Can blogging replace science journalism?

Francis Sedgemore, Friday 20 March 2009 at 22:10 UTC

In this week’s Nature is an article by senior reporter Geoff Brumfiel on the decline in science journalism and rise of blogging, and an accompanying editorial. The question asked is whether blogging can replace traditional science reporting.

One objection springs immediately to mind on reading these articles: the decline in science journalism is not universal, and may even be a particularly Anglo-American phenomenon. More research is required before we can make categorical statements about a general crisis in science journalism, but let’s assume for the moment that there is a problem with science journalism, and that this reflects the decline in so-called “mainstream media”.

With dwindling numbers of professional journalists under increasing workloads, there is a trend in the mainstream media – including, it must be said, among high profile and high-brow outlets – for journalists to uncritically rehash press releases issued by academic institutes and government departments. This is illustrated by Mark Henderson, science editor for The Times in London:

[I]f there’s a good press release and you’ve got four stories to write in a day, you’re going to take that short cut.”

On this subject Brumfiel also cites Science Media Centre director Fiona Fox, yet the irony here is that the centre is in large part a public relations outfit with a political agenda.

When I write science news reports as a journalist, I read peer-reviewed journal papers, interview research leaders, and seek out critical reaction from other scientists not involved with the work. All right and proper, you may be thinking. But this takes considerable time and effort, and it can result in several hours being spent on an article of no more than 500 words. As a freelancer that means I must continually watch the clock to ensure that the job remains economically viable.

If science journalists are rewriting press releases, what about bloggers? As you can see from this website, I blog as well as write professionally as a journalist. And, when I blog, I occasionally base my posts on press releases. With most academic journals I have, based on my credentials as a journalist, ready access to research papers, and in a few cases I can obtain these prior to publication under embargo rules. But rarely when blogging do I have the time necessary to study technical articles in as much depth as I do in my work as a journalist.

Interviewing papers authors for blog posts is also out of the question when my blog is but a humble, one-man effort with a low public profile. If I were (still) a research scientist, I certainly wouldn’t take kindly to armies of bloggers occupying my precious time with interviews for largely unread websites. With the more popular, multi-author blogs, the situation may be a little different, but I’m not convinced that they have much of a secure reader base.

Advertising-driven corporate science blogging is growing, and in some cases the results are impressive. Take the world’s two leading science journals, for example. Nature has embraced blogging, and one occasionally finds constructive discussion following articles published on that august journal’s website. But on that site I’ve also seen controversial topics such as evolution hijacked by organised groups of creationists, and the debate rapidly degenerate into farce.

Science Magazine, together with its parent body, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is largely dismissive of blogging. Such is their hostility to the medium that freelance journalists who blog have been expelled from the organisation’s database of accredited journalists, and thus no longer have access to embargoed news from North America. This anti-blogger discrimination puts freelance journalists at a competitive disadvantage.

Blogging may in financial terms be a loss leader, but it is also labour-intensive. Such is the nature of the technology and search engine rankings that writers must churn out words on a regular basis. And, in the case of the more popular blogs, editors must monitor and moderate the discussion. This takes time and often considerable financial resources.

In his Nature article, Brumfiel says that journalists are increasingly turning to blogs for story leads. Really? Well I’m certainly not one of them. I may now and then comment as a blogger on another blogger’s science-related post, but I will always turn to the source for journalistic pieces. Blogging has always been parasitical on the mainstream media, and I suspect that it will always be thus.

Brumfiel also remarks that the most successful websites are drawing “hundreds of thousands of visitors each month”. One should always take such claims with a large pinch of salt. Bloggers are notorious for inflating their site access statistics, and the numbers quoted are nowhere near as reliable as those for newspaper and magazine circulation.

Even if one accepts that some science blogs are popular, they are largely closed information ecosystems, and their value as public outreach initiatives is questionable. With a decline in mainstream journalism, the danger, according to Peter Dysktra, is that science news will be:

“…ghettoized and available only to those who choose to seek it out.”

Dykstra was an executive producer at CNN until his science, technology, environment and weather unit was closed down last year.

One successful science blog identified by Brumfiel is that of pharmaceutical industry researcher Derek Lowe. “In the Pipeline” is a very well-written blog, but here we have a classic example of a blogospheric closed ecosystem. Lowe’s writing is not journalism, and can never be so given the author’s declared affiliation. More genuinely independent sources of online science news and comment include the web magazines Wired and Seed.

Some science bloggers spend inordinate amounts of time slagging off journalists, and proclaiming that we would be better off without them. Yet an increasing number of these amateur scribblers are taking the mainstream media’s shilling.

Bora Zivkovic, author of “A Blog Around the Clock”, illustrates the fundamental difference between journalism and blogging:

“Bloggers don’t want to be journalists. I want to write on my blog whatever I want. I may write a post about a new circadian paper, but the next day eighty posts are about politics or what I ate for breakfast.”

At least Zivkovic goes on to acknowledge that there will always be a need for professional journalists covering science. Many bloggers are not so gracious, and for them science writing is at best a means of exercising their own egos, and at worst textual onanism.

Analysis and opinion writing is an integral part of journalism, but investigation and news reporting must remain at its core. This is what many bloggers fail to understand, preoccupied as they are with their personal interests and agendas. When writing professionally, one cedes authority to others who advise, direct and order changes to text. Just as a jobbing research scientist must act on the critical judgement of their peers when submitting papers to research journals.

Here is the view of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Blum, as quoted by Brumfiel:

“Science is like any other human enterprise. It’s human, it’s flawed, it’s filled with politics and ego. You need journalists, theoretically, to check those kind of things.”

And one last quote, this time from an anonymous journalist:

“It has been shocking to see the public come to view science news as a bulk commodity. Readers seem to make little or no distinction between professionally written reports from independent news organisations and promotional writing masquerading as news on various blogs and science ‘news’ websites.”

As for the original question, the answer is no, and blogging is contributing to the problem.

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