Science journalism–critical analysis, not debate

By Grant Jacobs 23/10/2009

Following on from my first blog post Scientists can’t write?, I’d like to raise the first of two issues from the following chapter of the same book.

In section 4.2 (pp166-180), Brian Trench writes about Science reporting in the electronic embrace of the internet.

On page 176 he cites Santamaría (2004). I’ve given a slightly fuller quote than he does below:

In a medium such as the Internet, where self-publishing is extremely easy and cheap, journalist[s] would be less gatekeepers and more cartographers, pointing out interesting news paths online rather than filtering and packaging a closed news product (Singer, 1997; Giussani, 1997).

This reminds me of how much of the “blogosphere” is about pointing at others’ original works, rather than original writing itself. Unlike “Chinese whispers”, at least you can read the original as well as the passed-on comments. (This itself could be considered a point of difference of the blogosphere with the traditional media: the original source is easy for anyone to find and is rarely exclusive to the reporter.)

What really interests me is what Trench goes on to say:

“” Greek journalists surveyed considered that the roles of ‘information specialist’ and ‘critical analyst’ would be much more important than that of ‘neutral information broker’, or the traditional reporting role. “”

I want to draw attention to the ‘critical analyst’ part. Instead of merely passing on ‘Mr X says …’, a judgement is made as to what is “good” and relevant. The judgement is, or rather should be, made on the basis of merit. Exactly how that’s done I want to put aside; that it’s done is my point here.

This moves the writer to (self-)editing of content, as opposed to self-editing style and presentation; they are making decisions about inclusion and exclusion.

Critical analysis implies investigation and dialogue, not debate.

Mainstream media have a terrible habit of presenting balance as giving alternative, usually opposing, views equal time or space.

Balance by equal time (or print space) is the measure of balance used in debate, not critical examination. It’s appropriate, perhaps, if the subject matter can be resolve entirely by opinion. It’s entirely inappropriate for subject matter that should be resolved by substance, in many cases to the point of being irresponsible.

For a critical analyst, the emphasis on different material is based on merit, not “equal space”. What deserves more time, is that that has more substance.

If it’s the proverbial: it doesn’t get any time. If it’s marginal: maybe a brief mention. The plausible but largely substantiated: perhaps raise it, but move on. The substantial and well-backed: there’s your material, discuss it in depth.

Debates are not about determining the merits of different points in some issue, they are about winning an audience over to your side, often largely irrespective of the argument presented. This pervades much of the modern media: everything–well, most things–are presented as debates. As any good debater will tell you, debates are mostly about showmanship, not content.

Critical analysis implies a need to understand the topic in hand. You can’t criticise, or judge, what you don’t understand. (As Bob Dylan wrote in The Times They Are A Changin’: “And don’t criticize. What you can’t understand…” He was, of course, talking about “your sons and your daughters” who are “beyond your command”, but my point still stands…)

The irony here is that this viewpoint–that there is a move towards critical analysis–requires specialists, experts if you will; the very people that traditional main stream media seem so keen to toss off their (sinking?) ship.


1. Investigating science communication in the information age: implications for public engagement and popular media.

Edited by Holliman, Whitelegg, Scanlon, Schmidt and Thomas (OUP 2009, ISBN: 978-0-19-955266-5).

2. Professional routines and values in Catalan online newsrooms: online journalism in real contexts

David Domingo Santamaría (Original in English.)

3. See my earlier post and Natalie Angier’s introduction to her book, where she lays out the loss of these specialists.

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