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…