Science Journalism vs. Sports Journalism

Over at Backreaction, Bee takes up the eternal question of scientists vs. journalists in exactly the manner you would expect from a physicist: she makes a graph. Several of them, in fact.

It's generally a good analysis of the situation, namely that scientists and journalists disagree about how to maximize information transfer within the constraints of readership. That's a very real problem, and one I struggle with in writing the blog and books, as well. Lots of people will read content-free piffle, but if the goal is to convey good, solid science to as many people as possible, well, that's a tricky optimization problem. It's damnably difficult to determine exactly what level will work best, too-- conventional wisdom is that equations are death, but then, The Theoretical Minimum hit the New York Times bestseller list.

I wanted to pick up on something of a side issue, though, which is a comment Bee made about the contrast between science journalism and sports journalism:

One big assumption is that most readers have very little knowledge about the topic, which is why the readership curve peaks towards the low accuracy end. This is not the case for other topics. Think for example of the sports section. It usually just assumes that the readers know the basic rules and moves of the games and journalists do not hesitate to comment extensively on these moves. For somebody like me, whose complete knowledge about basketball is that a ball has to go into a basket, the sports pages aren't only uninteresting but impenetrable vocabulary. However, most people seem to bring more knowledge than that and thus the journalists don't hesitate assuming it.

Tom at Swans on Tea comments on this as well, and the book-in-progress uses a quote from Carl Sagan about baseball box scores to open a chapter about sports statistics. So this is another real and regularly noted problem.

I think the difference here is mostly one of frequency, though. That is, as I wrote a few years ago, the comparison between sports journalism and science journalism only looks bad when you think about common sports. If you look at more obscure sports, that are only regionally popular, the coverage for hard-core fans is just as inscrutable as anything scientists write. And if you find coverage of those sports in media outside their normal ranges, what you get looks a lot like science journalism-- lots of definitions of unfamiliar terms, repeating of basic information, etc.

And I think that's the key difference. If you don't know anything about sports, watching ESPN is bizarre and incomprehensible at first. But if you stick with it, and watch for a while, you can get up to speed pretty quickly, because there's so much of it. There are events in the major sports basically every day, and it doesn't take long to start to recognize patterns, and pick up the jargon from context.

Science journalism doesn't get that same advantage. Outside of special-interest magazines, the only place you can count on finding science stories on a regular basis is the Tuesday New York Times. And because that's a single once-a-week section, they can't do every science every week. It might be a month between stories about physics, and multiple months between stories about a particular subfield.

Which puts science more in the position of Olympic sports than basketball or football (whichever sport you want that term to refer to). If you watched coverage of curling in 2010 and again this year, odds are you got to see a basic "Here's how this weird sport works" promo at least once each year. And other than some upgrade in CGI technology, the 2014 explainer was probably virtually identical to the 2010 explainer, just like two particle physics stories from the same years. You can't assume familiarity with the terminology, because people don't have regular enough exposure to either curling or particle physics to get familiar with it.

So, the ultimate solution to the problem is just more coverage, more frequently. But then you run into the problem of trying to pay for the whole thing again...

Another possible solution, as Bee notes, is to do a multi-level explainer-- a really basic version of the story for people with no background knowledge, then a couple of more technical write-ups for people who know a bit more, and for near-experts. Tom is rightly skeptical that anything like this would be done by a current publication.

But there is a sense in which this is already being done, in that we have both general-interest media outlets (the Times, etc.) and specialist science publications at a variety of levels. For example, you would expect a story about a new physics result in Discover to be very general, with little assumed background, while something in Scientific American will be a little more advanced. Physics World will be still more detailed, while Physics Today will really only make sense to people who are physicists (though maybe not in the same subfield as the initial result). The hierarchy of stories exists already, and doesn't need additional expense to create it.

(There is also a parallel situation in sports-- that is, if you're reading the sports page of a daily newspaper, you'll find they assume a bit less background than ESPN, which assumes much less than a specialized publication about a specific sport. Hard-core football or basketball sites are about as readable to the casual fan as Physics Today is to the average Science Times reader.)

The problem is how to direct people to it. That is, how do you move a reader from the Science Times to Scientific American to Physics World? The Internet would seem to offer the ability to do this via links, but most media organizations regard links to other publications as slightly less desirable than painful and disfiguring disease. Any reader leaving the site is seen as lost forever, so they make it as difficult as possible to get anywhere else. Most of them won't even link to the source papers and/or press releases, which is maddening.

There ought to be an opening here for a sort of meta-journalism site, something that would aggregate and sort stories by their level of background, and present those links. But again, money is an issue-- how do you get readers to start seeking out that kind of service, in large enough numbers to fund the work of sorting and linking?


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One note that I couldn't fit into this in a graceful way: I do think there's been some change over time. Modern science journalism is fairly comfortable with the idea of a Bohr-type atom, for example, and doesn't go into great detail about that.

One of the many paper review copies I've received and not read is a collection of a hundred-odd years of science writing from the New York Times. It might be interesting to go through the physics stories in that, and look to see if there's a clear progression in the background knowledge they assume over the years. In my copious free time...

There wouldn't be any money producing a collection of science writings from the NYTimes. And two such places already exist regarding your metafilter: Reddit and

Is the change over time simply a result of science changing over time? I mean, 100 years ago a journalist would have to have a deep explanation of the Bohr-type atom simply because the model had just been invented. Today you don't need it because everyone has been taught it in grade school.

Conversely, 100 years ago (or so) journalists probably didn't need to go into great detail about the luminiferous aether theory - any reasonably well educated person would have been aware of it. Today, though, to discuss it in anything other than an aside you'd have to give a backgrounder on it, simply because it's no longer taught.

I think that's the key: you can't really expect the general public to have any more scientific knowledge than what they learned in elementary and high school. As science progresses, you change the curricula, but the people who've already graduated don't get the benefit. Science journalism lags as it has to deal with people whose last formal science instruction was 40 years ago, and anything that's been developed since is new and controversial to them.

Is the change over time simply a result of science changing over time?

That is certainly a factor. Twenty years ago, if I were describing how the aurora works to a layman, I would make an analogy to their TV screen, which in those days used cathode ray tubes. (Which is why TV sets in those days had depths comparable to the dimensions of the screen, so a 27" screen was considered huge.) That analogy wouldn't work today, because the younger members of my potential audience (who are spending way too much time on my lawn, natch) would have no idea what a CRT screen is.

But other changes also come into play. A hundred years ago, if your audience consisted of educated people, you could assume that they had some knowledge of Latin, so you wouldn't have to explain every Latin-derived word that came up in your story, and you could assume they knew how to form the appropriate plural. Today, few people learn Latin[1], and modern Latin-derived languages don't form plurals the way Latin did (Italian comes closest, but few Americans learn that language). So if recognizing a Latin plural form is important to understanding the story, you have to point it out.

[1]Or Greek, for that matter. Language evolution is at work here: people used to know that, e.g., "phenomena" was the plural of "phenomenon", but as much as using "phenomena" as a singular noun drives me nuts, I realize I'm fighting a losing battle.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 24 Feb 2014 #permalink

Couldn't finish reading that piece. Whether it concerns sports or science, the number one rule is: write in an interesting way, so your readers don't give up after two paragraphs. Great job!

By Funny how (not verified) on 24 Feb 2014 #permalink

When I think about how, as an avid sports fan, I've been able to make the progression from Sports Illustrated to ESPN to Football Outsiders, it's in part because writers from Football Outsiders have been able to make inroads into the the more mainstream sites, and that's made me aware that the more advanced and obscure sites exist. So ESPN runs articles from this site called Football Outsiders. Or the bio of a writer mentions that he used to be at Baseball Prospectus, and I check that out. (And yes, both of those sites are going to be mostly inscrutable to the casual fan.)

You know, some sports journalism on the blog level tries to do rigorous statistical analysis. Poo-poo it at your own peril.

By MobiusKlein (not verified) on 24 Feb 2014 #permalink

I'm not trying to run down sports journalism-- far from it. I actually have a chapter in the book-in-progress about the use of statistics in sports, and how if you understand what's going on with those, you're in a decent position to understand scientific statistics.

Sports punditry, now...

Clarification appreciated!

By MobiusKlein (not verified) on 25 Feb 2014 #permalink