The trouble with science journalists is that they are expected to be cheer leaders rather than informed criticsby Olivia Judson / October 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
One morning, as I walked to work through St James’s Park, marvelling at the strange duck with the lurid blue beak which sometimes cavorts on the lake, I had one of those moments of ghastly clarity. I suddenly knew what it was that had been vaguely bothering me about my job as a science journalist.
There were lots of little things that I already knew about. For example, the fact that on becoming a journalist some former scientist colleagues scuttled away whenever they saw me-which was offensive not so much because of what it revealed of their estimation of me or my fellow journalists, but because anyone funded by public money, as most scientists are, has an obligation to say, if asked, what they are doing with it.
There was also the difficulty inherent in all technical journalism of walking that tightrope between clarity and accuracy. I call this the “DNA, the genetic material” problem: in a publication aimed at the general public, you can assume little specific knowledge and must explain almost every term-hence, one reader’s sarcastic letter, “God, a deity.”
Nor was my epiphany about sensationalism or trivialisation. I have been lucky. In three years working at The Economist I have been free, by and large, from constraints of space and the need for gee-whizzardry which often besieges those working for less earnest publications. The magazine has given me time for careful research and allowed me to pursue my passion for the nitty-gritty of incremental scientific discovery.
Rather, in that moment of truth, I suddenly knew that I was simply a medium, a channel of communication to the material world from a world of higher beings-scientists.
To a large extent, all journalists serve as intermediaries between a public which does not have the time or the means to find out what is going on in a given area, and various figures, be they soldiers, politicians or scientists who are engaged in something worthy of comment. Journalism is inherently voyeuristic.
This is not to say that it is not powerful. Politicians, after all, are notoriously concerned about what the media has to say; they often change their behaviour accordingly. But writing about science seems to me to be more analogous to forecasting the weather. You can say what you like, sometimes you will be right and sometimes not, what you say may encourage people to carry an umbrella-but however much you sing and dance you won’t make any difference to the weather itself. Likewise, in writing about science, you may change the public perception of science and scientists, you may even have some effect on government policy, but you won’t have any impact on scientists. There is the “political commentator,” “art critic,” but merely “science writer.” Science journalists behave as praise singers for science, channels of information from higher beings to ignorant mortals.
This is both unavoidable and desirable. When writing about research, rather than the social implications of research into areas such as genetically-modified foods, the point of science journalism is to make accessible ideas that scientists rarely have the time or inclination to take to the public themselves.
But the trouble is that this is often not enough, either for the public or the journalists. Science has a particular place in the popular imagination which is not shared by politics, business, art or sport. In the popular mind, science is a two-headed monster, encompassing great hopes and terrible fears. There is an enormous appetite-and credulousness-for stories of either kind. And there is tremendous pressure and temptation for science journalists to provide such stories, to exaggerate novelty and conjure controversy and danger where none exists. Huge stories should never have been stories at all-such as the “cure for cancer” story which was splashed on the front page of the New York Times in May but then took on a life of its own, driven by the hopes of cancer sufferers. It would have been a great story if it had been true. Likewise, such is the hold that human cloning has on the imagination that a maverick physicist who claimed he was about to start cloning people gained instant notoriety in January. And in August, reports that genetically engineered potatoes depressed the immune systems of rodents created needless panic when the story first appeared: the gene put into the potatoes was expected to be harmful.
Stories like this give science journalism a bad name, and make scientists clam up. At a recent meeting on mad cow disease, for example, participants were asked to sign a vow not to speak to journalists about anything that happened in the meeting.
Without wanting to sound pompous, I think science journalists do have a particular responsibility. Most people do not have the ability to evaluate scientific claims, while they can and do evaluate political or financial claims. This means that when a journalist makes claims about the harm that a technology can do or the potential good a discovery can deliver, it is more important that such claims be right than claims about a politician’s sex life. Putting science before the story is the first step in turning science writers into science critics. For although many scientists would disagree with me, science badly needs well-informed people who can speak freely about its faults.
Thinking about this suggests to me that the best way to become a better science journalist is to learn more science; it is no coincidence that much of the best writing about science is by scientists. And after the past three years of watching what must be one of the most exciting periods that biology has ever known, I have decided to spend less time as medium and (temporarily) abdicate from my aspirations as a critic. I am going to stop watching and rush back to join the action.