I went along to the ‘Science in the media: in rude or ailing health?’ debate at City University last night.
Behind the table at the front were blogger Ed Yong, Economist writer and ABSW chair Natasha Loder, Financial Times writer Andrew Jack and Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre. In the theatre seats were a good few City science journalism students, editors and journalists, some from Cancer Research’s communications and Alok Jha from the Guardian.
The debate was ostensibly to discuss the results of the new ‘Science in the Media: Securing the Future’ report. Speaking about this, Fiona Fox said that science journalism was in “rude health”. However, excellent specialist journalists were being let down by unscientifically-minded editors and sub-editors. She recommended rolling out scientific training for these people, especially in institutions such as the BBC. She also pointed out the need for libel reform.
However, bar some opening comments by the speakers, the rest of the discussion dropped the topics raised by the report. Sparked off by Ed Yong expressing his disappointment that the publication didn’t cover blogging and other direct-to-the-public media, much of the rest of the event took up the ‘bloggers vs journalists’ debate.
Fiona Fox said it was a pity that the report didn’t cover these channels, but with the number of working groups already on-board, they didn’t want to add another. She then ignited the panel and audience by saying that blogs, although often good, were not journalism. Natasha Loder retorted that she was a journalist and blogged, and asked whether this blog was journalism. It came close to journalism, said Fiona, but wasn’t. She claimed blogs lacked crucial objectivity.
At this point Ed Yong pointed out that the distinction wasn’t helpful. He said the future was all about “blurring boundaries” and that whether something was good science writing or not was all that mattered – more on his views here. He also compared the debate to the film Titanic: “Tedious. Goes on forever. Never leads anywhere interesting. No one gets anywhere…”
Still that didn’t stop the treading water and general flailing that took up most of the rest of the evening.
A lot of the debate centred around this idea of ‘objectivness’. Fiona claimed only journalists were objective; Natasha that they were ‘truth-tellers’, solely driven to provide a “public function through a commercial organisation”. However as Petra Boynton pointed out as the argument Tweeted on today, bloggers are “all for transparency and reflexivity, abandoned that ‘objectivity’ nonsense years ago”. With the wealth of writing coming out of charities, institutions, universities, students, protest groups etc etc etc, these ideas are much more relevant. If you know where it’s coming from, who’s paying for it and who it’s involved with you can make up your own mind.
Even Natasha Loder is subject to the political leanings, editorial decisions and other social stances of whichever commercial organisation’s paying her. Objectivity is too high a horse for any of us to climb on.
Also in the audience were people from Cancer Research’s communications department. They were similarly offended by Fiona’s remarks, saying they spent a lot of time keeping misinterpreted science out of the news, and felt it was unfair to be hierarchically placed beneath journalists. Rather than trying to draw distinct line between who can and can’t claim to be a journalist, isn’t it better to focus on who practices journalistic values?
Crudely, there seemed to be a division of generations and attitudes. Ed Yong and Alok Jha on the one hand welcoming and incorporating new communication channels, and Fiona Fox and (partly) Natasha Loder defending the status and quality of traditional writing mediums, and wanting to separate them. Fiona particularly seemed threatened by the “noise of the blogosphere”. Whilst she did have some genuinely interesting concerns – such as how to negotiate the maze and vast amount of information on the web – her solution was to demarcate and rigidly protect the traditional role of journalists.
After Alok Jha jumped in to declare that everyone on the panel but Ed Yong was “talking bollocks”, he stressed that the role of journalists was changing, but in an exciting and opportunity-opening way. Far from being replaced by bloggers, journalists would still be needed as gate-keepers, guiding and bringing in audiences to what they considered interesting arguments and writing; and that mobilized and engaged scientists would only help science journalism.
For myself, as a student testing the waters of science writing, the debate was disheartening. I see many interesting and exciting channels being opened up by the web. Maybe it can be overwhelming, difficult to navigate, pick out what’s worth reading, too fractured or difficult to financially support. These are all arguments just touched on last night, and ones I feel are far more relevant and interesting.
So when is a blogger/journalist/communicator not a blogger/journalist/communicator? It’s not a joke, just a silly argument.