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Futurity: The Future of Science Reporting?

October 28, 2009

Much has been made in recent years of the decline of newspapers in general and the slashing of science reporting budgets in particular. Earlier this year, our own Boston Globe eliminated it’s popular Health/science section, and other newspapers, even cable TV are fairing no better. Some scientists may not be unhappy with this turn of events, as attitudes ranging from ambivalent to downright hostile emerge over science reporters and newspapers misrepresenting, over playing or downright botching coverage of their research. Here’s a representative  attitude from the hostile camp:

How does this crap get published? How does it have a market in ‘journalism’? Its not just non-information. And its not just stupid. Its harmful.

So whats my point? Hmm. I guess that more scientists should open blogs and take a moment to write about cutting edge research, and the profession of pop-science/newspaper/magazine ‘science’ writer should either shape up, cut the fat from their ranks, or disappear.

I clearly like the idea of scientists themselves reporting on science (hence, this blog), but I’m not sure I buy the argument that this can replace traditional science journalism whole-sale. Enter Futurity.org, a site that presents “News from leading research universities.” This site seems like the best of both worlds – science reporting, but direct from the scientists themselves, right?

Not so fast: these “articles” are actually press-releases from the representative universities represented as unbiased reporting. Bob Garfield of NPR’s “On the Media” lays out the problem succinctly:

When we lose the journalism part of the reporting cycle on science, don’t we lose the skepticism and the arms-length relationship that we need to trust that which we are reading?

On the other hand, Garfield is revleived that

at a very minimum, Futurity does not fall prey to the temptations for oversimplification and overhype that so riddles the mainstream media’s coverage of health and science issues, and has for such a long time. These things are quite straightforward and very few of the “Cancer Cure?” question mark kind of headlines that we’ve come to expect.

But I’m not so sure. Within one week of watching the headlines from futurity, I saw “Wonder Drug May Treat Cancer, Addiction.” The research is straightforward and seems to show potential (in mice) to treat addiction, but can we trust unbiased reporting from an institution that heralds some preliminary data of a mouse model as a “Wonder drug?”

In addition to the roll of journalists providing context, part of the appeal of main-stream science coverage is that it brings the information to a wider audience. People reading a blog like this are likely to already be interested in science, but what about those whose only exposure might be while flipping over to the sports page?

the decline of science journalism is decried because it is declining in precisely those places where it has the most reach.

To be fair, bad science journalists would just copy press releases to avoid doing the work of understanding, so maybe it’s reasonable to go straight to the source without the illusion of a mediator. Hopefully, scientist bloggers will see when abuses occur and work to correct the record, but will anyone be paying attention?

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 3, 2009 3:25 pm

    I believe one of the exact reasons you have created this blog is because we need scientists willing to interpret their work and studies for the good of both other scientists and for the general public.

    (After all, in my opinion, the divide of specialization in science creates a prominent chasm between scientists, even in the same field in some cases. Though, of course, it is necessary…)

    So, when I read this article I hear my “heart” crying out for those specialists to reach out with their words and talk to our society themselves! Yes, we occasionally need interpreters, but if you are intelligent enough to be a specialist I would hope you have the ability to communicate sufficiently for an “everyday” person to comprehend at least the basics.

    Didn’t you ever play that childhood game “telephone” where all the kids sit in a circle and a statement travels through the whispers of kids until it gets back to where it began, and if you’re lucky actually is even somewhat related to the original?!
    What if it was only three kids… but the three kids didn’t speak the same language… science is like 1500 different f*cking languages! We can’t trust a journalist without ANY science background to be a science journalist, but we probably shouldn’t trust a physics journalist to report on bio either…

    I wholeheartedly support “scientists themselves reporting on science”!
    More power to http://masticatedscience.wordpress.com/!!

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