One of the more salient issues to me in the wake of Scienceblogs.org's PepsiBlog fiasco was the moderate schism it revealed between science bloggers (lower case) who self-identify as journalists and those who self-identify as scientists.
The uproar was driven in large part by the journalist types screaming about traditional journalist ethics and the supposed hard line that is drawn between the editorial and business sides of a media property.
My response to this was that as a profession and job sector this is nothing more than a convenient fiction. Recent history is rife with cases in which financial considerations clearly shaded, moved, biased or otherwise influenced content. Look, I get it. There are many cases in which the alleged Chinese wall works. Cases in which newsmedia entities published stories clearly against their own financial interest. And yes, there is a lot of print and J-school professor hot air
wasted on devoted to the ethical line.
But at best, these forces for ethical hard lines are losing. Better bet is that the profession is just irretrievably conflicted and we are just going to have to muddle along.
But what really disturbed me was the eagerness of some otherwise respectable scientist-bloggers to start claiming that they (meaning "we) are quasi journalists. Claiming that they (and let's be honest, "we") actually should lean toward and adopt the supposed professional ethics of journalism.
An exchange I've been having on the Twitts today illustrates precisely why science bloggers should not only not adopt a journalist stance but should continue to disparage, correct and otherwise dissect journalistic "coverage" of a science-related story.
The news of the day is the judicial decision to block an executive order issued by President Obama to expand the number of stem cell lines which could be used in federally funded research. The NYT bit does a good job of summarizing the context.
For years, private financing has been used to create embryonic stem cell lines, mostly from discarded embryos from fertility clinics. The process destroys the embryos. President Bush agreed to finance embryonic stem cell research, but limited federally financed research to 21 cell lines already in existence by 2001.
Under the Obama administration, private money was still needed to obtain the embryonic stem cells, but federal money could be used to conduct research on hundreds more stem cell lines, as long as donors of embryos signed consent forms and complied with other rules.
See? This is by no means a complicated story. The grand hoopla over the original decision by President G. W. Bush to permit federal funding of research on a limited set of stem cell lines was a HUGE media storm. Really, even most lay people should be up to speed on the issues and rapidly appreciate the scope of the current judicial ruling.
And yet some respectable science blogger went ahead and Twitted this:
Yikes! Judge halts stem cell research http://is.gd/eAPR4
The link goes to the NYT piece, btw. Nice headline from @davemunger, right? A journalistic headline. The kind of headline that the typical author/journalist, when called on it's inaccuracy, tends to (wink, wink) blame on the editor. "Not my headline (shrug)" they will say in faux apology.
Irritated by this inaccurate sensationalism which clearly implies to the naive reader that this judicial act actually blocked all stem cell research, I responded to Dave with:
halts Obma's *expansion* of permitted use of *federal funds* RT: @davemunger: Yikes! Judge halts stem cell research http://is.gd/eAPR4
He came back with:
@drugmonkeyblog Sure, but not quite as exciting when you put it that way. The implications of the move are still drastic
Quite a tell, isn't it? Typical journalistic approach and why we need scientist-bloggers to oppose this sort of inaccurate communication. Sensationalism that draws the eye is "exciting". That is the justification. So what if the viewer/reader who just glances at headlines walks away with a totally inaccurate perception? He gave the link to the story, right? No fault of his if people don't read it and immediately grasp the nuance...
Yeah, well I object to this journalist tradition/ethic.
This is what I absolutely detest about journalism, dude. Just say no to inaccurate hypage RT: @davemunger: not quite as exciting..
What I object to is this notion that the closest approximation of the truth is optional. Inconvenient. That the business exists to get attention and readers, no matter the cost to the accurate transfer of the best possible information. It is, quite simply, offensive to my professional sensibilities. Yes, we have some movements toward hype in scientific publication but this doesn't mean I agree with it. In point of fact I draw parallels between journalism and GlamourMag science...and Dave Munger stepped right into the steaming pile of why this is so.
@drugmonkeyblog What is inaccurate about my statement?
the judge did not "halt stem cell research" dude. He reversed the *expansion* of what could happen with fed funds.
.@davemunger return to the Bush scenario in which fed funds could be used for *some* stem cell res. private/state funds used despite fed
@drugmonkeyblog TFA says It's actually unclear whether the ruling reverses back to Bush's compromise, or even rolls that back as well
Ahh, the typical journalist dodge-and-weave when called out on inaccurate reporting. No, this is not some discussion of he said / she said and what might possibly be the downstream implication. I might buy it if you'd started your comments with this or refined them. It is intellectually dishonest to claim you intended your initial Twitt to lead to this particular nuance. Bullshit. Sure, when backed into a corner you can find some loophole to try to weasel out of. Just like the next one...
@drugmonkeyblog And he did "halt stem cell research." He may not have halted *all* stem cell research, but I didn't say that.
HAHAHAHA! Classic journalism. Use an unmodified and bold statement. When called out for the inaccuracy of what you know damn well was going to be the overwhelmingly frequent perception of the statement, retrench to Clintonian parsing of syntax. "I didn't say 'all', dude, not my fault if people inferred that from my unmodified statement. It could have easily meant 'judge halts one experiment involving stem cells in one obscure lab'! HAHA!"
Bullshit. You should be ashamed of yourself when you find yourself in this ridiculous attempt at a defense.
Unless you want to, you know, be a journalist. Then I guess it is totes okay to create whatever inaccurate impression you want via selective quoting, selective phrasing and other tricks.
Pfah. I spit on this journalist tradition. This is why it is an absolute mistake for people who identify as science bloggers to move toward being "more like journalists".
Their crappy practices are the very reason that we bother to blog about science!
How can you have forgotten this?