Kraken Scandal Reveals the Real Problem With Science Journalism.
Some bloggers used uncritical coverage of a story about a giant cephalopod to say science journalists are too uncritical. But the real problem is readers have no idea how to distinguish science journalism from PR.
An alleged incidence of deplorable science journalism that I'll call Krakengate was very much of interest yesterday in Penn State biologist Andrew Read's undergraduate class. This was a class in science for non-majors and Read said his subject matter often deals with the treatment of science in the media and critical thinking. From talking to the class and answering students' questions, I realized there is a real problem with science journalism: Many people no longer distinguish journalism from PR. The krakengate scandal brought that home.
It all started several weeks ago when a number of bloggers and TV people picked up on a "story" about a giant prehistoric cephalopod allegedly similar to the legendary kraken. According to various blog posts and websites, the kraken was making artwork out of the bones of a recent meal – a fearsome aquatic reptile. It was not just artwork but a self-portrait of the kraken's tentacles, according to a scientist.
The problem was, there was no evidence presented that the Kraken existed, let alone that it was an accomplished artist. I only found out about the story when someone sent me a link to a posting on a wired.com blog by Brian Switek. Switek's first sentence was, "there's a problem with science journalism." His concern was that reporters were being uncritical and not seeking out contradictory sources.
In my own blog I pointed out that the story was picked up primarily by bloggers who may or may not be journalists. There were also good skeptical bloggers, most notably PZ Myers, who debunked the story. Journalists almost uniformly ignored the whole thing.
But some readers don't know that because they think they're getting journalism when they're getting PR. That was the case for one of Read's students, who wrote up the kraken story as a blog post that was part of a class assignment. After learning the kraken might not be real, she commented that she was "duped" and that science journalism was a lot "sketchier" than she'd thought.
Her statement is telling because she never consulted any science journalism and yet she thought she had. She got the story from a site known as ScienceDaily, which often prints press releases written by PR people. It was a Geological Society of America press release she rewrote to create her own blog post.
What surprised me was that students for the most part had no idea what a press release was or why it was different from a piece of writing done by a journalist.
It's not that press releases are bad and stories good. But they're different in nature and intent. Press releases are promotional materials. It's worrisome that so many websites don't make the distinctions clear to readers. No wonder these students are confused. It's not that we journalists are perfectly unbiased - we're human - but there are conflict of interest rules we follow. We don't accept money from institutions we cover, for example, while most PR people are paid by the institutions they cover.
Brian Switek disagreed with me in a follow up post, suggesting that my attempt to define reporters was snooty.
"This is an argument about definition. If you think a reporter is only a college-trained journalist who writes for a major magazine or newspaper, then our Dulcinea of science journalism remains safe from the kraken, but I feel that this contention misses the point and continues to perpetuate the hidebound notion that news only comes in print form via the New York Times or The Economist."
I don't think being a reporter depends on a college degree or getting into print. I majored in science, not journalism. But to qualify as a reporter, shouldn't you do some reporting? That means attempting to write unbiased stories, checking things out, going for the truth, and applying critical thinking. We don't always succeed but we try. Rewriting a press release doesn't count.
That said, newspaper reporters are increasingly being asked to produce more blubs and "briefs". Editors often make the assumption that the length of time we should spend researching a story is proportional to the length of the story. So if you see any section of a newspaper labeled as "briefs", beware. It's unlikely much time was spent on the reporting.