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In case you wondered why so much science journalism sounds like PR

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For a science establishment… Because it is, and some science boffins often want it that way:

FOR ERIN ZIMMERMAN, a plant molecular biologist turned freelance science writer living in Ontario, Canada, a recent plant science conference presented a rare opportunity to meet scientists working in the field and to gin up some story ideas. “It’s unusual for a conference in my niche to be within a day’s driving distance, so I was really excited to be going,” she said.

But she hit a roadblock. The conference organizer would only grant her a press pass if she allowed researchers she reported on, along with the conference committee, to review anything she wrote. Such an agreement would “run contrary to the editorial policy of most reputable outlets,” she emailed back, copying the department head and university press office. For reinforcement, she linked to a 2018 Nature article explaining norms for scientists’ interactions with the press.

It was to no avail. In a series of haranguing emails, the older scientist dismissed journalistic standards, slammed scientific publishers like Nature, and criticized Zimmerman’s own work — including a story written for Undark.

Teresa Carr, “Revisiting the Role of the Science Journalist” at Undark

Wow. That was some big bee that guy had in his bonnet. The article goes on to talk about the woes of science writing generally in an age of massive disruption.

Two thoughts: The biggest temptation for science journalists is to be cheerleaders instead of thoughtful and constructive critics. Everybody loves the cheerleader; the critic, however kindly and well-meaning, well — is just not loved so much. So one must be willing to be unpopular at times.

Also, a thoughtful science critic, like a thoughtful drama critic, must work from a point of view. And developing a point of view takes time, effort, research, and exposure. By definition, not everyone will agree with it. That’s what happens when you proceed from developed principles. But at least you have a basis for what you are saying that goes beyond “Well I like this!” or “Those people suck!” – O’Leary for News

Hat tip: Pos-darwinista

See also: Science Journalist Confronts Evolutionary Theorist With Hard Questions At His Book Talk (Suzan Mazur had some questions for David Sloan Wilson)

Science writer John Horgan still doubts cosmic inflation (Horgan has been more willing than many to make independent assessments)

and

Scientific American may be owned by Nature but it is run by Twitter This is the sad tale of a Science journalist who seems not to have guessed a complex unwritten rule.

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2 Replies to “In case you wondered why so much science journalism sounds like PR

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    People are people whether scientists or journalists. According to this anecdote, this particular scientist was behaving like a jerk. You think there aren’t journalists who have distorted, plagiarized or just plain fabricated stories? Does that make all journalists corrupt and untrustworthy? Does that story make all scientists arrogant bullies?

    Yes, a researcher might exaggerate the significance of some work in order to enhance his or her reputation or attract more funding. But equally articles in a newspaper are in competition with each other for space on the page and newspapers are in cutthroat competition with each other for readership. So it could be in one or both parties interests to magnify a minor advance in slowing the growth of tumors into a major breakthrough in the treatment of cancer.

    I thought that one measure of good journalism was an honest attempt to present both sides of a story, In that anecdote, we hear the journalist’s side but not that of the scientist. The journalist may well be right but we need to hear the scientist’s side as well to get a balanced picture.

  2. 2
    Silver Asiatic says:

    Seversky

    The journalist may well be right but we need to hear the scientist’s side as well to get a balanced picture.

    What speaks against that view, in this case, is that the scientist had every opportunity to make his views known, but he shut down the conversation. The journalist did not expose his name. But the question remains, what was the scientist covering up?
    Not all scientists are arrogant jerks. I know several who are modest, humble and very likable. They do their work without any acclaim or even notice.
    But I think we’re talking about a tendency or predominance.
    The most arrogant people I have ever known were scientists. There are scientists who think they alone are the final arbiters of truth and they alone have access to most important knowledge needed by the human race.
    If this particular scientist wanted his views known, he could have taken that opportunity with the journalist.

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