Stuffing more science into the New Zealand media

By Grant Jacobs 07/05/2012

New Zealand on-line news outlet Stuff has elected to present a science section. Yay!

Some might even say ‘about time’.

In a modest promotional effort, they’ve offered the first of what are to be daily science pictures.

It’s great to see support voiced in the comments. (Sharp readers will notice I have given a heads-up to readers there about our forum.)

’Finally a blokes version of your ridiculous fashion section…’ says Peter (comment 10). Excellent sentiment, but I’ll oppose that science should be ‘for blokes’ – science is for everyone.

Image Credit: NASA / Tony Landis

Tony (in comment 8) writes:

’Great stuff! Looking forward to reading it, but please, no editorials on what you think is right/wrong, harmful/beneficial, just pure science please! For example, I’d hate to read about how someone “thinks” WiFi radiation is bad…’

I’d like to think what Tony is after is that he wants substantive material, work based around evidence, not opinion pieces ‘pushing’ a writer’s viewpoint based on their ’thoughts’.[1]

Good on them for taking it up – go over and encourage them. I’d be happy to see your thoughts on what you’d like to read, too.

Shades of how long is a piece of string, I know, but Tony’s plea leads this writer to wondering, again, just what is it that readers would like to see as ‘general science’ on-line?[2]

This being one of those days[3] let me indulge in some ruminations on science writing as soul food of sorts.

Some newspaper articles on science are light, almost fluffy. I use that word because to my eyes many newspaper articles outside of straight news in New Zealand seem to aim to be fluffy. There’s nothing wrong with being engaging with a lively use of language, of course, but it’s frustrating when there proves to be little real content. This style sometimes strikes me as self-endulgent – the writer is certainly exercising their writerly nous… but sometimes (often) damn-all else.

It’s like watching an old-time comedy with where a pert, if dotty, housewife stereotype busies around dusting what is obviously an absolutely spotless shelf, the polished surface gleaming flawlessly in the stage lights. She’s bubbly and charming as hell, but not actually achieving a sodded thing other than being bubbly and charming for the sake of being bubbly and charming. Itself not a bad thing – in small doses. It’s just if the entire movie is like that, well… You get to a point where you think ’it’s very pretty, but… this is kind-of empty-headed’ (I don’t mean the gal’s character, which might be right, but the movie.)

The real craft of science writing,[4] to me, isn’t just about finding the latest good factoids or pictures. That’s fairly easy, if sometimes time-consuming: usually the factoid or picture is itself enough and the rest mostly padding. Science communication can be that, too, but to me it wants to be more.

The real meat is trying to bring the science to readers in an engaging way. That’s much harder. It demands understanding the background well enough to show what was behind that cool cyclonic twist on the Stuff website (shown above). This wants to go past the short press release material.

Image Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn
Image Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

Or tell us what that testing of the James Webb Space Telescope shown (immediately above) is actually doing. Looking at the NASA caption, that big tank is a ’Space Environment Simulator vacuum chamber’ and the thing being lowered into it is Optical Telescope Element Simulator (OSIM). The Stuff website doesn’t point that what the tank is (nor does it link to the NASA site). There’s a story there. That’s a big vacuum chamber! What are the challenges making one that size? How cold do they make it and how do they make it that cold? Can they simulate rapid changes in temperature? Precisely what is the Optical Telescope Element Simulator? (I’m guessing it’s box of the same material as the external skin of the telescope with a bunch of recording gear in it – ?)

They’re great shots, but some might ask ’where’s the beef?’ What science are the pictures showing?

Without the background photographs are ‘science teasers’, teasers being short pitches used to draw readers in. Nothing wrong with the tease, but I like some food after I’ve seen the menu or those pick’n’choose photos some Asian restaurants have.

I like a mixture of styles and content type myself. I couldn’t name one particular thing that ‘is’ science writing, although I prefer that somewhere it has, or links to, more than the ‘surface’ veneer. I could better name what I don’t like to see in science material. (Hey, scientists are strong on criticism!) Stuff that‘s poorly researched or simply wrong. Writers whose material reveals that they don’t really understand how science actually works.

A brief skim suggests the articles on Stuff’s main science page are a good start, although the lack of links or other pointers to the original sources and follow-on material bothers me. Its sort-of a print-edition sin brought across to the on-line world, the unwillingness to spare a couple of lines at the bottom for sources. For on-line material, there’s no real excuse and it denies the curious to follow the story further directly from the page.


Since writing the above I’ve wanted to offer a closer, more critical, look at what’s on offer but simply haven’t time. Readers here may want to read fellow sciblogger David Winter’s take on one of Stuff’s recent science offerings.


1. By way of example, I try when examining claims in media or on other websites, etc., to base what I offer around scientific literature and so on, rather than writing solely in the ‘I think that’ sense. It’s the evidence that matters on these things, not a writer’s ’instincts’.

2. Of course, I have a self-interested reason for asking this!

3. It’s been a frustrating day that has left me wondering about NZ internet services. First the IRD website was struggling, bailing out and not delivering content. (For many businesses GST returns are due today.) Later, Telecom’s SMTP server ‘decided’ to stop accepting out-going email. (At the time of writing [after 7pm] is still is not relaying out-going mail. For the moment I’m waiting it out.) I know it’s Monday, with all that comes with that, but businesses suffer when these sorts of things happen.

4. I’m not referring to the perennial science journalism v. science writing ‘debate’ here.

Other articles on Code for life:

Animating our DNA*

Do TED lectures need better vetting?

Epigenetics overview (video)

“We’re so used to getting a prescription that’s it’s surprising when we don’t”

Dear journalists and editors,

Ken Ring & March 20th — let’s get back to science (Check the links at the end for lots of reading)

Haemophilia — towards a cure using genetic engineering

Initial reports are not a done deal

Homeopath says to treat a burn… burn it some more

Are bioinformaticians gods?

0 Responses to “Stuffing more science into the New Zealand media”

  • Can’t find the link to the wee Stuff articles about the introduction of the new section anymore but….

    One person commented they hoped it would include science rather than 3 out 4 people think this works. And I commented that I DO hope the link has a bigger font than the horrorscopes.

  • For those curious about the side stories of my day (noted in the Footnotes), this local article covers the IRD website mess:

    The website was struggling—badly—well before midday, however. In my experience it was, in practical terms, unusable at 10:30am or so and thereafter. They’re right that it was put right late afternoon.

    Whatever the truth, you can’t miss the politics in the article cited above, can you?

    As for the Xtra SMTP issue, I decided ‘enough is enough’ (i.e. I’ve waited more than long enough) and have put a work-around in place. Others report the issue is still there.

  • Ross,

    Can’t find the original introduction either (not that I’ve tried very hard). Straw polls aren’t a substitute for evidence, eh? As for the font size, I have to admit it’s hard to find the link to the science section from the top page.

    Click on National from the banner menu, near the top of the page – not quite where I’d expect it (science is international for one thing). I presume you can customise this using their ‘Customise My Stuff’ feature (haven’t time to explore this – readers are welcome to report if they can present a science link on the main page menu using this).

    For me it’s also on the right-hand side quite a way down under Recommended Links. I’ve no idea if that’s ‘personalised’ or not.

  • PaulS,

    The stuff article you provided very clearly states that the zinc work is preliminary and includes a statement from the researchers that “”Until further evidence becomes available, there is only a weak rationale for physicians to recommend zinc for the treatment of the common cold,”

    Categorising this as Altmed seems to me to be a bit of a strwman argument.

  • Seems as if the articles are all AP or Reuters, perhaps some of the active writers here may try their hand at science journalism?

  • ME,

    Don’t Altmed companies hawk zinc remedies for the common cold? There are a number of studies showing ionised Zn works but bound zn doesn’t. MetAnals often mix them up to provide confused results. It seems to work better than tamiflu does with influenza virus.

  • It also seems that their science photo of the day is simply a repost of NASA IOTD.

  • Vaughan – my impression too when I found time to scan back through them yesterday. Pity they can’t dig deeper than what is essentially PR release material.

    Matt – Similar to my reply to Vaughan, I got the impression that the articles are wire service or subscriber stuff. That’s pretty typical. Regards “trying my hand”, I had wanted to about two years ago. Suffice to say here both the local market and the embargo system have issues in my opinion. (I’d explain but it’d end up longer than my long articles – there’s a lot of elements to this in my opinion and this sort of thing engenders opinions, strong ones!)

  • It could equally reflect a predilection on the part of the Stuff editors. I notice that the final comment in the story is not exactly a ringing endorsement.

  • PaulS,
    All three of the articles you provide links to seem to describe the limitations of the research they describe which hardly seems to me to pe purporting Altmed as mainstream science.

    Furthermore, your comments re the zinc research seem to imply that because zinc supplements have been used as part of treatments with no scientific backing that this automatically means any treatment using zinc must be pseudoscience. The zinc paper describes some preliminary findings which the researcher says need a larger study. That is not pseudoscience, that is science in action. It would be pseudoscience if the researcher stated that everyone should be taking zinc supplements to be healthy.

    What exactly is your definition of Altmeds? It seems quite rigid.

  • PaulS, are you trying to put words into our mouths (as a previous poster at Sciblogs was wont to do)? Neither Michael nor I (nor, as far as I can see, any posters here apart from yourself) have said anything about yoghurt.

  • michael e, the study was a meta-analysis, not a preliminary study. Overall, the researchers noted that in the trials, which included people from one to 65-years-old, those taking zinc had colds that were shortened by a little more than two and a half days compared to those taking the placebo.

    Little difference was seen in cold duration in children, though – perhaps, said the authors, because adults tended to use a different form of zinc than children.

    2.5 dys is a lot for a cold.

  • PaulS, I have no idea how you could take from my comments that yoghurt is either dangerous or unsafe.
    I didn’t mention yoghurt nor did I mention anything about probiotics being unsafe or dangerous.

    You have not explained yet what your definition of Altmed is.

  • the question about yoghurt being dangerous or unsafe was written in response to alisons comment. your comment wasn’t up when i wrote mine-that happens sometimes. i thought an altmed was something that was alternative to medicines.

  • PaulS,

    Sorry, I can’t seem to see any comment of Alison’s which mentions yoghurt or suggests that it might be dangerous or unsafe.

  • To add to my previous comment pointing at local (i.e. sciblogs) criticism of science articles at Stuff, there’s a further commentary on the same by Gareth Renowden who covers climate science here at sciblogs:

    (One thing I would like is clarity over who wrote the piece presented in Stuff – it’s marked as copyright Fairfax NZ News with no more specific attribution that I can see. Either way it seems it was a poor decision to present it (but note that’s an editorial decision, as opposed to a writing one). I haven’t read the original Stuff/Daily Mail articles – time not is not on my side!)

  • I wonder if the media will finally get the fruit fly geography right in their reporting… the initial find and exclusion zone isn’t in Mt Roskill, it’s in Avondale/New Lynn/Blockhouse bay/Lynfield.

    I wonder also if an investigative/science reporter will ask the question about the apparent coincidence of this find and the 1990’s find being within a five minute drive of each other and within a two minute drive of MAF’s Plant pest/disease facilities in Lynfield. could the flies have escaped from the lab facilities?

  • are u able 2 xplain how its trolling? this is abt science, inaccurate reporting and maybe a lack of journalists analyzing the facts. isn’t that all related to science and the media?