Archive for April 12th, 2010

An outbreak of crankiness – UPDATED

April 12, 2010

In which Dr Aust gets a bit irked

As I was idly musing on something or other earlier today, a Tweet directed me to a rather ill-judged (in my view) post on a BBC site by Science Media Centre Director Fiona Fox.

Here is a bit of what Fox wrote:

“I was at City University’s School of Journalism to present the main findings of the Science Media Centre report on the future of science in the media. Not for the first time I sat next to brilliant science reporters who insisted that any old blogger could do what they do and that the blogosphere is teaming with people reporting, investigating and telling truth to power as well as, if not better than, journalism does.

Despite the fact that most of the panel and almost the entire audience were against me, I’m not buying it. I know I always sound like some ancient Luddite in this discussion… but I think there is a difference between journalism and blogging…

Don’t get me wrong, I love blogs – both as writer and reader. My life is hugely enriched by the daily updates from my own favourite bloggers, but they are not engaged in journalism. Most blogs are self-consciously the strongly held views of opinionated people about their chosen topics.

In fact, that’s precisely the beauty of them. In the old days, if the Guardian or Telegraph rejected our rantings, the world would probably never hear them. Now we have created our own medium to get our brilliant insights out there. And of course some blogs may be true, and some may even nod to objectivity and balance, but the blogosphere would be a sadly diminished place if every view expressed had to be balanced, fact-checked, sub-edited and all those other peculiarities of good journalism. In other words, blogs work to a separate set of rules.”

Now, some of what Fiona Fox says about blogs is undoubtedly true, especially their being more opinionated than articles in the mainstream press. But in science terms, I think her defence of the old media against the new lacks credibility. Does anyone really recognise the picture of mainstream reporting that she paints? I would say there are probably half a dozen mainstream media science writers in the UK whose stuff strikes me as worth reading. Most of the other science stories are re-heated press releases, which I (like a lot of scientists) only read so that I can grumble about them. And don’t get me started about the coverage of issues like vaccination, or cancer, in places like the Express or the People’s Medical Journal Daily Mail.

And my friends in the medical blogosphere, like Dr Grumble and the Jobbing Doctor, would, I suspect, likely be even more outspoken about mainstream media coverage of healthcare stories bearing approximately zero relationship to reality.

Anyway, in splenetic mood (too much coffee?) I posted the following riposte under Fox’s article :

“To say “blogging is not journalism” is a rather meaningless statement as it depends on what definition of  “journalism” one picks, surely?

A rather important point is that in blogging about science the bloggers are often people who know far more about science than the journalists who cover it. This is one of the reasons why blog coverage of scientific stories is often far more accurate and informed than what appears in the mainstream media.

Indeed it seems to me, from reading the works of the mainstream media science correspondents, that the ones whose copy is generally more accurate are the ones who follow the science blogs. I wonder what that is telling us?

This also has analogies in other areas; the Jack of Kent blog (written by a lawyer) has been the major source for information on the BCA v Simon Singh libel case, and has quite clearly been a major source for the print and broadcast media journalists covering the story.”

As I said, what Fox says is not all off-base. Later in her piece she stresses:

“the… need for journalism to do its job – to select, verify, correct, edit, analyse, balance and all those old-fashioned things that journalists are trained to do.”

And on that, I think, she and I are in total agreement. And if journalists writing about science actually did this, I don’t suppose there would be nearly as much of a Bad Science blogosphere.

And I might get to watch a lot more TV.

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UPDATE  April 14th:

One of my fellow Bad Science bloggers, that indefatigable nonsense-sleuth Gimpy,  directs my attention to the National Union of Journalists’ rather stirring Code of Conduct.

Gimpy, who has more reason than most to feel that journalists have “lifted” his efforts without attribution,  comments:

“I think most of us would agree that this, if applied, would solve many of modern journalism’s reputational difficulties.”

We are struggling, though, to think of exactly which journalists we have come across whose efforts live up to it. Of course, that may not be entirely the journalists’ fault, see Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News.

Getting back to Fiona Fox’s comments at the meeting – as she herself admits on the BBC site, they prompted quite a lot of disagreement from her audience and from the actual journalists present. You can find an excellent write-up on the blog A Life of Pi here, and another extended summary here.  Life of Pi blogger Harriet Vickers asks the pertinent question:

“Rather than trying to draw distinct line between who can and can’t claim to be a journalist, isn’t it better to focus on who practices journalistic values?”

Which brings us nicely back to Gimpy’s link to the NUJ’s Code of Conduct. The Code that one only wishes the people who write “Health and Lifestyle” stories for the mid-market tabloids would read. Repeatedly.

Anyway, to avoid going round in circles all day, the general take from most of the bloggers, and seemingly quite a few of the paid science journalists, is that there is no really meaningful distinction between what journalists do and what bloggers do, and that the argument is thus futile.  In this view, it comes down to whether what you write is good science writing – in which, as writer/blogger Ed Yong articulates here, accuracy,  truth and independence play a major part – or bad science writing.

Works for me.

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PS   Fiona Fox has her own blog, On Science and the Media. The latest entry there actually deals with the argument about mainstream science reporting, describing, inter alia, Fox’s being on a panel with Ben Goldacre. As you will see from the first comment, Ben and Fiona do not agree.

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