I wrote recently suggesting a prize for a newspaper carrying science content. In recognition of science writing, not journalism that has some science content to “beef up” an otherwise non-science based story, and to recognise all the science content, not only a few major stories.
I’d like to clarify some of what I was suggesting.
First, I want to make clear that I am not offering this as a suggestion in opposition to or in place of a prize for individual science writers, science journalists or “science” stories.
I was suggesting a prize for the newspaper to fill what I see as a hole: a prize that might encourage editors to support the full range of science writing, that might get them thinking “add more science content”.
It’s a longer-term goal, one that won’t get the person giving the award as many beers or slaps on the back from journalists, but I’d like to think that in the long-term it’d help raise the profile of the niche as a whole.
Put another way, an award complements awards to individuals or for individual stories that looks at the whole newspaper.
Let’s also be clear that I was mainly addressing science writing. In that post, I wrote ‘science’, ‘science writing’, ‘science news’, ‘science articles’, etc. I didn’t even write ‘science journalism’ for that matter, which I see as subtly different (and when done well, worthwhile), even though I mean to weigh that in too.
Let me elaborate. I see science writing, science journalism and journalism that happens to include some science as different. Shades of grey, to some I guess, but to me there’s a difference. In the first, the main story is the science. In the latter the main story is something else, with the science included to strengthen the story, give it more depth or richness. (Worthy goals, just not what I wanted to focus on.) Somewhere in between you’ve got science journalism, which, loosely speaking, favours “science as an event” (more on this later).
One commenter objected that a prize for a newspaper would favour established columns over breaking news:
Otherwise doing it by organisation, you might have a paper that has the science scoop of the year miss out to one that has a regular science section and actually devotes more coverage to science but isn’t breaking stories in the public interest.
Obviously I see “actually devotes more coverage to science” as being commendable and it’s the main thrust of the thing for me. However, my intention was not to not ignore headline acts, but that these be looked at within a larger context, so that all the science content was considered. What I didn’t want was for one major story to define the paper to be the “best supporter of science writing”; I wanted the overall content, including any major stories, but not limiting it to them.
(To be honest, I object to phrase ‘in the public interest’, as it implies the regular short science-based columns aren’t of interest to the public; they are, just in a different way. I guess I bristle at the “little guys” being knocked, even if unintentionally. Why should their contribution be overlooked, rather than be treated as a worthy, if modest, contribution to a larger picture?)
Feature stories are great, but I can’t see awarding only these will get an editor to think “must get more science content”. I’d have thought that if you do this editors will just go on thinking “must get more headline/breaking stories”, regardless of if they have science content or not. (Any editors care to comment?)
Awarding a prize for a major story on science may help editors appreciate better that science can carry major stories. But why not make them see that they can also be regular stories?
Another worry is over-emphasising major stories may only encourage the practice of describing science in terms of “breakthroughs”. Headline or breaking stories almost exclusively carry things that are “events”.
Ask a scientist and they’ll tell you that while new results are “events”, they almost always belong within a longer flow of events and a much larger context. It’s exceptionally rare that stand on their own in the way that they’re often presented in science journalism. Don’t get me wrong, second-best (journalistic representations of science) is better than nothing.
If you look at the work of say, Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Natalie Angier, Oliver Sacks, and many others, you’ll see that they try present the larger context of the work. Often that larger context is the main story with the new result or the key character “merely” being mainly an excuse to bring up the wider story.
These are more magazine-style pieces and I guess less glamorous than event-oriented pieces. But then, that’s partly what I’m trying to balance. Why encourage second-best, when you can encourage the best? (Or at least what I see as the best!)
A piece that announces the Large Hadron Collider is now at work: OK. A piece that explains what the LHC does and why (or what they’ve found): excellent. A story that announces a new drug (which often are barely reworked press releases): OK (but if they’re just a rehash of the PR, I have my reservations). An examination of the drug, it’s background, strengths and limitations: great. NASA bombs the moon: great fun. Why they did, how they intended testing for water and what this would mean: much better.
My priorities may be all warped, but I prefer the larger context to stories limited to only an “event”.
I’m sure I’m not the only one that get frustrated at emptiness of science event reports in newspapers. They’re like Russian dolls with nothing in them: all bright and gaudy on the outside, but no content. (OK, some content, but nothing that really <i>explains</i> what it’s all about.)
So… major stories as in science writing, yes; major stories as in science journalism, well worth scoring but less important unless they go the extra mile (or kilometer…); journalism with a dash of science, worthy in it’s own way but not the focus here. But: all in a context of the overall coverage of science in the paper, including regular columns, noting any anti-science or shoddy pieces, etc. (For that matter, short columns are often the most direct, giving the science without dressing it up.)
A deeper reason I took this stance, is that in blog discussions on promoting science writing, I rarely see any mention of editors and their part in this. But that’s another post.
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