It’s not a science journalism problem, it’s a journalism problem

Late last month, Martin Robbins wrote a fantastic spoof of science journalism for the Guardian’s website – This is a news website article about a scientific paper. In his subsequent commentary on the reaction to that spoof he wrote,

Science is all about process, context and community, but reporting concentrates on single people, projects and events … Hundreds of interesting things happen in science every week, and yet journalists from all over the media seem driven by a herd mentality that ensures only a handful of stories are covered. And they’re not even the most interesting stories in many cases.

As with this rest of his piece, it’s a thoughtful explanation of the problems science journalism runs into. However, this point is not simply one about science; it is about journalism more generally. It is the same issue in a different set of clothes as the one I talked about in The flaw in war reporting from Afghanistan,

“The kinetic stuff” (that is soldiers and shooting to you and me) dominates mainstream TV footage … Yet the big problem with such footage of frontline fighting dominating is that the situation in Afghanistan is about much more than only the frontline fighting. It is a wider military, economic, social, diplomatic and political issue.

So having reporting about Afghanistan in mainstream TV dominated by the kinetic stuff provided by journalists embedded on the front line for a couple of weeks is rather like trying to cover the economy by embedding Robert Peston in a Manchester McDonald’s for a fortnight.

BBC1 Newsflash logo from black and white TV. Image courtesy of problem common to both examples, and many others, is that journalism prefers the event to the process.

The publication of a new research paper can be news. The accumulation of wisdom through many research papers is not. A military confrontation is news. The slow process of rebuilding a country is not. A famine in an African country is news. The growing success of the country’s agriculture in other years is not.

In each case, concentrating on the short-term and the dramatic (or at least what can be made to be dramatic) greatly distorts the overall picture, but those bigger trends and more slow moving events more naturally find their homes in books, not news bulletins.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Looking on the bright side (and aren’t we all supposed to be optimists now according to Dave, Nick & Ed) the whole “science journalism problem” will soon be non-existent because Vince Cable’s mind-numbingly stupid cuts to the science budget will mean there are no future scientific breakthroughs in the UK to report! And whilst all our best scientists head overseas to work for more rational governments, at least the government’s generosity with taxpayers’ money will mean that all the wonderful bankers stay here and use their ‘skills’ to enhance society for future generations and the greater good. (I only hope that the government legalises euthanasia in the near future.)

  • @Mark

    An interesting piece, but surely it was every thus? Journalists don’t operate in a vacuum and they will provide information that sells copy which in turn sells advertising space.

    Science journalism for the non scientist can also be a tricky area, after all most science “stands on the shoulder of giants”. How far back do you go to explain a particular breakthrough? If the publication is catering for scientists then you may not have to go back at all as they will probably have an idea of what was needed to get to the position achieved, but what about the rest of us?

    In both the case of scientific and general journalism, perhaps something glitzy may help us remember the breakthrough and, who knows, may arouse enough interest for people to investigate further? Once they’ve found the information they may file it in their brain under the “shock/horror” headline of the original story so that it is retained in memory.

    To try and give an example of what I mean. At some point in history some one realised that it would be a lot more comfortable to put water in a receptacle and bathe in the comfort of home, this being better than freezing in a river with a bar of soap. If they hadn’t realised that, then Archimedes may not have realised that water was displaced when he stepped into the bath and that he could use that displacement to measure the density of irregular shaped objects. But would I have remembered anything taught in school about measuring density this way if I hadn’t filed it in my head under the headline “Scientist Runs down street naked screaming Eureka”.

    Instead of worrying to much about journalism (which will probably never change), perhaps we should teach people to be curious about the story behind the story. They can then look in the books you mentioned (or increasingly, the web) to find the information to complete the story.

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