A false union in science journalism

The body of a dirty car jutting out of the side of a building, as if it flew into the building and crashed.
Credit: Conol Samuel/Unsplash

At what point does a journalist become a stenographer? Most people would say it’s when the journalist stops questioning claims and reprints them uncritically, as if they were simply a machine. So at what point does a science journalist become a stenographer? You’ll probably say at the same point – when they become uncritical of claims. I disagree: I believe the gap between being critical and being non-critical is smaller when it comes to science journalism simply because of the nature of its subject.

The scientific enterprise in itself is an attempt to arrive at the truth by critiquing existing truths in different contexts and by simultaneously subtracting biases. The bulk of what we understand to be science journalism is aligned with this process: science journalists critique the same material that scientists do as well, even when they’re following disputes between groups of scientists, but seldom critique the scientists’ beliefs and methods themselves. This is not a distinction without a difference or even a finer point about labels.

One might say, “There aren’t many stories in which journalists need to critique scientists and/or their methods” – this would be fair, but I have two issues on this count.

First, both the language and the narrative are typically deferential towards scientists and their views, and steer clear of examining how a scientist’s opinions may have been shaped by extra-scientific considerations, such as their socio-economic location, or whether their accomplishments were the product of certain unique privileges. Second, at the level of a collection of articles, science journalists who haven’t critiqued science will likelier than not have laid tall, wide bridges between scientists and non-scientists but won’t have called scientists, or the apparatuses of science itself, out on their bullshit.

One way or another, a science journalism that’s uncritical of science often leads to the impression that the two enterprises share the same purpose: to advance science, whether by bringing supposedly important scientific work to the attention of politicians or by building the public support for good scientific work. And this impression is wrong. I don’t think that science journalists have an obligation to help science, and I also don’t think that science journalists should.

As it happens, science journalism is often treated differently than, say, journalism that’s concerned with political or financial matters. I completely understand why. But I don’t think there has been much of an effort to flip this relationship to consider whether the conception and practice of science has been improved by the attention of science journalists the way the practices of governance and policymaking have been improved by the attention of those reporting on politics and economics. If I was a wagering man, I’d wager ‘no’, at least not in India.

And the failure to acknowledge this corollary of the relationship between science and science journalism, leave alone one’s responsibility as a science journalist, is to my mind a deeper cause for the persistence of both stenographic and pro-science science journalism in some quarters. I thought to write this down when reading a new editorial by Holden Thorpe, the editor of Science. He says here:

It’s not just a matter of translating jargon into plain language. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson at the University of Pennsylvania stated in a recent article, the key is getting the public to realize that science is a work in progress, an honorably self-correcting endeavor carried out in good faith.

Umm, no. Science is a work in progress, sure, but I have neither reason nor duty to explain that the practice of science is honourable or that it is “carried out in good faith”. (It frequently isn’t.) Granted, the editorial focuses on communicators, not journalists, but I’d place communicators on the journalism side of the fence, instead of on the science side: the purposes of journalists and communicators deviate only slightly, and for the most part both groups travel the same path.

The rest of Thorpe’s article focuses on the fact that not all scientists can make good communicators – a fact that bears repeating if only because some proponents of science communication tend to go overboard with their insistence on getting scientists to communicate their work to a non-expert audience. But in restricting his examples to full-blown articles, radio programmes, etc., he creates a bit of a false binary (if earlier he created a false union): that you’re a communicator only if you’ve produced ‘packages’ of that size or scope. But I’ve always marvelled at the ability of some reporters, especially at the New York Times‘ science section, to elicit some lovely quotes from experts. Here are three examples:

This is science communication as well. Of course, not all scientists may be able to articulate things so colourfully or arrive at poignant insights in their quotes but surely there are many more scientists who can do this than there are scientists who can write entire articles or produce engaging podcasts. And a scientist who allows your article to say interesting things is, I’m sure you’ll agree, an invaluable resource. Working in India, for example, I continue to have to give reporters I commission from extra time to file their stories because many scientists don’t want to talk – and while there are many reasons for this, a big and common one is that they believe communication is pointless.

So overall, I think there needs to be more leeway in what we consider to be communication, if only so it encourages scientists to speak to journalists (whom they trust, of course) instead of being put off by the demands of a common yet singular form of this exercise, as well as what we imagine the science journalist’s purpose to be. If we like to believe that science communication and/or journalism creates new knowledge, as I do, instead of simply being adjacent to science itself, then it must also craft a purpose of its own.

Featured image credit: Conol Samuel/Unsplash.

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