Telling tales…

by Jim Caryl

The following is an excerpt about the current interplay between science and the media, taken from an article in this week’s Nature by Colin Macilwain:

…thanks to the massive growth in public relations and to online media’s insatiable appetite for ‘content’, journalism in science, as in other spheres, has evolved into an ugly machine — called ‘churnalism’ by media-watcher Nick Davies and others. This machine delivers inexpensive and safe content, masquerading as news, to an increasingly underwhelmed public.

The machine prospers because it serves the short-term interests of its participants. Editors get coherent and up-to-date copy. Writers get bylines. Researchers, universities and funding agencies get clips that show that their work has had ‘impact’. And readers get snippets, such as how red or white wine makes you live longer or less long, to chat about at the water-cooler.

None of these groups is benefiting strategically from the arrangement. Science is being misrepresented as a cacophony of sometimes divergent but nonetheless definitive ‘findings’, each warmly accepted by colleagues, on the record, as deeply significant. The public learns nothing about the actual cut and thrust of the scientific process, and as a result is beginning to adopt a weary cynicism that can only rebound on science in the long run.

The thing I dislike about the issue of ‘churnaled’ factoids by some ‘stamp-collecting’ journalists (and uninventive bloggers) is their complete lack of apparent criticism, a sentiment echoed in the article. Such reports come across as cloyingly positive, but then this is to be expected of PR outputs from universities, societies and research institutes who obviously gloss over the likely criticism that the work encounters in peer-review. I’m not exactly looking for open detractors, or input from ‘fringe’ scientists who think the work is a load of baloney (in the measure of undue balance that an old school journalist may take), but I would like to hear about the context, limitations and realistic direction of the work being discussed. In short, a fuller, more rounded investigative piece, with input (and synthesis) from someone besides the original PR office.

I am a scientist, and I love reading about science, but I admit to a weary disinterest occasionally when faced with yet another science news snippet. Fortunately, unlike the general public, I have access to original published article; better still I have access to the letters and comments written to the journal regarding a specific article, and to sometimes in depth editorials or previews accompanying a milestone article. Faculty of 1000 is also an excellent source of expert opinions from distinguished scientists in the field, the sort of opinions that could be presented in more thoroughly investigative media reporting. In the absence of the above, I would recommend a good science blog write-up any day, or perhaps an article in NewScientist or The Scientist.

I’m tired of seeing university press-releases regurgitated in every form possible, mostly by syndication sites with no human intermediary, such that saturation (and annoyance) point is reached within hours of such a release. To re-iterate, more investigative reporting is required.

As Macilwain’s article finishes:

Andy Williams, Cardiff University’s journalism school, survey of science writers and editors identified widespread misgivings about growing workloads associated with multimedia reporting, the rise of public relations, ‘pack’ journalism (in which reporters are obliged to cover a story because their competitors will) and the lack of time for original research on stories.

It is hard, given the parlous financial state of newspapers and broadcasters, and the continued onslaught of the public-relations industry, to see what will reverse these alarming trends. One possible approach would be the unilateral abandonment, by writers and editors on influential publications, of the embargo system and the pack mentality that goes with it. Another would be far more willing and constructive engagement by scientists themselves in the public airing of the strengths, weaknesses and missteps that characterize scientific progress.

Thoughts?

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