January 17, 2012 | 10
ScienceOnline2012 is this week! Yikes! Lots of last-minute details still to put in place, but I think we’ll be fine. Of course, as one of the organizers, it’s hard for me to relax even during the event, always watching, making sure that everything is OK. But at the very end, when it is all over, I can be relaxed enough to focus. So I can do something that requires a functioning brain, like be on a panel. While the conference is generally an Unconference, with no panels, we decided to end the event with one panel anyway. It is this one:
The motivation for this panel came from a stormy debate that took place a few months ago on science blogs, social networks and The Guardian pages, about the pros and cons of some journalists’ practice of checking one’s facts or quotes with one’s sources. If you missed it, or if you want to refresh your memory, here is the listing of the main links to the debate:
I hope you read those – quite an interesting debate. There was some misunderstanding, at least at first, as to what is really meant. Checking facts, or checking copy, checking with sources, or checking with subjects, or checking with third parties? In general, journalists were on the side “never show copy to scientists”, while scientists were on the side of “you better show me the copy to approve”. A clash of cultures.
What struck me, as I was reading all those posts and articles back then, how much the debate is anchored in the “here and now” of the current practices in the current media environment (or perhaps, a media environment of the late 20th century). I like, when thinking about such topics, to take a longer view. I want to explore how the practice started. How was it done in some relevant time in the past, be it a decade ago, or a century ago, or in the 17th century, or in the caves, or the savannah or the Primordial Soup, whatever is the appropriate time period to look at. On the other end, I like to think into the future. It is perilous to make exact predictions about the future, especially giving confident numbers (e.g., “5 years from now”), but one can assess current trends, project them into the future assuming the trends will continue, then envision a new future environment and examine how it would affect the practices in question. So let me try to take a quick stab at the clash of cultures exemplified by the articles linked above.
Who is the author of the article?
A journalist is writing an article about a scientific topic. He/she calls up a couple of experts to make sure all the facts are right. As a reward, the experts will get named and briefly quoted in the article. This also shows that the journalist did the duty of checking with experts. The journalist finishes the article and turns it in for publication. His/her name will be up on top, so the assumption is that his/her reputation is on the line, and that he/she is the author of the piece and has full control over it.
A scientist – one of those experts called in – does not think that way about the authorship. In science, the author is NOT the one who writes the words. In science, the authors are people who identify the problem, ask the question, get hired by an institution that can provide space, successfully get grant money, set up a lab, gather a good team (students, postdocs, technicians, collaborators), get the experiments done, analyze data, interpret the results. The last step of the scientific process, communication of the results, is often seen as separate endeavor. Sure, most scientists, especially in smaller labs, write their manuscripts themselves. But bigger labs employ professional writers to write all the manuscripts, grant proposals, etc. Those writers are never considered to be authors, because they are not considered to have intellectually contributed to the work. In the world of science, authorship has nothing to do with writing.
Thus, in the example above, the scientist, being the one who supplied the information, considers him/herself to be the author of the article, with the journalist acting as someone who just writes it up. The article is about “my area of expertise, quoting me as an expert, so if the guy gets something wrong the whole scientific community will laugh at me, and my reputation is going to hell, thus as the author of the piece I have to have complete control over it, just like when I write a manuscript or a grant proposal”.
Think about it: two people each inhabit their own cultures, and each fails to recognize that the other person’s reputation hinges on the accuracy of the same piece of writing! Of course they both want control over it!
The problem of the quote
I do not know when the practice of quoting began and why. I can guess at a couple of reasons for it. First, that was a way for a reporter to signal to the editor that he has actually called experts instead of writing something out of thin air. Second, it saves space, which in the realm of paper publishing, is limited. Third, it moves some of the responsibility off the reporter and onto the expert. If the statement is wrong, the reporter can have an excuse: “That’s what she said”.
A scientist interviewed for an article will talk for an hour. She would much prefer if the reporter summarized that hour in a paragraph and let her check if it’s accurate. The quote, no matter which two sentences have been pulled out of an hour-long interview, can never be representative of the entire hour’s material. Every quote is by definition a quote out of context. Every quote is always a misquote.
But if a quote is a must, then the scientist is worried – which two sentences will get picked and how much will those two sentences be misleading without the proper context?
Everyone who’s ever been quoted is always unhappy with the quote. Reporter is often blamed, but really, it is the problem of the form. If no quote can ever be representative of what the person said in an hour, then every quote must be, by definition, an atrocity that puts the quotee in bad light. Many people have quit doing interviews entirely because of this.
I was interviewed for and quoted in an article in New York Times today (it is actually a very good article – the discussion below is not a judgment on the article as a whole). See:
We spoke on the phone for more than an hour. We covered a lot of ground. I got two quotes in there. They are kinda OK, not totally misleading, but they are not representative of what I said, nor are they representative of who I am and what I stand for, and why I was interviewed in the first place. Was the whole interview a waste of time if the key ingredients did not make it into the article?
One quote is about journals, specifically Nature. I was pushed to say something, but I was reluctant to say much, since SciAm is owned by Nature, and I have no idea what the bosses at Nature are thinking and planning – I am not an expert on the inner workings of NPG. But I did go at lengths about the journal publishing business as a whole, various new models, how the Web is changing the publishing industry, how different major players are responding to changes, etc. In the end, I guess the NPG bosses are happy with my quotes because it appears I am defending them. My friends may raise their eyebrows, thinking I am abandoning my proselytizing for Open Access. Other readers may be misled in thinking that my off-the-cuff semi-sentences are indications of some big changes at Nature that are secret but I know about them. Yet others may think, because of the context of the previous paragraph, that I am defending the entire publishing industry. Not clear. Not where my expertise lies. Not what I wanted to talk about. Not why I was supposed to be in that article in the first place. But hey, I am happy to have a photo in NYT and a link to my blog and to ScienceOnline2012.com homepage.
My other quote says something about replacing articles about Lindsay Lohan with articles about science. Catchy quote. Good for SEO. But the point of that part of the interview was different – I was talking about the differences between push and pull strategies for science communication and how science stories should appear where the people are, e.g., right next to Lohan stories. The idea is that all science communicators, including professional science media, are in the same business with the same goal – promoting science. Instead of thinking of each other as competitors, more and more such organizations see each other as collaborators. The true competitor for audience attention is popular culture. Really, all I did was rehash what I wrote a long time ago in this post, just updating the name of the celebrity. You could not glean any of it from my quote, right?
So, what to do?
This is the era of the Web. There is no limit to space. And not using links is rude and diminishes one’s trust with the readers. Thus:
Both the reporter and the interviewee should record the whole thing (and really, at this day and age you should be recording, not hammering notes into a stone tablet). And then, they should both post the recording online. And the final article should link to the recording (or full transcript) of the interview. A quote should never stand alone – it should only serve as a ‘hook’ for the readers to click on the link and listen to (or read) the whole thing. That is what I have in the past dubbed The Ethics of The Quote.
This way, nobody is quoted out of context. No more finger-pointing between the two parties. No more battle over control of the final text, or “who is the real author here” debate. The whole “sharing with sources” debate becomes moot.
Multitudes of Sciences
In all of these debates about science journalism, we always tend to talk about Science as if it was a unified ‘thing’. But it is not. There are numerous scientific cultures. The culture is affected by one’s discipline, by the department and institution, and by country in which the lab resides.
Some disciplines attract a lot of money. They are a potential road to fame, wealth and power. They can be extremely competitive, attracting people into it who are already competitive, then enculturating them to become even more so. Careers are made or broken by the Impact Factor of the journal one manages to publish in. Speedy lab techniques introduce a real potential for getting scooped. Secretiveness rules. The discipline is potentially politicized. The field may be essentially basic science, but it masquerades as applied in order to garner funding and attention. Labs are likely to be in top-level research institutions, usually in the Western countries.
Other disciplines attract loners, in small departments, in small schools, often in other countries, where pressures are lower. They pursue some weird, quirky research out of personal curiosity. It costs very little. There is no Nobel prize for what they do. Society journals (or PLoS ONE these days) are perfectly fine venues for the occasional publication. Teaching and outreach are as important as research. It is unlikely or impossible to get scooped, so free and open discourse is a norm. Drafts of manuscripts are shared with “competitors” asking for feedback (well, there are only three other people in the world doing the same thing, might as well be friends and coordinate work instead of wasting time doing exact same experiments). The society does not even have to notify the hotel that the entire field will come in one day and have their annual meeting in their lobby.
Covering these two disciplines, as a journalist, cannot be the same thing. Practitioners in one of them you can trust much more than the other, right? So your attitude is different – more antagonistic for one discipline (or institution, or country), more collaborative for the other.
Multitudes of Journalisms
Just like there are many sciences, not just one, there are also many ‘journalisms’, not just one, and we should be aware of this in these discussions. A lot of these debates assume that everyone knows the inside baseball of a newsroom. But people who are just the audience don’t know much about how the divisions work within the media. Everything that is in the paper is, well, “in the paper”. News, features, investigative reporting, op-eds, obituaries, sports results, TV listings, ads, comics, horoscopes…all of that is in the paper. Thus, for a casual reader, a regular citizen, all of it is media, and journalism, and news. Even before the Web, when one arrives to a page via link with no orientation where it belongs on the website, people did not know the difference between “straight” reporting, and editorials, etc. The same also includes radio, television and, these days, also the Internet. It is all media.
But, whenever we get into these debates, especially when bloggers start showing examples of the quality of their work in many areas – news coverage, features, explainers, fact-checking, investigative reporting, etc. the old-style journos retreat into defining “real journalism” very narrowly, as investigative journalism only. They tend to cling to the Woodward Bernstein Myth, as if that was real, and if that was usual, and as if that was the only journalism worth the name. But cartoons are journalism, too, you know, if you ask anyone on the street reading your newspaper….
So yes, an intrepid reporter who sniffs a fishy story and doggedly pursues it until the dirt is uncovered and a career affected (e.g., by sending someone to jail, or leading to loss of job, or medical/law licence, etc. – see Brian Deer vs. Wakefield) is doing an extraordinary feat of journalism.
But is that science journalism?
For a long time I have been arguing that journalism that investigates misdeeds by scientists is not science journalism, but political (or economic or financial or whatever) journalism that just happens to involve a scientist, so the academic context is important (how does the money flow through the system, how does reputation and hierarchy work in it, etc.).
In science journalism, it is the scientists who discovered the secrets, and the journalists help share the discovery with the public. The scientist has nothing to hide. Collaborative, not antagonistic work. Mutual trust, not suspicion. In science journalism, as opposed to investigative journalism that happens to involve a scientist, the scientist is the source, not subject. The process of writing the article is a collaborative project. Both are authors. So why not share? Not just quotes – heck, work on the article together in a Google doc.
I know the people with the Woodward-Bernstein Complex will not like the paragraphs above (and by golly, how many students go into journalism due to the Woodward-Bernstein Complex because they saw “All The President’s Men”!!!!). I still stand by them – science journalism is writing about science to lay audiences with a goal to inform, educate and entertain.
If we classify science stories into ‘cool’, ‘relevant’ and ‘fishy’, the third one is not really science journalism as its goal is not to promote science to the lay audience. Indeed, it may have the opposite effect, that of reducing trust in science and scientists, especially if that is all people see. It is important, it forces the academic world to act against its bad actors faster than the usual “we’ll do it fast, in about two years of committee meetings” speed.
But it is inside baseball, and it is not the kind of stories I would push very much in front of completely lay audience, side-by-side with Lindsey Lohan. Perhaps it would be better to put those pieces into the “pull media” outlets, where those who need to see it – because they can act to exert pressure – can see it. Better that than projecting the image of science as being eternally untrustworthy, leading to all the climate denialism and other politicized anti-science movements that capitalize on that kind of perception.
Remember: 99.9% of scientists are honest, are excited about their work and about science, and are careful not to over-stress the importance of their findings. It’s part of their culture and their training. They are not trying to sell you anything. I understand that reporters whose daily beat forces them to deal entirely with the dirty deeds of a few individuals (or only cover papers in GlamourMagz authored by scientific superstars with named chairs at Ivy League schools) may have such a jaded, yet highly skewed, view of science. But it is just not correct. Most reporters, covering most areas of science, need not be so suspicious of scientists, or of PIOs at institutions, etc – they are all working collaboratively together to present the cool, new findings to the world. Work with them, not against them.
Who is a science journalist these days?
The science journalism ecosystem has been rapidly changing lately. It is becoming very difficult these days to say who is a journalist. The courts are having trouble with this as well, especially when they try to identify a person, who by virtue of working for a media organization, can be legally considered to be a journalist. What we need instead is to define acts of journalism. Anyone can commit such acts, so in court cases the point would be to determine if the act in question should be considered an act of journalism, thus perhaps deserving some protections.
In science journalism, in particular, there is a fuzzy division now between journalists and scientists. Many scientists are not sources any more, but ‘go direct’ (as Dave Winer would say) and communicate straight to their audiences.
On the other hand, more and more science journalists these days have a real background in science – they got science degrees, did scientific research, then leaked out of the tenure-track pipeline and decided to become science writers, or science journalists, or PIOs. Instead of backgrounds in English or communications, or accidentally being assigned the science beat by editors, today’s science journalists are likely to be scientists as well.
Some of them have completely quit research, but “once a scientist, always a scientist” – being a scientist is a mindset, not a profession. It comes with training. It never leaves. Though one can always learn to write better
Others still have one foot in the lab and their writing is either a semi-amateur outlet for one’s passion for writing, or is a test for a potential move into full-time writing careers.
Some scientists move from research to writing by going through specialized science writing programs in journalism schools, while others enter more ‘laterally’, by becoming successful science bloggers first.
Some are writers first, but are also heavily involved in doing Citizen Science or DIY science.
And others never intend to leave the lab, but thoroughly enjoy writing their science blogs in the evenings.
Many are not the usual white, male, middle-class, top-research-university-in-the-USA kinds of people, bringing diversity of angles, approaches and voices that help reach a broader audience than what the old-style journalists interviewing old-style scientists could ever dream of (look around the #SciAmBlogs network – there is a reason why the chosen line-up is so diverse in geography, gender, age, race/ethnicity, scientific background, writing experience, and more…despite having very different writing styles they are all awesome bloggers, and as a group they can reach an incredibly diverse and broad audience).
But then…what does it mean to be a “source” any more?
Expert bloggers, and it’s hard to think of bloggers with more expertise on their subject (or a subject requiring more expertise) than science bloggers, are their own sources. Bloggers have the liberty to cover only the areas of science they are comfortable with, those in which they are confident they have sufficient expertise in. Why call and interview (and quote) anyone else? If a paper on circadian biology comes out, I can explain it because I am one of the experts. I am both the source and the journalist when covering that paper (so I guess I will share the “copy” with myself throughout the process of me collaborating with myself).
Moreover, if a mainstream media outlet writes about the same paper, I expect they will check what the expert bloggers are saying first (easy sources that don’t need to be called) and thus see my coverage. They will then quote me, name me and link to my post (well, they should, and they better!) – my post is their expert source. It is the ready-made transcript of the interview they never conducted – they didn’t have to, because I already provided the whole text for them in advance, in public, on my blog. And if there is something fishy about the paper, I am much more likely to notice and write about it, sparing the journalist the embarrassment of getting it wrong at first, then correcting later (or worse – see the #arseniclife media debacle).
Obviously, in the new media ecosystem, the whole notion of sharing with sources is all fuzzy – who is the source these days when scientists write in public, and journalists are themselves scientists? Makes no sense. But it makes sense that people who write for the public know what they writing about. This is why science journalism has never been as good as it is now – scientists write, journalists know their science, commenters know it even better, and the audience is having great fun. Society benefits.