Nature’s online editor Ananyo Bhattacharya wrote a piece for UK paper The Guardian’s science desk that has got me scratching my head today, and judging by the comments at the end of his story, I’m not alone. I started a discussion with him on Twitter that I want to share here too, because I think it illustrates nicely that there may be a serious gap between what scientists think journalists are about and vice versa. This discussion won’t make much sense without your reading his piece, so I’ll give you a minute to go and do that…
Done? OK, so in essence, Bhattacharya’s argument seems to be that it’s OK for scientists to check their quotes intended for an article about their work to make sure they were accurately reproduced, but they have no copy check rights beyond that. My specific issue is that he’s asking scientists to take a leap of faith that between their quote to the journalist and the news stand, the journalist will not distort, misrepresent or otherwise change the meaning of what was said by way of the surrounding copy. The problem is, by then it’s too late to do anything about it. I am just one of the many scientists who at one point or another have been burned by a case of misrepresentation in the press. But it’s not like Bhattacharya is saying “its OK, trust us, we’ll get it right”, he seems to be saying “never you mind what we do with your quote, that’s our business”.
“Reporters will give the story an angle that has their reader firmly in mind. The reader is not a scientist’s first concern. “
I read this to mean that the journalist writes for the reader, and is entitled to change the way the material is presented to do so. the phrase “give the story an angle” specifically implies that objectivity may be trumped by a context that may be more appealing to the reader; in other words, style over substance. This idea is anathema to a scientific community that has a hard enough time explaining the arcane nature of their work, without the issue being clouded by somebody else’s “angle”. I also object to the idea that the reader is not the scientist’s first concern. If that were the case, we wouldn’t care what you did with our quotes! Its precisely because we care what the reader thinks that we go to such efforts to ensure that our work is properly represented. He goes on:
“As a result, researchers can often suggest changes that would flatten the tone, or introduce caveats and detail that would only matter to another specialist in their own field of research.”
Flatten the tone? That sounds to me like a scientist reining in sensationalistic writing. As for introducing ceveats and details, that’s where the proverbial devil lives much of the time. What might seem like a tiny sin of omission to a journalist might be a really big deal to a scientist. The worst the journalist could be accused of is hyperbole, whereas the scientist might find themselves in hot water or an argument over priority or authority in the science community. Just look how easily harmless scientific words were twisted (albeit with polotical motives) during the climate-gate email scandal.
Which brings me to the Twitter conversation. I chimed in after the omnipresent Bora Zivcovik retweeted Martin Robbins’ (also of the Guardian) tweet regarding the story (@Ananyo is Bhattacharya ):
What a poor argument. “Flatten the tone” = “reduce sensationalism” & “Introduce details” = “ensure accuracy”! @mjrobbins @Ananyo @BoraZ
@para_sight problem is you guys are not good judges of readability. and then @para_sight and to be fair, why shld u be? It’s not your job.
@Ananyo What use readbility without factual accuracy? and then @Ananyo Aside from which, your statement about judging readability is a mildly insulting gross generalisation
Skipping forward a bit, he says:
@para_sight it’s not about communicating the details of scientist x’s research. our objective is different.
which really raised my eyebrows:
@Ananyo Did I just read you right that a science journalists job is NOT communicating scienctists research??
and he replies:
YES YOU DID RT @para_sight: @Ananyo Did I just read you right that a science journalists job is NOT communicating scienctists research??
@para_sight guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2… here’s what o think it’s for
So I go check out this other piece to see if I can better understand where he’s coming from. It’s not exactly on point with the conversation, seemingly being more directed at fellow journalists with respect to the Bristish science writing awards, but towards the end it gets better, and I’m still confused:
“Now, we all love Brian Cox and a certain amount of good science journalism might be cheerleading for the fascinating or baffling work of scientists. But I believe the best stories, and those that are often poorly represented in the ABSW awards, come from the troubled hinterland where science meets politics and big business”
It sounds like he draws a fairly bright line between communicating the contents of new scientific research to the public and a sort of “real journalism”: looking for conflict or drama where science butts up against other spheres of endeavour (interesting that religion was left out). And here’s where we get to the differing perceptions of scientists and journalists, because I’m pretty sure if you ask most scientists what science journalism is for they’ll say it’s to translate the difficult science they do for the eyes and minds of the public through a skilled journalist’s mastery of language and writing.
Not surprisingly, Robbins takes Bhattacharya side:
@Ananyo @para_sight Communicating scientists’ research isn’t journalism, it’s PR.
OK, that’s another view point I can’t agree with. Science communication should be agnostic about all things except enthusiasm. PR is lots of things, some of them are even good, but agnostic it ain’t!
Ed Yong, whom I respect tremendously, is closer to the middle ground:
@para_sight @Ananyo is right. Sci journalism and sci-comms are different. Overlapping but different. After I then said that Bhattacharya and I were on different planets, he replied: @Ananyo @para_sight You’re only on diff planets in that one of you is focusing on good journos/bad scientists; the other on the opposite.
He’s probably right, but even so it means that the perception gulf exists nonetheless. In that case, perhaps rather than worrying about whether or not scientists should have rights to check articles before they get published, we should focus our energies on a better mutual understanding between scientists and journalists about what our respective goals are, because that’s a much more worrisome and potential damaging problem. Bhattacharya and I agree on at least one thing, so I’ll give him the last word on that:
@para_sight journalists are from venus, scientists are from mars? but you’re right. journalism or news writing is not a simple affair….