Science Reporters Need to Bark More
“Cheerleader or watchdog?” That’s the title of this week’s editorial in Nature1 opening a feature on science journalism. Science reporters are an aid to scientists, the editors said, but not just when they convey their findings to the public or help shape public understanding on matters of policy. They are also an aid when they are skeptical:
And a minority, moving beyond perceived self-interest, will point to the deeper value of journalism, which is to cast a fair but sceptical eye over everything in the public sphere – science included. This kind of scrutiny is easy for researchers to applaud when a news report questions dodgy statistics, say, or dubious claims about uncertainties in evolution. It is not so easy when the story takes a critical look at sloppy animal-research practices, overblown claims about climate change or scientists’ conflicts of interest. But such examinations are to the benefit of the enterprise as a whole: society needs to see science scrutinized as well as regurgitated if it is to give science its trust, and journalists are an essential part of that process.
Apparently skepticism of evolution is not permitted. The rest of the editorial concerned ways scientists can become more involved with journalism. Other articles in the special section dealt with issues surrounding the new media (Facebook, Twitter and other internet venues). Toby Murcott (a journalist with a PhD in science) discussed the tendency among reporters to just regurgitate the press releases.2 A cartoon in the article lampoons a reporter bowing in the presence of an angelic scientist. That role turns the reporter into “a priest, taking information from a source of authority and communicating it to the congregation” (see authority in the Baloney Detector). He said,
This perception is reinforced when you compare our role with that of other journalists. Political journalists, for example, take an active part in the political debate. They produce expert commentary on the subtleties of the political process, highlighting strengths, weaknesses and potential pitfalls of policy ideas. They interview politicians as equals, challenging them to explain their ideas and, crucially, picking them up on inconsistencies, contradictions and mistakes.
These journalists are active participants in the process of knowledge creation in a way that science journalists cannot be, given the qualifications needed to act as an equal in scientific debate. Although science news reporting can influence science funding and research priorities, science journalists are not players in the scientific process. Again this is like a priest, who has little or no effect on the activities of the deity itself and who is not actually needed for the deity to continue.
The ‘priesthood’ model of science journalism needs to be toppled….
How to topple it? One important way, Murcott explained, would be “if scientists helped to unmask the very human process through which science is produced and reviewed, thus dismantling their church-like roles as unquestionable authorities.” In addition, reporters need to take the time to get better informed and “be able to interrogate and be critical when necessary, and not feel intimidated by those we are interviewing” (cf. next entry commentary, 06/25/2009). He said science journalism should not just be restricted to sharing the latest ooh-aah stories and calling everything a “breakthrough” (an overused word) or a “gripping story.” He said, “Genuine public awareness of science, however, also includes an understanding of how scientific knowledge is crafted.” Scientists know all about this. “The broader public deserves to know too.”
One other entry ran with the projection theme of cheerleaders vs watchdogs.3 Boyce Rensberger, a reporter with 32 years experience with outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post, even included cartoons along the theme: one reporter barking at a surprised scientist, and another reporter with pompons cheering him along. Rensberger summarized the history of how science journalism has progressed from cheerleader to watchdog since the beginning of the 20th century. Up through the 1940s, he said, reporters often felt it was their job to (1) translate scientific jargon for the masses, and (2) play priest and preacher:
More than that, according to Bruce Lewenstein, a historian of science journalism at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, the handful of science journalists at US newspapers in the 1930s and 1940s believed that it was their job to persuade the public to accept science as the salvation of society (B. V. Lewenstein Public Underst. Sci. 1, 45�68; 1992). This was a vestige of the Progressive Era in American history that spanned the 1890s to the 1920s, in which intellectuals of all stripes believed that society was perfectible and that the wonders of science and technology would lead civilization towards this ideal.
Reporters formed professional associations like those of the scientists (especially the National Association of Science Writers, or NASW). NASW members presented themselves as elite professionals and convinced the scientists to talk only to them. “Thus began what I call the ‘Gee-Whiz Age’ of science reporting, in which the emphasis was on the wonders of science and respect for scientists, rather than on any analysis of the work being done or any anticipation of its effects on society.” Reporters created an aura of “the joy of science for its own sake”.
The relationship of “trust and respect” took a jolt after the Manhattan Project and the atom bomb. Another jolt came when Rachel Carson took on the miracle pesticides scientists created in her book, Silent Spring (1962). Rensberger continued his historical narrative tracing the critical tack reporters took in the 1970s – the “watchdog age” when exposes of nuclear reactor safety problems and stories about the adverse effects of technology became more common. A brief boom in science journalism occurred from 1978 to 1987 when science magazines and science sections in newspapers surged, then withered.
Now we are in the Digital Age. The New Media are grabbing the market long held by traditional media outlets. With the change has come a new openness to scrutinize the pontifications of the scientific institutions. “Science journalism has moved from working for the glory of the scientific establishment to taking back its independence and exercising a new responsibility to the public,” Rensberger said. That can be good, but with traditional sources withering, should scientists take their message to the public directly via the Web? That can embed an agenda with the message. “It is becoming increasingly difficult for readers to tell which sources are disinterested and which have an axe to grind.” Here was this seasoned reporter’s concluding advice: “If science journalists are to regain relevance to society, not only must they master the new media, they must learn enough science to analyse and interpret the findings – including the motives of the funders. And, as if that were not enough, they must also anticipate the social impacts of potential new technologies while there is still time to make a difference.”
1. Editorial, “Cheerleader or watchdog?”, Nature 459, 1033 (25 June 2009) | doi:10.1038/4591033a.
2. Toby Murcott, “Science journalism: Toppling the priesthood,” Nature 459, 1054-1055 (25 June 2009) | doi:10.1038/4591054a.
3. Boyce Rensberger, “Science journalism: Too close for comfort,” Nature 459, 1055-1056 (25 June 2009) | doi:10.1038/4591055a.
We wish to thank Nature for justifying the existence of Creation-Evolution Headlines. Other than the Editorial hit-and-run sideswipe at those who report “dubious claims about uncertainties in evolution,” which our astute readers surely saw right through, most of the opinions expressed in this feature were congruent with analyses we have been making for almost nine years: that the major science reporting sites often act like obsequious, fawning toadies for the Darwin Party Establishment. They regurgitate undigested press releases and fail to ask the kinds of hard questions their colleagues in the Beltway throw at conservative politicians (not at liberals, because there is an unmistakable double standard, especially now, with the mainstream media absolutely euphoric over Obama). “The ‘priesthood’ model of science journalism needs to be toppled,” Murcott said. Amen! Where can you find no-nonsense, bold, critical analysis of the claims emanating from the manufacturers of scientific “knowledge” in near real time? Right here – and, sadly, few places else.
The glimmer of hope from LiveScience today (next entry) and the expressions of disgust by journalists about the Missing Link hoopla last month (05/19/2009) need to be fanned into flame. Hug a reporter who finally gets it, that his or her job is to analyze and critique all truth claims, praising those who are praiseworthy, but unabashedly standing up to any human being, scientist or not, who thinks to tell us what we are, where we came from, and what we should be doing. The reporter should be shouting, “Prove it! Where is your evidence?” Sadly, reporters for a long time were delivering The Word from the authorities without question. The shabby record of Darwin-licking media that continues today shows there is still a long way to go. Hopefully after the next surge of Charlie worship in November, after the Origin 150th anniversary celebrations come and go, a period of clear thinking will become possible.
Did you catch the fact that Murcott and Rensberger described most science journalists as a priesthood? Did you pause to consider that these are the very reporters who present themselves as unbiased, secular reporters? Did you also notice that they said that scientific knowledge is “crafted,” not discovered, and that “knowledge creation” is the work of fallible human beings, not a church-like process of delivering pronouncements from unquestionable authorities as if they are the only people able to comprehend the objective facts of nature? Did you notice that they were complaining about the sad state of affairs in much of science journalism to this day? It should begin to dawn on you that having a Judeo-Christian worldview as a foundation is not the only position that could be described as religiously motivated
Breathes there a man with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, where did we come from? and how did this amazing universe come to be? Everybody cares about that question. Everybody has an answer to it, and a world view that answer is based on. Even if the answer is “I dunno” or “I don’t care” or “Nobody knows,” that’s an answer with a world view underlying it. So if you are being swayed by the DODO blogs (Darwin-Only, Darwin-Only) to believe Darwin-doubters alone are pushing a religious agenda, think about it. Who isn’t? Who is perfectly unbiased about origins in the media—or in the whole population of humans? The issue should not be anyone’s agenda, but the quality of their evidence and reasoning, and their ability to argue that evidence with sound rhetoric and logic. The evolutionists arrogate to themselves the aura of epistemic privilege due to their assumed tie-in with “science.” Anyone swayed by that has not been studying Darwinism for very long, nor philosophy of science, either.
The only ones you should distrust are those who pretend to be neutral – who fail to give you both sides, who misrepresent those with whom they disagree, who fail to reveal their biases, and fail to use critical thinking skills when analyzing the claims they are reporting. At CEH, you don’t have to take our word for anything. We give you internet-fast hot links to all the original sources. We are fiercely independent and intolerant of bluffing. We receive no funding from the government, scientific institutions, or technology companies. With our specialty on news related to origins, we do our best to separate the reporting from the commentary. We try to convey sufficient understanding of scientific and philosophical issues to report them accurately and stimulate your own critical thinking skills. We’ve got our watchdog Apollos to bark at any baloney he sniffs. We’re just doing what Nature said science journalism should be doing in this Digital Age. No membership in the NASW is required (and it would be a sin to follow in the footsteps of those self-serving sycophants). Hopefully, we have earned (see our Feedback column), and are continuing to earn with each new entry, your continuing trust and support.