Almost a year ago, Nature published a set of opinion articles, including Science journalism: Toppling the priesthood by Toby Murcott. I did not react at the time, but JR Minkel and Jessica Palmer did and got some interesting responses in the comments. The article was brought to my attention by Gozde Zorlu who is ruminating on the same ideas and will have a blog post about it shortly (and I will let you know when it’s up).
The article covers a lot of ground and has many layers. I finally read it and these are just some really quick thoughts, just to provoke discussion…..
First, Murcott is complaining about being essentially a lay-person outside of his own domain in biochemistry. That is true. Science reporters who don’t have any scientific background are in an even worse shape – they definitely have a handicap, but not something they cannot overcome with years of study. But for this, they need to have the freedom to focus on only one area of science, e.g., Andy Revkin focusing on climate, Carl Zimmer on evolution, etc. I wrote a little bit about this before.
If you have spent some time in science before moving into journalism, you understand that years of total immersion in the field are necessary to fully understand it – I mean a narrow field! And not just the purely scientific information, but also historical, philosophical and social context, who-is-who in the field, relative strengths of various hypotheses, etc. You understand that it is impossible for a single person to gain a full understanding of every area of science.
– Can you play violin?
– Sure, of course
– Have you ever played?
– No. But it looks easy, I’m sure I can do it.
This is how non-scientists often think about science. This includes some journalists, until they get started on science reporting and realize that it’s not as easy as it looks. But their editors do not grok it. Editors think of ‘science’ as a single thing – there is a sports-guy and a fashion-guy and a science-guy in the newsroom and they get assignments accordingly. Which means that the poor science reporter has to report on everything from cosmology to math to medicine to ecology with no time to actually study these areas sufficiently to understand them. Of course they get nervous and exhausted and touchy… ;-)
But in the era where newsrooms are firing in-house journalists and relying more and more on freelancers, this is an opportunity for freelance journalists to put a stake into a particular territory: specialize in one field and refuse to write stories outside it. That way, a journalist who has become, over years of study and reporting, an expert in field A, will only report on A, will be on rolodexes (I guess not virtual but real physical ones) of every editor in the country/world for stories on A and will be asked all the time by everyone to cover A. And will do it really well. Each editor will have a list of experts on A, B, C and every other area of science. With specialization, biochemists will not have to risk showing off their ignorance of astronomy, media organizations will know they have all topics covered by the best of the best, and the general quality of reporting science will increase.
I am not sure I totally agree with this last point. Because we are entering a period when science needs to break apart the silos that separate different disciplines in order to examine the complex problems facing us. It seems to me that producing only journalists who understand one thing will recreate these same silos.
There needs to be good generalists also who can write about a wide variety of science. Just as there have been great researchers who could work in a wide variety of fields, similarly there need to be writers who can successfully synthesize a wide range of knowledge.
Otherwise we end up with a lot of analysts who can break things down but view synthesists who can pull the threads all together.