13 October 2006

Yet more picking on science journalists

Over on The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer has written a sensible piece Don't Blame Science Journalists. It has smoked out some of the usual claptrap from folks who simply don't have a clue. There is, though, much sense in his complaint about the harmful influence of embargoes.

The embargo system is simply the puppet master pulling the strings. But the science writers collude with this, partly because they have their backs to the wall and they like an easy life.

Most newspapers cover science because they feel that they have to, not because there is an audience out there desperate to read the stuff. So the science reporter constantly has to wheedle space out of reluctant news editors, many of whom think that science is something that the dog brought in.

News editor have this funny idea of what constitutes news. To them it is the material that has just appeared in the rival press and on the broadcast media that day. If the front page of The New York Times covers a paper in PNAS, then heaven help the science writer on the Washington Post for passing on it.

Embargoes just make it easier for everyone to know what will appear in tomorrow's newspapers. (Don't be surprised if there is a lot on large-scale solar power or autism next Monday.)

The scientists go along with this game because it benefits them too. After all, a paper in Nature, Science or PNAS is often a crowning achievement in a scientist's career. What better for the next grant application than to have that paper splattered all over the newspapers?

If everyone heeded Jonah's words and went to find their own leads, you would rarely read the same stories in different media. Get out and about. Visit researchers in their labs. Attend conferences. There's plenty of genuinely interesting science out there. Not all of it is in university labs, and yet we rarely read about the results of corporate research.

Sadly, another nail in the coffin of science journalism is, paradoxically, the Internet. It means that science writers can sit at their desks, waiting for the flood of press releases to come in. Then they can research away to their heart's content. Much easier, and cheaper, than getting on a plane and spending hours trying to fathom some hard science.

Is it any wonder that much of today's science coverage is bland?

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