• Daniel Mollenkamp

Should journalists 'just fucking stop' reporting on science?



Internet personality Matt Dillahunty places the brunt of the blame for misconceptions and poor science understanding in popular consciousness on journalism. In a clip from a public access call in show, The Atheist Experience, posted in November of 2019, Dillahunty argues (10:35) that science reporting is one of the worst things the internet has done. "If you're a journalist and you're reporting on science, just fucking stop," he scoffed.  Like any critique that begins by addressing "the press" or "science" as if they were a singular, personified entity, this can only ever be half-true. Let's begin by acknowledging the half that is, to stick with that expression, true. The vast majority of science reporting is junk. And calling it junk might be doing a disservice to junk. I pity anyone who turns there for information. And any piece that summarizes research on a health related issue for a non-specialist or popular outlet should be ridiculed or ignored, but probably not read. Matt's frustration here is more than reasonable. On the other hand, a lot of misrepresentations begin with the university. Dillahunty's plea to let the scientists write their own headlines ignores that fact that it is often press agents from the university that do that. This is often where the mistranslations begin, as most journalism, done under pressure and on deadline, relies on university promotional materials to churn out the grist for public misunderstanding of science.  Don't ever do that, one of the first scientifically-competent editors I ever had told me on my first day working with him. Never rely on the university press packets, or press packets in general, they're often written by writers who are even less qualified than you. Having had time to reflect, I couldn't agree more.  Worse, rigorously academic scientists are reticent to leap into public and are not incentivized to interact with the public. Some academics I know sneer at "public explainers" who focus on explaining scientific insights rather than developing new ones. Some of Matt's other comments ring somewhat true, as well. Part of the problem is sorting through good sources and bad sources, something which cuts across various articles (the same outlet can be excellent on one piece and flagrantly bad on another one). But even analyzing this at just the outlet level-- assuming for convenience that all outlets are trustworthy or not on science topics-- there's little cost to getting in front of an audience. Social media and the rapid advance of information tech has flattened the startup cost for getting audiences. It's unrestrained. And if you believe in letting a thousand flowers bloom, you must accept that some of those flowers are toxic and ugly. Since we don't believe in credentialing, this is mostly a question about increasing digital and journalistic literacy for consumers. The profit motives of journalism, as Matt points out, aren't hinged on accuracy. They're also not mere information providers. They're ideological framers. Matt himself seems to acknowledge that access to information does not necessarily mean better-founded worldviews, which would seemingly cut against him placing the blame for the growth of anti-science or pseudo-science views on journalism. In my estimation, outlets probably have relatively little impact on this since people tend to shop around for outlets that fit their ideology. This is the same mechanism that makes Matt, a personality from an atheist call-in show, someone people would turn to learn about proper syllogisms. Of course, this opens up the way for hucksterism and profiteering. But the tradeoff is inherent to both the technology and to the field.  Moreover, the same issues are found in all forms of journalism, not just science reporting. Business reporting often merely relies on corporate press releases. Political reporting often gamifies elections rather than delving into real political issues. The model of public journalism where one can outsource the job of vetting information yourself doesn't work. Frankly, it never did. From the consumer side, to reiterate, what is needed is more digital literacy. Credible outlets need to work harder to court competent writers and to accurately write about science-related things (not easy to do). And scientists need to be more prepared to engage in the public sphere to correct the record when reporters or others misrepresent things. Just fucking stopping would leave the field completely open to bullshit artists who promote conspiracy theories and pseudo-science. Does Matt think anti-vaxxers or flat-earthers will stop covering "science" if the mainstream outlets do? Don't be stupid. ------------------------------ Daniel Mollenkamp Journalist and researcher (US) Twitter: @dtmollenkamp E: dtmollenkamp@gmail.com https://www.danielmollenkamp.com/journalism ------------------------------


* Photo pulled from Wikicommons

* Written for Leader's Expedition (LEx) Journalism & Media Global Circle

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