"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, March 18, 2011

More Griping on Science Journalism

At Pharyngula there is a science journalism thread worthy of your attention.

Dissatisfaction with journalism among scientifically literate people is widespread. It's not just climate people. My favorite comment there is by llewely, who quotes Carl Zimmer saying "It's always important in these situations to bear in mind that reporters almost never write their own headlines." and responds
As a result of this practice, the headline is often the stupidest part of an article - even when the article itself is really, really stupid. Often times, the article goes to press with the equivalent of a fresh turd sitting on its head. Yet another case of an industry-wide practice that is blindingly stupid.
Ben Goldacre ("Bad Science") is piling on as well.

So people who are miffed at me for "broad generalizations" really ought to look at what the people who ought to be their market are saying.

h.t @BoraZ

New Rules™:
  • The first author of a peer reviewed paper has to sign off on any institutional press office press release.
  • The journalist writing the story has to write the headline.
  • Every research-related news report needs proper citation to every cited research article, with links in online versions.
  • The journalist reporting on a science story press release has to run it, headline and all, past an author, if possible the first author, of every cited paper
That would help a lot.

Again, nothing generalizes perfectly. There are plenty of good stories out there, and some reliably good science journalists. I thank them for their efforts in spite of a not very supportive environment. Meanwhile, though, I think that the real demands of a large swath of the population for reliable, informed, and proportionate science reporting simply aren't being met.


Steve Scolnik said...

"brad generalizations":
Why are you picking on Brad? :)

Michael Tobis said...

Want to be my editor? I can't pay much but you can get the scoop...

(fixed, thanks)

Steve Bloom said...

Emphasis on the proportional aspect.

ScruffyDan said...

Rules 2 and 3 describe many bloggers.

Rule 1 just so much sense that it will never happen.

Rule 4 sounds good in principle, but it practice it probably wont work.

EliRabett said...

You forgot the most important one, every news release generated by a funded project has to include the news release in any grant renewal application

dhogaza said...

" Yet another case of an industry-wide practice that is blindingly stupid."

It's not blindingly stupid from the industry's POV. While a reporter often has an idea as to whether or not a piece is important enough to warrant front-page placement, they're not going to know whether it's going to run one-column wide with a "see page N" after a few inches, spread across two or three columns, above or below the fold, etc. It's not until the editorial decisions have been made regarding article placement for the next edition that the final headline can be written by a copy editor. And placement, headlines and article placement will change from edition to edition (remember that major daily newspapers used to have several editions a day). On a normal day, "gambling junket bus accident kills 13 in NYC" would warrant a big chunk of space on the front page, but after a significant chunk of Japan's been wiped out by a tsunami ... it didn't get much space on the front page.

So it's blindingly stupid from the point of view of trying to ensure that a headline accurately reflects what the reporter reports. But it's not from the point of view of managing space on the printed page, especially back in the days of manual layout ...

David B. Benson said...

I wrote headlines of the student weekly one year; manual layout followed by last minute changes after the Linotype operator had attempted to set up the page.

I had the think fast about type sizes, extending or shrinking the headline to fit the page without too much just white space.

This was just for a weekly, so I didn't face the pressures of copy editors setting up dailies, sometimes (in the past) with multiple editions.

I actually agree with dhogaza this time; you may well be asking for more than is humanly possible.

Steve Bloom said...

Even given that practical restriction (note that it's irrelvant to on-line publications), it would fix much of the problem if a practice were to be made of reporters suggesting one or more headlines, with editors instructed to not depart too much from the sense of those.

dhogaza said...

"I actually agree with dhogaza this time; you may well be asking for more than is humanly possible."

I wasn't aware you disagree with me all the rest of the time ...

Anyway, they don't use Linotypes any more, so the profession *could* change. But the reality is that technology changes faster than institutionalized infrastructure all the time, and it's not unique to journalism.

Look at science trying to figure out how to adapt to a world where publishing is essentially free, and the sale of paper copies of journals at high prices to university libraries and the like is increasingly difficult to sustain.

dhogaza said...

"Even given that practical restriction (note that it's irrelvant to on-line publications)"

In theory, not in practice for many news sites.


The same kind of fixed-format, point size and width crap that rules the printed page is also present in the mainstream online versions of print journalism.

"it would fix much of the problem if a practice were to be made of reporters suggesting one or more headlines, with editors instructed to not depart too much from the sense of those."

I've written for magazines and one daily, in the past (not frequently, but I have done so), and would always give headlines (and was actually encouraged to do so for the one weekly column I worked on).

Ignored, as likely as not.

Really, in the newspaper world, the deadline pressure was, in the past, at a level most people don't deal with. The presses have to roll, the output bundled and delivered to outlets, etc. Customers aren't interested in hearing "oh, you're morning paper didn't arrive in time for coffee before work, but only after you left for the office, because some reporter objected to the head attached to their article." They want their friggin paper on the porch before they're sitting down for their coffee (and frankly, I'm the same today).

The newspaper business simply doesn't work that way.

Michael Tobis said...

There really is no such thing as the news "paper" business anymore, so it hardly matters,

But it really is the case that the urgency of the daily news cycle systematically filters out sustainability stories.

My wife went to see renowned journalist and PBS anchor Jim Lehrer speak at UT a couple years back. He relayed that he had made a rookie error by devoting a whole segment to the draw-down of the Ogallala aquifer. He told it as humor: "So I asked the governor when the water would run out. He said forty or fifty years." The audience laughed ruefully along with the chastened Mr. Lehrer.

But he was right the first time!

Andy F said...

Wait, was the end of agriculture on the high plains funny because it was so far out in the future?

Work in geosciences does funny things to your perspectives.

mike roddy said...

People overlook the extent to which news organizations are commercial enterprises, receiving advertising dollars from the oil, auto, and chemical industries. That's why science writing is bad, and why we see airheads like the NYT's John Tierney working as science reporters.

Business influence is worse for headlines. Editors get promoted because they fit the publisher's business goals. Truthtelling, rebellious reporters get fired and end up on blogs.

Anonymous said...


"[Customers] want their friggin paper on the porch before they're sitting down for their coffee (and frankly, I'm the same today)."

But when was the last time a customer cancelled his subscription to a newspaper because its headlines were using too much white space or some such? ('Argh, why does this newspaper leave so much unused space all over the place? That's it, I'm switching to Some Other Daily Times!')

On the contrary, there are customers who complain about headlines that are misleading or just plain wrong.

So why are people still spending so much time solving packing problems, when doing so has little to do with customer satisfaction or message integrity?

I think it's due more to entrenched institutional idiocy rather than any so-called 'market forces'. And I think you'll agree.

-- frank

Marion Delgado said...

You're getting what the market you seem to be so enchanted with lately provides. And the practices you're deriding aren't just tradition - they're money-saving division of labor, just like Adam Smith and Henry Ford ordered. And it's not all a holdover from typesetting technology, either. Headlines are supposed to grab attention and not be repetitive and get people to read stories. That doesn't change with the pixels.

And none of this shows any literacy on you guys' part about the journalism Business with a capital B.

Journalism is mingled with PR and advertising now at universities as "Communication."

Is there any process to divert grants to journalists who do good science reporting? Do scientists routinely praise good science reporting? Do people steer people away from the bad sources? I doubt any of that happens.

My personal experience doing science reporting is that your editor/managing editor/publisher regards it as an unprofitable favor to the reporter to LET them do an occasional in-depth science story. The amount of time prepping is just not profitable - you could fill the same number of column inches with something else with less prep time that would get read as much, or more. And radio is worse, because you usually have to have newspaper stories to base radio off of.

WV: "death" - what is this, Blogger Tarot?

Marion Delgado said...

I want to add that Michael Tobis, Carl Zimmer and "Eli Rabett" are doing their bit for science communication - but they're outliers. it's our science educational and funding system that's broken, and the market has zero interest in meeting this need - it's not a need of the people who make decisions in the market. Chris Mooney's still correct - people are still being trained for research positions there won't be any grants to fund, especially if it doesn't involve immediately patentable stuff. Meanwhile, science journalism is vanishing. The science community should fund something like the AP, perhaps, and science journalism should be as respectable as research science, or it's never going to get good people.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Bad science reporting is pre-political. I once winced at a story about a dinosaur that was "100 ft tall", when they obviously meant it was that long.