Root Privileges

Disagree as a matter of principle

Let the arrogators write

Bora Zivkovic, the former ‘blogfather’ of the Scientific American blogs network, said it best: journalists are temporary experts. Reporters have typically got a few days to write something up on which scientists have been working for years, if not decades. They flit from paper to paper, lab to lab; without the luxury of a beat, they often cover condensed matter physics one day, spaceflight the next, ribosomes the day after, and exomoons after that. Over time, they’re the somewhat-jacks of many trades, but there’s only one that they’re really trying to master: story-telling.

The editors they work with to have these stories published are also somewhat-jacks in their own right. Many of them will have been reporters, probably still are from time to time, and further along the road (by necessity) to understanding what will get stories read.

However, I’ve often observed a tendency among many of the scientists I work with to trivialise these proficiencies, as if they’re products of a lesser skill, a lesser perseverance even. There have even been one or two so steeped in the notion that science reporters and editors wouldn’t have jobs if they hadn’t undertaken their pursuits of truths that they treat editors with naked disdain. Some others are less contemptuous but still aver that journalists are at best adjacent to reality, and lower on some imagined hierarchy as a result.
If these claims don’t immediately seem ludicrous to you, then you’re likely choosing to not see why.

First: If a person in any profession believes that it’s easy to reach the masses, and cites Facebook and Twitter as proof, then it’s not that they don’t know how journalism works. It’s that they don’t know what journalism is as well as are professing ignorance of their personal definition being wrong. The fourth estate is responsible for keeping democracy functional. It’s not as simple as putting all available information in the public domain or breaking complex ideas down to digestible tidbits. It’s about figuring out how “write a story people will like reading” is tied to “speak truth to power”.

Second: I’m not going to say reporting and editing engage the mind as much as science does because I wouldn’t know how I’d go about proving such a thing. Axiomatically, I will say that those who believe reporting and editing are somehow ‘softer’ therefore ‘lesser’ pursuits (machismo?) or that they’re less engaging/worthwhile are making the same mistake. There’s no way to tell. There’s also no admission of the alternative that editors and reporters – by devoting themselves to deceptively simple tasks like stating facts and piecing narratives together – are able to find greater meaning, agency and purpose in them than the scientist is able to comprehend.

Third: This tendency to debase communication and its attendant skills is bizarre considering the scientist himself intends to communicate (and it’s usually a ‘him’ that’s doing the debasing). If I had to take a guess, I’d say these beliefs exist because they’re proxies for a subconscious reluctance to share the power that is their knowledge, and the expression of such beliefs a desperate attempt to exert control over what they may believe is rightfully theirs. There’s some confidence in such speculation as well because I actually know one scientist who believes scientists attempting to communicate their work are betraying their profession. But that story’s for another day.

All these reasons together is why I’d ask the arrogators to write more for news outlets instead of asking them to stop. It’s not that we get to cut off their ability to reach the masses – that could worsen the sense of entitlement – but that we’ve an opportunity to chamfer their privilege upon the whetstone of public engagement. This after all is one of the purposes of journalism. It works even when we’re letting the powerful write instead of the powerless because its strength lies as much in the honest conduct of it as its structure. The plain-jane conveyance of information is a very small part of it all.