Science Blogging: The Better Journalism?

Science Journalism Debauchery

Has anyone aside from science bloggers had so many rules imposed on them? OK, maybe science journalists. In the 1990's, when the debate over genetically modified (GM) seeds motivated the headline: "MUTANT CROPS COULD KILL YOU" (Express February 18, 1999), the British government attempted to correct the fear-mongering headlines. That didn't work, so to stem future journalistic liberties of that sort, the Parliament tried to subdue the culture that propagated such rumors.

They issued a a lengthy report warning of further journalistic depredation from "the approaching era of digital TV" and the "increasing ghettoisation". (No mention of the internet.) More journalists needed to be "scientists", they said, after surveying GM stories put out by all of eleven UK publications over two days. Only 17% of the stories were written by science journalists, they found, and not any of the commentary came from "science writers". The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons, the Royal Society, and SmithKline Beecham suggested punishing future misbehavior, especially for getting the facts wrong:

"media coverage of scientific matters should be governed by a Code of Practice which stipulates that scientific stories should be factually accurate. Breaches of the Code of Practice should be referred to the Press Complaints Commission."

Of course an editor at the Independent responded describing how writers could conquer the facts but still mislead the reader. Thankfully, there's often a compelling counterargument. So in the end, the report's authors settled for a rather bland collection of guidelines dealing with Balance; Uncertainty; and Legitimacy.

And of course while the Parliament fretted about the fate of genetically engineered crops, over at News of The World...

Digital Science Journalism - Publishing Freedom

When science blogging came along it seemed to offer an alternative to the maligned mainstream media science journalism. But despite its growing stature, it too has been besieged by criticism. Some of this came from mainstream media, especially in the beginning.

But interestingly, while traditional science journalism often gets attacked from the outside, online science journalists indulge in lots and lots of self-flagellation. Perhaps this is to be expected from people who labor at the frontier of the often masochistic bench science, replete with high rates of experimental failure. Or perhaps self-criticism makes it easier for science bloggers to generate conversation? Work out their identities? Get traffic?

Of course there's much more to online science journalism then blogging, but I'm going to limit my comments to that. Acronym Required started about seven years ago, and from the rather echoey halls of 2004 science blogging, the medium exploded. Now it impressively fills some of the gaping holes in other science journalism.

We last commented on the state of "science" television programming in 2007 -- and why comment further? The science blogging world offers an amazingly vibrant alternative, filled with witty, reflective, analytical, smart, and generous writers -- especially considering the frequent debauchery of mainstream journalism. Which makes the persistent whine of self-criticism all the more puzzling. Is it some evolutionary thrust gripping science bloggers to impose governing rules on their peers?

This is especially amusing in the context of how blogs started, to augment search. Search itself started in a era that included the (albeit, totally unrealistic) perception of internet as free of boundaries, regulations, and governments. Consider this piece from early 1996:

"We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity."

Radical, but the philosophy is actually alive and well among quite a few technologists today.

Search back then was pretty rudimentary, thus the role of blogs. To understand just how rudimentary, look at this old Yahoo page with its awesome user interface. (Accompanied by the great ad with a winking person who looks photo-shopped from two different faces, asking awkwardly: "So, My Yahoo! or yours?".)

My point is, the world in which blogging started was simple. For one, an early blog was often not much more than some geek saying -- "hey I found this cool site": link -- so I'm cool too, right? These "trusted links" made a prehistoric stab at "community" and "personalization" -- because who could trust something called the "World Wide Web", with its random collection of and unknown "links"?

Secondly, through innovation if not mindset, the Internet and blogging celebrated independence from tradition. As the internet expanded, many bloggers took to the medium in defiance of the exclusive world and onerous rules of offline publishing. The audience for blogs in the beginning was a very small group of internet users, frontiersmen strongly connected by their independence, who were by default "the community".

Page Views

As the originators of the real commercial internet intended, soon people realized they could make advertising money on the internet, and "pageviews" became an all important metric. The number of people publishing on the internet grew and bloggers were then advised to "keep it short". This advice about post-length was couched as insight about readers short attention spans. But it was as much about drawing pageviews and revenue. "Keep it short" and the unspoken "make us money" became compulsory over 'make it interesting'.

When Tumblr and Twitter arrived on the scene with truly short-form platforms, some of the same organizations then suggested that blogs could actually be a venue for "long-form" writing. Finally, just as the fashion industry moved away from dictating skirt lengths sometime in the 1980s, people eventually stopped dictating ideal post length. Of course they still told people what to do, they just moved on from making demands on post length.

To Join Or Not To Join

It's my impression that science bloggers find more rules to bandy about than others, but granted, I don't have enough data to swear that economists, say, are really more laissez-faire. I couldn't possibly document all the various rules that science bloggers have proposed for other science bloggers over the years, but to illustrate my point, I'll mention a few.

First there's the question of where to host your blog. Some insist that science bloggers should join a science blogging network. This came about when the number of online science bloggers reached a point where they could actually form a group. Those advocating joining offer compelling reasons -- traffic, exposure, "community". Now, the number of such science blogging "communities" has surpassed our ability to keep track of them. There are still pros and cons to joining of course, depending on your goals, technical abilities, impressions of the different online venues, how your schedule might accommodate blogging, etc. But your agreeable answer to join is existentially far more critical to a potential host than to you. After all, the hosts wouldn't exist without the bloggers.

Of course the notion of "online community" includes many possibilities. Communities can be collaborative, nurturing, educational - great; or, if you've observed them in action, joining such an online science community can be like joining the military, where participants -- "travel to exotic foreign lands, meet interesting and exciting people, then kill them."

Proving Your Worth

Once the blogger decides where to put their blog, a barrage of other considerations and demands will follow. For example, in 2007 bloggers for peer-reviewed research reporting (BPR3) emerged, proposing

"to identify serious academic blog posts about peer-reviewed research by offering an icon and an aggregation site where others can look to find the best academic blogging on the Net."

While interesting as a business aggregation proposal, the blog "Peer-To-Peer" diplomatically commented on the idea, saying it would be impossible for such an icon to assure the "quality of the blog post itself". Or, we might add, to insure the quality of the writer's analysis, the quality of the science journal, the quality of the science research, and so on.

Questions of ethics in science blogging are constant, carrying on from earlier discussions of ethics in blogging and science journalism. Way back in 2003, bloggers started wondering whether they should adopt journalists' standards. Perhaps journalism in 2003 was wrapped in mystique that shrouded realities like "MUTANT CROPS COULD KILL YOU", but the drumbeat of ethics has since trailed science bloggers. I can't see how this could be useful people have written strong arguments noting that blogging wouldn't exist if bloggers weren't ethical. Nor has the whole ethics thing really led to changed behavior as far as I can see, but those who push "ethics" will forever peer over our shoulders.

Still other people demand, as the Parliament did 1999, that science bloggers/journalists only blog about things they know. Quite a qualitative statement considering variations in breadth and depth of knowledge among both scientists and journalists. A comment here provides a good rebuttal to that idea. You could also reason that writing solely about what you know at any moment, like the biomechanics of kangaroo tendons, for instance, despite how interesting that may be to you, might be a good way to become a lazy, narrow minded, outdated, and one bored stiff writer to say nothing of your readers'.

Recently the subjects of anonymity and pseudonymity re-emerged and preoccupied many science bloggers. I'm not going to weigh down this post talking about that, except to note 1) that the discussion has largely revolved around the value and necessity of a particular type of individual authentication, and 2) that the discussion has largely ignored the politics and economics driving such individual authentication.

Other people try mark out precise roles for science bloggers/journalists. Science writers should be "educators", they say, or "explainers", or priests of "how things work". Each such suggestion is an invitation for extensive discussion and cogitation, and naturally other people will vehemently disagree with every proposal. So then why don't bloggers just do what suits them best? Or does the constant criticism and re-definition create "community" (and pageviews)?

Getting The Details Right

We've touched on some general instructions to bloggers about how to blog about science. There are more detailed demands too, aimed at all of science blogging and journalism, as the divisions between online and offline media blur. For instance:

  • 2005: Don't use the word "Global Warming": Thus implored some scientists reasoning that people would confuse climate change with their local weather.
  • 2006: Don't use big words: So lectured the film "Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus". The version I saw at Tribeca, 2006 highlighted words used by scientists in dialogue that were "too big", while characterizing Intelligent Design folks as small word people, i.e. comparatively approachable and understandable. It employed character assassination on all fronts by advising scientists to drop their testy, pompous attitudes, while basically infantilizing people who were religious. Some scientists took this whole thing to heart, overlooking how the movie slyly played to both audiences. People who knew the fairly simple polysyllabic words could be secretly smug that they knew the words when the definitions flashed on the screen like some weird spelling bee; and the other side of the audience could be smug about the portrayal of scientists as surly and smug.

  • 2007: Don't publish on Fridays: The IPCC panel and hundreds of scientists took flack from the communication "framers" for publishing their 2007 report on a Friday (link accessed 04/11) because 'any veteran journalist would know better'. The same post chastised the report for lacking "drama" like portraying "polar bears on melting ice". The authors gave another paper kudos for "reframing the IPCC report" with a "corruption angle" that gave it "more legs". In other words, said the framers, don't be scientists or reporters be PR ringmasters.
  • 2008 "Don't use the word "denial", "denialist", or "denier": Some scientists said that labeling climate change denialists as such was pejorative.

At the time, each of these instructions drew passionate discussions. But times change -- or don't change. Today it's fine to use "global warming" and "denialist". Science Friday still airs to large audiences on Fridays, and Science Magazine successfully publishes, Friday, after Friday, after Friday.

As charming as "Flock of Dodos" was - do big words really make science/scientists extinct? If we believe that message, should we then be discouraged that in 4 years, the Flock of Dodos trailer has 13,376 views on Youtube, while Hoax of Dodos, the Discovery Institutes pathetically best response, has almost as many -- 11,405 views? OK true, the "Pulled Punches" video (cut scenes from Flock of Dodos) has 18,605 views. But for perspective on what 18,605 views means on YouTube, the video "Emma Watson Punches Interviewer" (Jan 19, 2006), has 4,159,895 (all view numbers as of 05/11). Despite the fact that "Punch" is a catchy keyword to put in your comparatively boring science video, what does all this mean for science and science journalism?

"Blogging" is Worthy

What if none of these rules and instructions make science blogging "better", whatever better is? What if people still deny climate change for example, no matter what the facts and no matter what manner we convey them? While pursuing better communication is incredibly important, as is presenting ideas compellingly, how much of science knowledge lost by miscommunication is really any responsibility or fault of scientists and journalists (online or offline)? How much should be attributed to the political inclinations, personal distractions, and various passions of our audiences?

In reality most science journalists have zero time to write stories, whether or not they have generous deadlines. Those stories must always be very compelling just to get read. The extreme example of this fact, illustrated by a UK journalist, applies to most writing:

"You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the tube between Parson's Green and Putney, who will stop reading in a fifth of a second.

We may not like this. We may wish readers didn't prefer reading science only when it's infused with sex or violence or something that 99% of the population have some opinion on. We may wish that journalists really comprised some "fourth estate", or could make a difference, or could educate readers. What if science writers could just all write about their own fascinating interest, rather than about something dictated by advertising? And what if the audience would just read, and not worry about about ethics, badges of legitimacy or whether education was happening as they read?

But until science journalists make a lot more money or have a lot more time, that won't happen on any large scale basis. But most science bloggers write for free or pittance. And if you write mostly for free on a blog, shouldn't you just write? Or does it have to be for some higher purpose (agreed upon by the consensus of one of many "communities")? Because wasn't that the whole purpose of blogging?

Science bloggers should keep in mind what their up against. The lifeblood of mainstream media consists of headlines the likes of this week's "GM Blunder Contaminates Britain With Mutant Crops", about "Frankenstein" crops.

So I'm sure whatever you write, dear blogger, will stand up just fine. And until "offline" journalism reaches different standards, can we stop insisting/demanding/pleading that bloggers "ARE journalists too"? Maybe science blogging could stand on its own apart from journalism if the community of science bloggers trusted themselves.

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