Rebooting science journalism -mixed-metaphor notes on the upcoming yakfest


Tomorrow I fly to North Carolina for the ScienceOnline 2010 conference, or unconference, where on Saturday I will sit down with Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, John Timmer, and anyone else who squeezes into the room, to talk about rebooting science journalism. The obvious assumption behind the topic (if I can return to the titular metaphor) is that science journalism is such a mess that it needs not just cleaning up, but a wholesale restart. But "rebooting" is probably too mild a term for what most people think is needed; if we're to stick with digital metaphors, I'd to say the assumption is more that we need an entirely new OS, not a restart of this one.

At this point, frankly, the shape of that discussion is as obscure to us as cloud-covered terrain. We'll be discussing how to navigate terrain we can't yet see, and carrying, with great unease, crappy maps that we know are based on questionable reports and outdated geography. "Here be dragons!" seems the only certain thing on them. And as Jay Rosen likes to point out, the title on the map -- "science journalism" -- is a term that, while it seemed to have a coherent definition five years ago, now seems more vague and inexact and arbitrary with each passing day.*`

So how to think or talk about this coherently?

My main worry, other than making a fool of myself on uStream, is that the discussion will devolve into stale arguments about MSM v blogosphere, or who can do this best. Those were necessary for a time. if nothing else, such arguments could people on either side to identify which aspects of those approaches were (and are) most valuable and which less so. But for me, anyway, that argument no longer suggests much new about where we should go or what we need to take to get there. As I've said elsewhere, I think the question is not which model, MSM or the current blogosphere/online community, can better serve the functions of "science journalism," whatever that is, but what sort of structures and communities and practices and values and principles we need to keep in mind as we walk into the fog.

This is one reason I think it helpful -- if I may switch metaphors yet again, which I can, because it's my blog -- to think not so much of rebooting (much as I like that shorthand verb) as adapting in an evolutionary sense. Ed, Carl, John and I have already discussed this some amongst ourselves, and Ed (quick off the block, that Ed) in public: Ask not whom to kill, but how sci journalism and/or sci journalists might adapt to a new environment. This lets us assume we all need to evolve (or be replaced by newly emergent life forms), just as the institutions of current science journalism must. it replaces attacks and defensive counterattacks with more constructive thought about the traits that good journalists, journalism (as in writing, not the institutions thereof), and institutional/social/communication structures need to have if we are to reliably produce good writing about science that gets widely read.

More later, and at the session, of course -- which will be livestreamed, god save us, via both SecondLife and uStream, from 10:15 to 11:30 on Saturday.


⢠When we say journalism, do we mean writing that appears in a newspaper or news magazine? Do we mean more or less disinterested or "objective" writing that draws on conventional reporting activities such as interviews and the perusal of documents? Do we mean the larger institutional infrastructures that are traditionally supported these activities -- newspaper and media companies?

⢠Here's the program description:

Rebooting Science Journalism in the Age of the Web - Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, John Timmer, and David Dobbs

Description: Our panel of journalist-blogger hybrids - Carl Zimmer, John Timmer, Ed Yimmer Yong, and David Dobbs- will discuss and debate the future of science journalism in the online world. Are blogs and mainstream media the bitter rivals that stereotypes would have us believe, or do the two sides have common threads and complementary strengths? How will the tools of the Internet change the art of reporting? How will the ongoing changes strengthen writing about science? How might these changes compromise or threaten writing about science? In a world where it's possible for anyone to write about science, where does that leave professional science journalists? And who actually are these science journalists anyway?

⢠Bora Z recently put together a big juicy list of posts on this general subject.

More like this

Agreed that any sort of finger pointing about the failings of any community is pretty pointless. But I'm not convinced that evolution is the best metaphor for what we (or at least i) would like to see happen. To a certain extent, the economic and communication environment will be a selective force/create niches/etc., but we can also choose how we respond to these challenges and opportunities.

To be more concrete - in an ideal world, we could come to some agreement about what functions we'd like to see science journalism perform, and then decide how best to accomplish those via whatever opportunities are out there in the new journalism landscape. But, with 4 people on the panel, will we even agree about the function of science journalism?

My comment is more from the point of view of the general public; the educated consumer, not the writer.

You can start with how science works, when it does, and with the massive failures in recent years.

Many, many writers complain about the public - they just don't understand how science works.

Yet there is no effort, or none that I have noticed, to continually educate the public about the scientific.

Also, most science writers seem happy to ignore the problems presented by exactly conflicting views on subjects.

Likewise mostly ignore and never mention the personal fraud, or collusion with Big Pharma, or ghostwriting, and other messy unpleasantnesses which have degraded so-called science writing to the point that the general public no longer believes much of what anyone writes.

Cynical? You bet. For very good reasons? You bet.

Science writing could have incredibly good uses. But the proliferation of blogs has created an army of aggregators (and this is one of them). Lots of quotes, snips and references; not much original content.

Long-form writing and serious investigations are nearly gone. Excerpts from someone's book-in-the-works (like the upcoming orchid) may be the only source of lengthy writing.

Good uses for science writing? Ask me about that personally.

In the meantime, stop reporting without thought or any of the history of the concept, on every "new" story on all of the news channels and in the various remaining newspapers and magazines. Stop acting like attention-deficit sheep, following each press release for five minutes until the next one is issued.

If you think an idea is worth reporting on at all, then report more than once -- do a follow-up. With some thinking added in.

Am I exasperated? You bet. Do I have good reasons? You bet.

By P. Jennings (not verified) on 13 Jan 2010 #permalink

I think the MSM and blogs are really just re-enforcing one another at this point, at least in the developed wi-fi-enabled world. Audiences are engaging with online media in very specific ways, finding the info they want, even as broadly-seen media stories cross nearly everyone's radar.

Bloggers have much more freedom to explore ideas and take risks, but MSM stories carry more weight. Those of you who stand at the intersection of the two have provided some of the most interesting multi-platform exploration of ideas and issues. We're entering an age when journalists are people who can carry audiences with them across platforms.