The circumstances in which scientists are science journos

On September 6, 2019, two researchers from Israel uploaded a preprint to the bioRxiv preprint server entitled ‘Can scientists fill the science journalism void? Online public engagement with two science stories authored by scientists’. Two news sites invited scientists to write science articles for them, supported by a short workshop at the start of the programme and then by a group of editors during the ideation and editing process. The two researchers tracked and analysed the results, concluding:

Overall significant differences were not found in the public’s engagement with the different items. Although, on one website there was a significant difference on two out of four engagement types, the second website did not have any difference, e.g., people did not click, like or comment more on items written by organic reporters than on the stories written by scientists. This creates an optimistic starting point for filling the science news void [with] scientists as science reporters.

Setting aside questions about the analysis’s robustness: I don’t understand the point of this study (insofar as it concerns scientists being published in news websites, not blogs), as a matter of principle. When was the optimism in question ever in doubt? And if it was, how does this preprint paper allay it?

The study aims to establish whether articles written by scientists can be just as successful – in terms of drawing traffic or audience engagement – as articles penned by trained journalists working in newsrooms. There are numerous examples that this is the case, and there are numerous other examples that this is not. But by discussing the results of their survey in a scientific paper, the authors seem to want to elevate the possibility that articles authored by scientists can perform well to a well-bounded result – which seems questionable at best, even if it is strongly confined to the Israeli market.

To take a charitable view, the study effectively reaffirms one part of a wider reality.

I strongly doubt there’s a specific underlying principle that suggests a successful outcome, at least beyond the mundane truism that the outcome is a combination of many things. From what I’ve seen in India, for example, the performance of a ‘performant article’ depends on the identity of the platform, the quality of its editors, the publication’s business model and its success, the writer’s sensibilities, the magnitude and direction of the writer’s moral compass, the writer’s fluency in the language and medium of choice, the features of the audience being targeted, and the article’s headline, length, time of publication and packaging.

It’s true that a well-written article will often perform better than average and a poorly written written article will perform worse than average, in spire of all these intervening factors, but these aren’t the only two states in which an article can exist. In this regard, claiming scientists “stand a chance” says nothing about the different factors in play and even less about why some articles won’t do well.

It also minimises editorial contributions. The two authors write in their preprint, “News sites are a competitive environment where scientists’ stories compete for attention with other news stories on hard and soft topics written by professional writers. Do they stand a chance?” This question ignores the publisher’s confounding self-interest: to maximise a story’s impact roughly proportional to the amount of labour expended to produce it, such as with the use of a social media team. More broadly, if there are fewer science journalists, there are also going to be fewer science editors (an event that precipitated the former will most likely precipitate the latter as well), which means there will also be fewer science stories written by anyone in the media.

Another issue here is something I can’t stress enough: science writers, communicators and journalists don’t have a monopoly on writing about science or scientists. The best science journalism has certainly been produced by reporters who have been science journalists for a while, but this is no reason to write off the potential for good journalism – in general – to produce stories that include science, nor to exclude such stories from analyses of how the people get their science news.

A simple example is environmental journalism in India. Thanks to prevalent injustices, many important nuggets of environmental and ecological knowledge appear in articles written by reporters working the social justice and political economics beats. This has an important lesson for science reporters and editors everywhere: not being employed full-time is typically a bitter prospect but your skills don’t have to manifest in stories that appear on pages or sections set aside for science news alone.

It also indicates that replenishing the workforce (even with free labour) won’t stave off the decline of science journalism – such as it is – as much as tackling deeper, potentially extra-scientific, issues such as parochialism and anti-intellectualism, and as a second step convincing both editors and marketers about the need to publish science journalism including and beyond considerations of profit.

Last, the authors further write:

This study examined whether readers reacted differently to science news items written by scientists as compared to news items written by organic reporters published on the same online news media sites. Generally speaking, based on our findings, the answer is no: audiences interacted similarly with both. This finding justifies the time and effort invested by the scientists and the Davidson science communication team to write attractive science stories, and justifies the resources provided by the news sites. Apparently if websites publish it, audiences will consume it.

An editor could have told you this in a heartbeat. Excluding audiences that consume content from niche outlets, and especially including audiences that flock to ‘destination’ sites (i.e. sites that cover nearly everything), authorship rarely ever matters unless the author is prominent or the publication highlights it. But while the Israeli duo has reason to celebrate this user behaviour, as it does, others have seen red.

For example, in December 2018, the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal published a paper by an Oxford University physicist named Jamie Farnes advancing a fanciful solution to the dark matter and dark energy problems. The paper was eventually widely debunked by scientists and science journalists alike but not before hundreds, if not thousands, of people were taken by an article in The Conversation that seemed to support the paper’s conclusions. What many of them – including some scientists – didn’t realise was that The Conversation often features scientists writing articles about their own work, and didn’t know the problem article had been written by Farnes himself.

So even if the preprint study skipped articles written by scientists about their own work, the duos’s “build it and they will come” inference is not generalisable, especially if – for another example – someone else from Oxford University had written favourably about Farnes’s paper. I regularly field questions from young scientist-writers baffled as to why I won’t publish articles that quote ‘independent’ scientists commenting on a study they didn’t participate in but which was funded, in part or fully, by the independent scientists’ employer(s).

I was hoping to neatly tie my observations together in a conclusion but some other work has come up, so I hope you won’t mind the abrupt ending as well as that, in the absence of a concluding portion, you won’t fall prey to the recency effect.

Corrected: Environmental journalism in India and false balance

Featured image credit: mamnaimie/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

I’ve developed a lousy habit of publishing posts before they’re ready to go, and not being careful enough about how I’m wording things. It happened recently with the review of Matthew Cobb’s book and then last evening with the post about false balance in environmental journalism. I don’t think my blog is small enough any more for me to be able to set the record straight quietly (evinced by the reader who pointed out some glaring mistakes). So this is fixing the false balance post. Apologies, I’ll be more careful next time.

In the same vein, any advice/tips on how to figure when an opinion is ready to go (and you’ve not forgotten something) would be much appreciated. What I usually do is take a break for 30 minutes after I’ve finished writing something, then return to it and read it out loud.

It’s no secret that the incumbent NDA government ruling in India has screwed over the country’s environmental protection machinery to such an extent that there remain few meaningful safeguards against corporate expansionism – especially of the rapacious kind. Everything – from land acquisition, tribal protection and coastal regulation to pollution control and assessment – has been systematically weakened. As a result, the government’s actions have become suspect by default.

For journalists in India, this has come with an obvious tilt in the balance of stories. Government actions and corporate interests have become increasingly indefensible. What redemption they may have been able to afford started to dissipate when both factions started to openly rub shoulders with each other, feeding off each others’ strengths: the government’s ability to change policy and modify legislation and the companies’ ability to… well, fund. Prime example: the rise of Gautam Adani.

In Indian journalism, therefore, representing all three sides in an article – the government, corporate interests and the environment – (and taking a minimalist PoV for argument’s sake) is no longer the required thing to do. Representation is magnified for environmental interests while government and corporate lines are printed as a matter of courtesy, if at all. This has become okay, and it is.

Do I have a problem with this? No. That’s why doing things like asking corporate interests what they have to say is called a false balance.

Is activist journalism equivalent to adversarial journalism simply by assuming its subject is to right a wrong? Recently, I edited an article for The Wire about how, despite the presence of dozens of regulatory bodies, nobody is sure who is responsible for conserving and bettering the status of India’s wetlands. The article was penned by an activist and was in the manner of an oped; all claims and accusations were backed up, it wasn’t a rant. I think it speaks more to the zeitgeist of Indian environmental journalism and not the zeitgeist of journalism in general that opeds like that one have become news reports de jure. In other words: if only in Indian environmental journalism, there is no Other Side anymore for sure.

This advent of a ‘false balance’ recently happened in the case of climate change, where a scientific consensus was involved. That global warming is anthropogenic came to be treated as fact after scientific studies to assess its origins repeatedly reached that conclusion. Therefore, journalistic reports that quote climate-change skeptics are presenting a false balance of the truth. A decision to not quote the government or corporate interests in the case presented above, however, is more fluid, influenced not by the truth-value of a single parameter but by the interests of journalism itself.

Where this takes us isn’t entirely difficult to predict: the notion of balance itself has had a problematic history, and needs to be deprioritised. Its necessity is invoked by the perception of many that journalism is, or has to be, objective. It may have been associated with objectivity at its birth but journalism today definitely has mostly no need to be. And when it doesn’t need to be happens only through the advent of false balances.