8 Comments

A debate on ‘Science in the Media’ was recently held at City University in London. Fiona Fox, director of the British Science Media Centre was one of the speakers, as were science writer and blogger Ed Yong,  Natasha Loder, science and technology correspondent from The Economist, and pharmaceutical correspondent of the Financial Times, Andrew Jack.

This apparently morphed into a bloggers v. journalists debate. Reports are this shift centred around Fiona Fox saying ’ignore the mass media at your peril. Blogs are good but they are not journalism’ in response to Ed Yong expressing enthusiasm for the developments in blogging efforts.

I wasn’t at the event; I’m reading about it from a great distance, long after it happened through the words of others. So I can’t very well comment on the event. I can still opine about the general issue of bloggers v. journalists!

Fiona Fox has since written on the BBC College of Journalism website, arguing that Blogs are not real journalism. There she repeats her thought that blogs lack crucial objectivity.

There are a number of responses to this around the WWW, listed in the references. While I have read these, and encourage interested readers to read them too, I’m going to try write from my own thoughts.

(Source: alexcartoons.com)

(Source: alexcartoons.com)

First the obvious: Blogs themselves are a media, a means of delivering content. Journalism is an approach to delivering content, in particular content about news events.

One is a technology, the other a practice. (Martin at LayScience has since expressed a similar view.)

I’ll forgive Fox that her intent is probably ’how bloggers tend to write’ (and research) their pieces, but even there I think I’ll quibble.

Blogs can have reportage. They can also have fluff.

Newspapers have reportage. They also have fluff pieces.

Just because it’s on a particular medium doesn’t make it journalism. Not all writing is reportage, or ’journalistic’, in either medium.

In that, that it’s on a blog or in a newspaper doesn’t offer a point of difference.

The nature of the medium can have an impact on how you hawk your product.

Web pages aren’t ’delivered’ to readers in the way that a paper is. Blogs use different strategies to draw readers than papers, particularly if they’re not already well-known by their target audience, but that’s another whole topic.

Fiona Fox mentions objectively and critical assessment.

She writes that the approach of (traditional) journalism with it’s specialist roles of editing and whatnot is rarely seen in blogs.

In the literal sense she’s right: little blogging operates under the traditional newsprint publishing model. Done the way intended, the specialist various players have important roles for that industry and make for a better product. I would say that I’m sure it filters out the worse excesses of speculation and poor thinking, but I have to be honest and wonder how effective it some times, especially in specialist areas.

In the sense that the end-product of specialist blog articles is unlikely to be objective or critically examined, I’d disagree.

She muddies the water I think by using general ’citizen journalists’ as her example rather than science bloggers, which was surely what the debate would take as an ’apples for apples’ comparison. Although it has the effect of shifting from her words, I think it’s fairer to compare science reportage (or writing), with science blogging.

On the subject of critical assessment, the traditional mainstream media notion of ’balance’ by asking for several opinions is in and of itself is a crock for matters of ’fact’. (Whatever ’fact’ is.) As I’ve previously written, what is important is  what is known, not opinions, and bloggers can certainly do critical analysis. (I’d love to hear from someone who works fact-checking for a major paper. I can only write from what I perceive.)

An irony, for me, is that perhaps some of the better non-journalists to analyse and seek balance on their own initiative are… scientists.

For that matter anyone who holds expertise in some area and the will to see right done by it will naturally apply critical analysis, which brings us back to bloggers.

It’d be fair to say that journalists are trained and paid to check their material, and that bloggers only check as far as their inclination takes them. But for science bloggers, their inclinations take them past many, if not most, non-specialist journalists trying to write about science.

The same could be said of any specialist area, really. History. Antiques. Pottery. Art. You name it. People are more inclined to fact-check areas that they consider ’their own.’ Or simply make it their business to know the ins and outs of it. They take ownership of the area they write about in a sense. (Specialist journalists will do much the same.)

(Source: alexcartoons.com; Used with prior permission.)

(Source: alexcartoons.com)

If the person has a reputation to up-hold, and most science bloggers or others with a specialist ’patch’ do, they’ll take care with what they write and take responsibility for errors.

I’ll leave you with two relevant points I will elaborate in a later article:

  • the role of editing and editors, something I have been meaning to write about for far too long
  • that it’d be interesting to see newspapers include a statement of intent in their by-lines (or masthead) and hold to it
Footnotes

I should say that I’m writing this to get it over with. Originally I opened this with remarks about this being a perennial topic, etc., but decided it clashed with the way our feeds work.

Please note carefully where I’m talking about specialist blogging.

Some reports of this debate mention a call for regulation of blogs. I know very few people who are calling for this. I do see people calling for arguments to be based on substance, not hearsay, however.

Natasha Loader apparently said ’the archetypal scientist is more interested in talking to themselves than other people — most scientists are borderline autistic’, which must have drawn a reaction! A reason that scientists can come across as talking to themselves in written works is not because they are borderline autistic but because in ’trying not to fool yourself’ (as Feynman famously said) you are effectively arguing with yourself, watching out for your own biases and errors. When written directly, without being ’re-mapped’ to a dialogue to someone else, it reads as being very introspective. Autism has more to do with how you interact with others.

When I say the Fox ‘muddies’ the waters, I mean it in nicest way possible. I’m really not the sort for bloggish sparing matches.

My local newspaper has raised it’s price again this week. Walking away from the supermarket, I wondered if the rising prices are symptomatic of the print newspaper industry collapsing or just general economic malaise.

References

The Science Media Debate: Is this blog journalism or not?

When is a blogger/journalist/communicator not a blogger/journalist/communicator?

Bloggers vs. Journalists: A Response to Fiona Fox (and Richard Littlejohn)

UPDATE

The SMC Alert links to this article with a blurb:

Grant Jacobs gets involved in the blogging vs journalism debate, finding that the subject, particularly when it involves science, may not be as clearcut as at first appears

I’ll forgive their opinion, but however they have come to this conclusion, this isn’t my position! (I have to admit I wish that they had advertised this without ascribing a position to me.) The issue is in fact fairly clear-cut in my own mind. If there is anything that I didn’t appreciate ’as it first appear[ed]’ was the extent of others‘ defensiveness about it. As a practical matter, to me it is in the end little more than navel-gazing in that what matters is what people do, not the titles people give to others (or themselves).


Some of the science communication articles on Code for life:

Post-embargo publication delays: be gone

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion

Banished from science writing. Words, that is.

Three kinds of knowledge about science and journalism

Science journalism–critical analysis, not debate

Sidebar scientists

Scientists can’t write?