Can Science Blogs Fill the Investigative Journalism Gap?

“The demise of serious journalism comprises another primary concern. Bloggers breaking news direct from sources can increase public knowledge and oversight, but this doesn’t replace the kind of dogged (and expensive) investigation that allowed the Boston Globe to break the Catholic clergy abuse scandal, or that allowed the Washington Post to bring to public scrutiny the explosive growth of the intelligence community.” – The End of Big, Nicco Mele

After being asked to judge a big journalism prize, Harvard Kennedy School Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy Nicco Mele began “to get afraid, very afraid” of end of big newspapers. In the eyes of many, especially big journalism players, the crisis facing traditional journalism as we know it has dire implications especially for journalism’s watchdog role and in-depth investigative reporting. With cutbacks in newsrooms, reporters may indeed be playing a lesser role today in the information ecosystem than they were 10 and 20 years ago. But does this necessarily mean the end of quality, in-depth journalism? For one, the reduction in the number of employed journalists has been counteracted, according to Herbert J. Gans, by the appearance of bloggers and citizen journalists.

“The institutions of Big News in this country emerged over the course of more than a century, fostering a culture that rewards journalism at its best through institutions like the Goldsmith Prize. Radical connectivity, by contrast, does not come with these values built-in. There is no Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting by a Citizen Journalist.” – The End of Big, Nicco Mele

My response here is: Why the heck not? Why can’t citizen journalists be rewarded for investigative reporting? And what about bloggers? What if there were awards to provide incentives for investigative reporting in the blogosphere?

In 2009, Geoff Brumfiel wrote about the rise of science blogs in the media landscape. Cutbacks in newsrooms have certainly affected science news: A Nature survey of 493 science journalists in 2009 showed that science journalism jobs are being lost and the workloads of those who remain are on the rise. Who is left to fill us in on scientific controversies and issues of the day? Who is left having enough time to do the research needed to provide the context to shine light on complex scientific issues, or even political issues involving science? The loss of specialized science journalists in the newsroom could be compared to the general reduction in specialized investigative news reporters which many so bemoan:

“Unless there is a dramatic rethinking in the United States, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, all signs point to a continued deterioration of journalism. By all known political theory this means the continuation of credible democratic governance will be impossible. Hence this is a crisis of the greatest possible magnitude.” – Robert McChesney

But so far, we’ve neglected one very important point. Just because traditional journalism is on the decline, what is preventing new forms of digital journalism from picking up the slack? Can science bloggers fill the gap in investigative journalism?

Science blogging isn’t new to the game us supplanting traditional media in the area of science communication. In fact, just as many are lamenting the declining numbers of specialized science reporters (or specialized reporters in any field, for that matter) at big newspapers, others have questioned whether general journalists or even many science journalists ever fulfilled a ‘watchdog’ role in science at all.

“To many, journalists only succeed in blowing the trumpet of science, regurgitating content from published papers and press releases when they ought to be subjecting it to further scrutiny by questioning statistics and hype and exposing dodgy data, fraudulent practices, and conflicts of interest (some scientists would add that they don’t even do the first job particularly well).” – Ed Yong, Not Exactly Rocket Science, (a National Geographic blog)

Let’s face it: science is complex. Even for journalists who have science-related training or education, covering science topics outside of their field of expertise requires much time and effort. Other journalists lacking science-related educations might even have a hard time grabbling with a full understanding of the scientific method. And so often, even science beat reporters at big newspapers might inadvertently be “uncritically waving the banner for science and actually digging into it.” Bloggers coming from backgrounds in rigorous science educations, on the other hand, might actually have the knowledge base and the understanding of scientific methodology required to take investigative approaches toward breaking science and scientific issues in the public sphere (climate change, for example).

“When I decide on which papers to write about, I consider not only how interesting they are to me and my readers, but crucially whether they seem decent or not. I read through every single primary paper that I write about before I put a single word down. Are the conclusions solid? Are the numbers big enough to make for statistically meaningful conclusions?  Are they actually asking any interesting questions in the first place?” – Ed Yong

According to Yong’s post in 2009, science bloggers are already covering breaking research, often in a critical analysis kind of way – all they lack “are the audience figures of mainstream media and the same prior access to embargoes publications that journalists have.

According to Robert McChesney, healthy journalism should entail a “plausible method to separate truth from lies, or at least to prevent liars from being unaccountable and leading nations into catastrophes…” Healthy journalism, McChesney writes, is objective, nonpartisan, factually accurate and unbiased. But is this ‘healthy journalism’ the norm for science beats in the big newspapers that McChesney sees as so crucial to the democratic process? While political news may be a different story, I think science news has for some time now benefited immensely from ‘citizen’ journalists and bloggers, many of whom are scientists themselves.

For example, McChesney points to problems in current journalism practice including reliance on official sources and packaged press releases: “The dirty secret of journalism is that a significant percentage of our news stories, in the 40-50 percent range, even at the most prestigious newspapers in the glory days of the 1970s, were based upon press releases.” It is a reality that traditional journalists are increasingly getting their science news story ideas from two sources in particular: press release material, and science bloggers themselves. I can personally vouch for the fact that much of my press release material for LSU (where I am a university Research Communications graduate assistant) is run almost unaltered in local newspapers and various online news sites.

Just take the latest breaking news in the science blogosphere. The terrible series of events surrounding DNLee’s The Urban Scientist blog post “Responding to No name Life Science Blog Editor who called me out of my name” and allegations surrounding Scientific American Blogs editor Bora Zivkovic, have poured in not from traditional journalists breaking investigative pieces, but from science blogs and Twitter. Only after much discussion about these events in social media, and in-depth blog posts about them, did the mainstream media begin to pick up the news. For science and science communication, the transfer of investigative pieces from social media to mainstream journalism is less the exception than the rule.

“I have mixed feelings, since, on the one hand, both of my parents were award-winning journalists/editors, but, on the other hand, the state of science journalism and climate reporting today in the traditional media just ain’t good — as I have blogged on many times […] As a professional blogger, I certainly don’t have the reach of the traditional media with my 10,000 visits and 50,000 page views each day — but I and many others provide what I believe is a far superior picture of the harsh reality of climate science than the soft-pedaling scribes of the MSM.” -  Joe Romm

Bloggers not only break news, but in the world of science, they can often provide context and expert opinion lacking in traditional science journalism at the big newspapers. It’s not uncommon to find science bloggers with masters’ degrees and Ph.D.’s in science fields.

In a 2011 blog post, Bora Zivkovic writes:

“So, today we have a situation in which authors write papers which get published months or years after the data have been gathered. Their institutions write press releases. Science reporters, those who still have jobs in this economy, are so pressed for time covering so many stories simultaneously, they just regurgitate the press releases.

Then bloggers jump on them for sensationalism and for the lack of accuracy, and for missing out the context.


Thus, in this sense, science bloggers are all science journalists as well. We disseminate cool educational videos, announcements of interesting lectures and meetings, we write opinion pieces, we write educational pieces (e.g., the Basics), we dispel the myths of anti-social dorky stereotypes of scientists by writing personal stories, we connect science to art, literature, politics and culture, and we do something uniquely useful by discussing the trials and tribulations of career paths in science. And we are fun. So people keep coming back for more.”

Zivkovic provides a long list of examples of bloggers engaging in investigative journalism, from a (then) small blogger’s investigative reporting that led to the resignation of Bush’s NASA censor, to bloggers who revealed a case of plagiarism in dinosaur paleontology.

Matthew Yglesias for one presents a very different view than McChesney and Nicco Mele, one in which today’s media ecology, from prestigious online news sites to blogs and Twitter, “lets you add depth and context to the news.” According to Yglesias, “[f]or people trying to make a living in journalism, the problems are real enough. But from a social viewpoint, these are excellent problems to have. […] make no mistake, despite business difficulties and cutbacks, the American news consumer has never had it so good.”

In my own opinion, especially in the field of science communication, bloggers already have been filling in for dying newspapers, and often in a way that actually improves the investigative approach. Sure, there are problems with newer digital media as science news outlets, including a fair share of sensationalism, science “cheerleading,” and lack of financial opportunities. But it is how we can address these problems, and not the problem of restoring traditional print media appearance and function as we knew them, that are the problems we should be addressing.