyond that” allied to an over simplistic view of science. Climate science in particular is reported far too narrowly with much important peer-reviewed research ignored, and with environmental reporters far too concerned with doing down those they define as sceptics. Forget the sceptics, just report the science properly. It will all come out in the wash.

Science and science journalism are needed. Journalists should portray where the weight of evidence lies, but that is the least they should do, and they should not look to scientists for guidance anymore than an artist asks a bowl of cherries for advice about how to draw them! They should criticise, highlight errors, make a counterbalancing case if it will stand up, but don’t censor, even by elimination, don’t be complacent and say the science is settled in areas that are still contentious. The history of science and of journalism is full of those reduced to footnotes because they followed that doctrine.

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Huffington Post, 6 December 2011