Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Swearing off junk-food science journalism

Daniel Engber has a painful-to-read piece about the quality of British science journalism in Slate. I think it is probably time we Brits acknowledged that we have a problem with what I'd call "junk-food" science journalism. Looks great on the page, fun to read, but essentially lacking any real informational value. You know the kind of thing, like this recent beauty. The thing is, Brits publish an awful lot of this stuff. 

We can all argue about whether this is a general reporter dressing up a baseless story with the aura of "real science", or simply a science reporter going too far (perhaps by choosing to ignore the fact that the 'science' came from a PR-funded research), but the bottom line is that too many British stories try to use an association with science as a means to prop up stories that would otherwise be consigned to the realms of fantasy. For more examples, such as this, click through to Mr Engber's article.

Of course the Daily Mail, and the Telegraph, are both grand purveyors of junk-food science journalism. And this is where I have a slight issue with the context of Mr Engber's piece. He asks "What's wrong with science journalism in the U.K.? Such a statement assumes that the problem is to do with science journalism in and of itself, rather than being an inherent function of writing for trashy mass-market audiences. The US has its tabloid trash papers, like the New York Post.  Does it not do junk science stories? If the answer is, as I suspect, not really then the "problem" may simply be a more banal issue that Brits are more interested in science than Yanks...thus the junk-food end of the British media market serves up more science-themed stories than the junk-food end of  the American market.

If I am right. then the flip side of this argument is that there would be more science journalism overall, good as well as bad. It is easy, perhaps, to focus on the junk-food end--but this would distort the picture. I suspect in reality there is just more interest in science journalism.

There is a vibrant community of science journalists and broadcasters in Britain. British science journalists turn up in droves at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science--the largest non-US contingent. And for historical and geographic reasons, national and international science journalists and broadcasters are found concentrated in London. They work at the BBC, most of the national daily newspapers, Nature, New Scientist and, of course, The Economist. What else? The Times has a wonderful monthly science supplement. And British newspapers don't mind splashing science on the front page, and not just burying it under the fold as they do here in the US. The Independent even had a cover splash on the nerdiest of subjects: RNAi. The Economist also puts science on its front cover, and would bet you'd find at least as much real content in our cover as you would find in the story behind a Time magazine science cover.

Testament to the interest and commitment of British science journalists, the country hosted the World Conference of Science Journalism in 2009. Then in 2010 it hosted what I think is the first national conference of science journalism anywhere in the world. The second UK Conference of Science Journalists is coming up shortly on Monday 25th of June. These were all organised by the Association of British Science Writers, the oldest such professional association in the world (an organisation I chaired until last year). These science journalism conferences debate issues of quality, coverage and balance, bring together the best and the brightest and serve as a point of continuous improvement. It may be that more American journalists went to J-school. This is no alternative to continuous professional development.

Finally, science journalists in the UK care about their national association. In a country a fraction of the size of the US, the ABSW is actually a relatively stronger organisation with about 5-600 members to 2,100 found in the American equivalent--the National Association of Science Writers.

This is all what comes to mind when thinking about the question, "What's wrong with science journalism in the U.K.? The answer may be, not so much....and that the existence of so much junk-food science journalism is actually a sign of something else. That is not to say we shouldn't strive to eliminate it from our diet. (And the junky bottom end creates endless problems and pressures for those producing what I suppose must be by implication "gourmet" science journalism.)

We do need to ask why there is so much crappy science journalism in the UK, as Mr Engber has--and indeed as we do regularly in the UK. I'm reminded of the excellent debate between Ben Goldacre and Lord Drayson, the science minister, a few years ago. I'm reminded of one marketing manager who specifically commissioned some pseudo-research because he knew he could count on it being hoovered up eagerly by the UK media and providing reams of free publicity for his company.

Having said all this, it remains to be seen whether junk-food science journalism is more of a problem of the market than of 'British science journalism'. What I do know, personally, is that there are hundreds of people who call themselves British science journalists and are rightly proud of the truth, accuracy and quality of everything they produce.

Updated: Sorry, updated slightly a few minutes after posting. I managed to post an earlier version somehow.


  1. Daniel Engber10:59 pm

    That's a really excellent point-- I think you're right to look for external answers to the question. Maybe it's a matter of demand-- whereby British news consumers want more science information, across the market for the news. I don't know how one would measure that, although it's interesting that the US spends a much greater percentage of its GDP on research funding than the UK. (See figure 4-16 of http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/pdf/c04.pdf)

    I think there might be a plausible explanation on the other side, too -- maybe Britain has a larger supply of bogus stories for print. Let's say that "science-y" claims help companies to sell products, however those claims are transmitted. If it's easier for those companies to make those claims directly to consumers through advertisements, then they won't have as much incentive to sneak bogus studies into newspaper stories. Is it true that the UK regulates science claims in advertising more closely than does the US? If so, that gives part of the answer.

    1. Britain does have an independent regulator of advertising standards. But I wonder if the answer really is that complex though?

      My instinct is that this problem is demand led. Enough British readers are eager to read this sort of thing, and certain parts of the market have no qualms about dishing it up. I think ultimately we ought to be asking the news editors of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph why they feel they can publish pieces of such dubious merit.