Saturday, July 12, 2014
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A Problem With Science Journalism? I Don't Think So.

A blog post wrongly attributes gullible resports about a giant squid to journalists. But the culprits were really bloggers.

A Problem With Science Journalism? I Don't Think So.

A reader sent me this interesting post from Wired.com, which claims in its opening sentence that, “there’s a problem with science journalism.” The problem, according to writer Brian Switek, is that a few gullible people spread a silly story about a “scientist” who looked at a fossil and thought he saw the artwork of a giant squid.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Esteemed scientist and science communicator Carl Sagan reminded us of that throughout his career, but the message didn’t sink in at some newdesks. All you have to do is track the news of the “kraken” to see that recycling press releases often counts for “science news” right now. Jeanna Bryner of LiveScience swallowed the big squid story whole and had her version regurgitated at FOX and CBS News.  Dean Praetorius of the Huffington Post, Houston Chronicle’s “Sci Guy” Eric Berger, and TG Daily’s Kate Taylor also took the bait. Who could resist a sensational, super-sized squid? Only Cyriaque Lamar of io9 sounded a minor note of skepticism — “But the possibility of finding that which is essentially a gargantuan mollusk’s macaroni illustration?”, Lamar wrote, “That’s the kind of glorious crazy you hope is reality.” Leave it to science bloggers like PZ Myers to point out how ridiculous this media feeding frenzy is.

But what really kills me about this story is the fact that no reporter went to get a second opinion. Each and every story appears to be based directly off the press release and uses quotes directly from that document. No outside expert was contacted for another opinion in any of the stories — standard practice in science journalism — and, frankly, all the stories reek of churnalism. What does it say about the general quality of science reporting when major news sources are content to repackage sensationalist, evidence-lite speculations and print them without further thought or comment?

Major news sources? And where’s the print? Is this giant squid thing in the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Boston Globe, USA Today, Time, The Economist, The New Yorker, or the Philadelphia Inquirer?  Of course not. It was posted on some website called “TG Daily”, and a clearinghouse of press releases known as “livescience” as well as various blogs including the most famous source of non-journalism, the Huffington Post. The silly squid story was also picked up by CBS news and Fox News – hardly the most respected sources of science journalism. Most of those Switek accuses of “taking the bait” were bloggers and TV producers, not print journalists.  When he writes that, “no reporters went for a second opinion,” I think he’s using the word reporters very loosely. The vast majority of reporters ignored this thing completely, which is a perfectly legitimate response to it.

The one exception here is the “sci guy” - a real reporter who blogs for the Houston Chronicle. But his post doesn’t appear to take the thing too terribly seriously. 

What I see here is a not a problem with science journalism but a problem with bloggers. Yes, I know, I’m now a blogger of sorts, but I’ve made every effort not to fill Planet of the Apes with unsubstantiated tidbits and factoids.  

Switek is right to point out that the web is overloaded with cheap sources of information that do nothing more than copy press releases. And that’s a problem because readers aren’t told that they’re getting press releases. They may think they’re getting reported news.

But he’s wrong to conflate these journalistic equivalents of fast food chains with major news sources.  It’s misleading and feeds into the misconception that journalists can’t be trusted to write about science, whether we’re presenting evidence for global climate change, the benefits of the HPV vaccine, or evolution.

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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