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How scientific journalism is, and should be done

I wrote in my last links page, “Martin Robbins at the Guardian blog site spoofed science journalism with a “meta” entry. Here, he explains why and what to draw from it.”

A scientist friend asked me my opinion. Never one to hold back, and as readers know, I have a certain distaste for the very industry of journalism, I responded thus:

It’s an attack, fully justified, on “the view from nowhere” as Jay Rosen calls it, that many journalists seem to think they must adopt, a kind of overweening neutrality that leads them to what is sometimes called “he said, she said” journalism. Got a scientist who claims that vaccines are harmless? Go find someone, anyone, to provide you with a contrary view. Doesn’t matter if there is no actual controversy.

Now, we all know there are controversies in science. You may have inadvertently been involved in one or two yourself. But for a journalist to report this involves understanding the state of the science, and journalists – even science journalists – rarely know these in any detail. So they fall back on the default approach of modern journalism: make the story.

There are about (on my estimate) 20 narratives that any journalistic reportage must fit into, and if you can’t fit a report into one of them, it isn’t news. Science journalism has about four:

  • breakthrough (cancer will soon be cured),
  • overturning the old view (everything we knew was wrong),
  • bad science (frankenfoods, fraud etc),
  • opposition to cultural views (“ivory tower”, esp. against religion).

Anything else is just political reportage: government fails to fund science, some research wastes money, internecine politics between scientists, etc.

So I think that Robbins’ attack (which was one of those “meta” pieces where instead of doing the writing, you describe what the writing is; it’s quite funny) was fully justified.

Postscript: This is not an attack on all science journalists. Some, such as Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, and so on, do a very good job within the limitations of not writing academic treatises. The industry, not the practitioners, is what needs reforming, which is what I take Robbins to be demonstrating.


  1. Unfortunately, the job of the journalist today is not to report the truth. Rather, the job of the journalist is to sell advertising space. This is a most unfortunate development and, in my opinion, one that is harmful to society.

  2. My own pet hate is what I refer to as the ‘soundbite science’ article, in which the journalist rehashes a PR release for some company or organisation masquerading as a bit of ‘fun’ science. A scientist has usually been roped in (i.e. paid) to come up with some media-friendly results or mathematical ‘formula’ concerning the company/organisation’s area of interest. The real reason for the study is usually buried away in the fourth or fifth paragraph, where the journalist explains that it was ‘sponsored by’ the company/organisation in question.

    • Bob O'H Bob O'H

      I developed a formula that shows when these sorts of story should be published. There’s even a theorem that shows how long it will take Ben Goldacre to complain about the formula. Unfortunately I can’t find anyone to sponsor the work.

  3. I have to agree entirely with Neil Rickart:

    “Unfortunately, the job of the journalist today is not to report the truth. Rather, the job of the journalist is to sell advertising space.”

    There is no fact, or infomation…just merely rumour and sensationalism. It’s the modern media beast.

  4. John Harshman John Harshman

    I think there’s at least a fifth kind of story, perhaps less harmful than the other straight jackets: “Isn’t that odd?”. You can get a story out of a new and weird discovery, even if it isn’t a breakthrough or doesn’t overthrow everything we knew. Consider the fish-tongue-eating shrimp, for example. Fossil finds of “the oldest [insert taxon” are similar; though they’re often hyped as breakthroughs, they aren’t always. Still, extra bonus points if you can arrange to prove that Darwin was wrong. Again.

  5. I think you’d find that the first two of your categories — “breakthrough” and “overturning the old view” — often do not orginate with either the reporter or editor, but with the press release from the researchers and their institution. And the researchers are often involved, as the PR department for their institution pushes them to come up with angles they can push to get more widespread interest in the work. I’ve seen this process from the inside, and it’s something — a big temptation — that has to be resisted. And that resistance has to come from the researchers, who know far more about their own work than their institution’s PR department.

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