In the series, "Worth Pitching?" I'll describe research I've come across in the course of science journalism and whether or not I pitched it as a story. All research may be worthwhile, but what might the general public want to read about?
On my last post on pitching, regarding a throwaway paragraph on intelligent alien dinosaurs, a commenter and fellow Scientific American blogger did note that the author of that paper, Ron Breslow, is a very highly respected scientist, and wondered why any reporters who wrote about the intelligent alien dinosaur comment didn't simply interview him to find out what it meant.
So yes, Ron Breslow is a very respected scientist, and a former president of the American Chemical Society to boot. He's very far from a quack, and should not be dismissed as such. Why didn't any reporters contact him for his side of the story?
This is a question with a complex set of answers. I'll offer my own views, and freely admit there are many arguments one could make regarding this issue, which people can discuss themselves in the comment section.
In my opinion, as I said in my last post, I don't think this shouldn't have been written about at all. It appeared in a scientific paper, but I don't think it's meant to be considered a scientific comment -- it's not supposed to be thought of as an argument backed by evidence.
Any stories that one writes about this are then about the culture of science. Should the scientist have put those statements in there or not? Should the press officers have emphasized that statement or not?
What usually ends up happening is that you mostly end up expressing opinions. Some people liked the flight of fancy; others found it ridiculous. That's exactly what happened in this situation.
Do you then go and gather opinions, including an interview with Breslow? As far as I can tell, most writers didn't. My feeling is that they didn't feel the issue warranted the extra effort. It barely warranted the effort of writing an opinion about it -- again, my opinion is that it didn't really even warrant an article at all. Also, by going around and asking others about their opinions on a throwaway comment, are you just conjuring a tempest in a teapot, making more of an issue than is strictly necessary?
Also, I'm not sure what interviewing Breslow would actually get you, other than a story that further embarrasses Breslow. I'd imagine the interview might go something like: "Maybe you shouldn't have wrote that?" "Yes." "Do you feel silly writing that now?" "Perhaps." "Would you say in retrospect that you might have expressed poor judgment?" "Perhaps." It's not professional as a journalist to avoid an interview simply to avoid further hurting someone's feelings, but it wouldn't surprise me if it happened.
You can email me regarding Worth Pitching? at firstname.lastname@example.org.