Friday, August 27, 2010

How bad is mainstream science reporting?

Zoë Corbyn has a good feature in the Times Higher Education Supplement on the state of science journalism. It's a very interesting read, and does a good job of surveying the various positions people take on the quality of science journalism. I'm neither going to summarize Corbyn's article nor comment on all of it, but I do want to make a point about the clash of values between journalists and scientists. It will help if you've read the article before continuing reading here...

Ok, welcome back. Here is the bit that I want to comment on:
[Andy] Williams attributes much of the bad feeling that exists to a "disparity of interests". The "news values" that drive journalists - such as the need for conflict and newness - are very different from the values and motivations of scientists.
"Scientists don't understand that it is not the job of journalism to be a science communicator. It is the job of journalism to tell a story to sell a paper or gain a bigger audience: that is a basic fact of life, but it's also the root of a lot of bad feeling.
"So many of the things that scientists complain about in the reporting of science stem from the fact that information in the news media is not primarily for the public good. It is about turning information into a commodity to be sold in the market. That is the cause of most of the problems in one way or another ... I don't think scientists will ever like what the media do: they have a different set of motivations."
This strikes me as exactly right. But here is my question: how do scientists and those who care about science communication influence the media's values? Assuming we science-boosters care about truth and accuracy above all else, and the media cares about commercial interests first and then only about accuracy, how can we nudge mainstream journalists in our desired direction? Why, by making it in their commercial interest to be accurate! And, it seems to me, people like Ben Goldacre are doing an excellent job of doing exactly that. Naming and shaming bad science journalism affects the reputation, and thus market position, of the newspapers thus named and shamed (and possibly even the employability of the journalists). Were it to be generally realized, for example, that one should never ever trust the Telegraph's science reporting (especially not Richard Alleyne's), its reputation would take (something of) a hit, and will thus affect its commercial interests. It may even make editors think twice about giving sports journalists a science gig.

What I'm saying, in other words, is that an occasional pistol-whipping (what Jeremy Laurance accused Goldacre of) is one way for those of us who care about truth and accuracy to make the mainstream media care more about truth and accuracy. (By the way, see Goldacre's response to Laurance). There are, of course, other ways of improving the media's accuracy, but naming and shaming (along with more constructive criticism, of course) is one excellent way.

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