What’s Wrong with Science Journalism?

I recently received a Knight Science Journalism tracker update e-mail featuring the following hyperlinked article: Neil DeGrasse Tyson discusses what’s wrong with science journalism. The article refers to a StarTalk podcast where Neil DeGrasse Tyson talks about his interview with Miles O’Brien, American broadcast news journalist specializing in science, technology and aerospace. In one segment, Tyson laments that journalists have become “the opinion leaders” – the central personalities of their own stories.

“The line that I thought used to be there between, here’s someone who I trust giving me news, and here’s someone who, I just heard the news, but now they’re telling me what to think, I don’t know that that line is still there.” – Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Excerpt from StarTalk

Taking off for the stars and leaving the facts behind? Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/wRFkE

In the interview, Miles O’Brien agreed that yes, this line has disappeared. But I love O’Brien’s response to why it is that journalists have become personalities in their own stories:

“In a world where information has become a commodity, what is a journalist to do to provide the value added, right? How do they, in this cacophonous world, wave their hands and say, ‘Hey, hey, listen to me over here’? And it’s a natural outcome of my experience covering news for 30 years and space for 20, to have enough depth and knowledge of it to actually be able to analyze it in a way that is not just the facts m’am, I can go beyond Joe Friday. Now does that mean that I turn my work into just opinion screed after opinion screed? No. Does it mean that I, in the context of what I do on the web, through the various media that I’m involved in, there are places for me to kind of connect some dots that I wouldn’t necessarily in a classic, AP-style story? Yes!” – Miles O’Brien, as interviewed by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Excerpt from StarTalk

I think O’Brien’s explanation for the “personality journalist” is spot on. It might be the very definition of “new age” digital science journalism. Why would you or I want to hear the news of a space shuttle launch from O’Brien’s perspective over that of any other science journalist? Precisely because of his extensive experience, his ability to put the report in historical context, and his ability to give us informed opinions about the launch because of his experience.

I understand the dangers of having more and more journalists become the people who give us not the facts, but viewpoints on the facts. But when we talk about science journalism, I think we have to take other factors into account when lamenting this trend. In other words, the answer to the question “what’s wrong with science journalism?” is, it depends. It depends on who, what and where.

Who: In many ways, we have to consider who is doing the science journalism when we ask whether the blurring between fact and opinion is a good or bad thing. Where it was once normal to have science journalists trained predominantly in areas outside of science, today the market seems more competitive. Increasingly, it seems, online science writers and aspiring science journalists have extensive education and training in the sciences. Many, MANY of the science bloggers and freelance science journalists I know personally are current scientists, former scientists, current students in the sciences, former students in the sciences, and everything in between. (Of course, I understand that my sample is probably biased. But still…). Does this change what we think about journalists providing more analysis, interpretation and opinion in pieces about science?

In other words, perhaps we only find problems with interpretation and opinion in journalistic science reporting when that interpretation and opinion is uninformed. But what about when it comes from a scientific expert in the field who also happens to be a journalist? As O’Brien said, “to have enough depth and knowledge of it to actually be able to analyze it in a way that is not just the facts m’am, I can go beyond Joe Friday.” This doesn’t mean that we should welcome interpretation and opinion as the crux of our science news. But I think it does mean we should reconsider our traditional negative reactions to the mixing of news and editorial. Does the science news process change when the who – the person doing the science reporting – changes?

What: what science is being covered? Is it a controversial issue? A politicized scientific issue? Or a “cool” new scientific finding? The nature of the science being covered might change our view on whether the science journalist should, or shouldn’t, engage in analysis, interpretation and opinion. For a controversial issue, we might say that readers need just the facts – the facts of climate change, the facts of vaccine side effects, the facts of where stem cells come from and how they are used. And then again, mass communication researchers know that most people will interpret these facts not with their heads, but with their guts – their emotions, prior opinions and biases. So what is a journalist to do when trying to uncover the “truth?” Because a simple list of facts often doesn’t bring this “truth” across to readers who reason with their guts. I think most journalists know this. So what do they do? They package their facts, if you will. The "good" ones offer a colorfully packaged story to their readers, to help their readers understand the facts in the context in which they should be understood, whether that be in a historical context, in a political context, in a societal context, or in a scientific context. A story. A narrative. A history. A picture. A personality. Often these devices are just as important as the facts themselves in preparing a reader to understand and accept them. A complex scientific finding may also especially require these “non-fact” writing devices to help readers follow along without giving up.

Where: Where is the story being told? On a traditional news site where we have learned to expect “only the facts, m’am?” Because if so, and we aren’t at all expecting personality and opinion, we might feel betrayed by science journalists on the site who deviate from the traditional objective and balanced reporting techniques. (But then again, even this may be changing). Or is the story being told on a science blog, on social media, or even in a science magazine or on a cable news show? Because in many of these and newer digital spaces for science journalism (and more), most of us probably expect, even want, to hear what the person telling us the story thinks about the facts. And that is because, as O’Brien says, in this age of information overload we likely could have gone to dozens of other sources for that science news story. If we chose to go to this science blog for the story, or that science journalist’s Twitter handle, or even to Scientific American, we probably want to hear it from YOU. From you, the scientist personality behind the byline. From you, the area expert personality behind the byline. From you, the trusted and familiar personality behind the byline.

And why not? Mass communication scholars have known for a long time that various characteristics of the information source – from credibility, to gender, to political affiliation, to occupation, to familiarity – affect how the reader receives, processes and interprets the information. In an age of multiplicative digital news platforms, where we go to find you probably has something to do with whether we want to hear “just the facts, m’am” or “beyond Joe Friday.”

(By the way, science journalists aren’t the only ones getting “personality” overhauls in the media. Scientists in the news are also “personified” – to make them more human, more relatable, more interesting.)

So what do you think? What’s wrong with science journalism? Is it the introduction of more personality, analysis and opinion into the writing of science journalists? Or is this, perhaps, the very thing we need to get more readers engaged in science and informed by the context in which the science occurred? And does this depend on the who, what and where of science journalism?