When is a blogger/journalist/communicator not a blogger/journalist/communicator?

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.


7 Responses to “When is a blogger/journalist/communicator not a blogger/journalist/communicator?”

  1. 1 Jo Brodie April 1, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    Really enjoyed this post – sadly I wasn’t able to attend the event myself. Also I ‘woohoo’ed a little that charity science communication gets an overt mention, for one thing I think the medical research charity / patient group sector is a fairly significant employer of people who can write, or speak, about science, as it relates to health. I’ve been doing it for over six years and I’m still not sure quite where I ‘fit in’, so bring on the blurred boundaries 🙂

  2. 2 omnologos April 1, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    Journalists as “objective” and “truth-tellers”? That is a couple of sad jokes for a quasi-April-Fools debate.

    And yes, I have trained as a journalist, and have been publishing journalistic articles too for around 21 years now…

  3. 3 Alice Bell April 2, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Nice write up.

    Via comment on twitter: the SMC don’t have an option for bloggers to apply to be on their press release mailing list. Interesting I thought.

    Liked the folding in of Petra’s points on twitter, reflection of objectivity nonsense etc. Can’t tell you wrote this on a break from Kuhn vs Popper at all 🙂 Completely agree that the debate should have got passed those sorts of bun fights quickly, and got on to other issues.

    (I will now get back to marking your essays…)

  4. 4 Ed Yong April 3, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    Great write-up, Harriet. Like Alice, I particularly liked the folding in of outside views from Petra via Twitter – t’is the future, no?

    Sorry you found the debate frustrating – in retrospect, I could probably have done more to avoid it getting sucked into the tedious quagmire that is the blogger/journalist debate. Oh well, live and learn.

  5. 5 harrietvickers April 7, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Thanks very much.

    Enjoy being able to come out of debates and carry on via Twitter, definitely the way forward. Get a lot more people piping up too.

    Thought you were a great speaker Ed, you couldn’t have put why the argument wasn’t worth the time any more clearly. The facilitator could have done a bit more. Never mind. It was all pretty provocative which is good in it’s own right!

    In on the ‘woohoo’ for charity comms too, learnt how to write news features from a comms officer so I know how thorough, accessible, and, dare I say it, journalistic they can be. Lots of value in a lot of the writing out there.

    Right. Back to positivism. Hope our essays aren’t too much of a chore Alice!

  6. 6 Kat Arney April 8, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    The charity comms person was me 🙂

    Great write-up of an interesting debate that I’m sure we haven’t heard the end of yet. I stand by my views that there are many people who aren’t labelled as “journalists” who are practising more journalistic integrity than many of the professional hacks who cover science stories.

  7. 7 draust April 14, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Nice write-up, Harriet. I have linked it from my own gripe about Fox’s reported remarks.

    Agree with Kat Arney about non-journos v journos. A famous example in the US is Neurodiversity blogger Kathleen Seidel, who has done a tremendous amount to expose the machinations and hidden financial interests of some of the people offering quack autism remedies – a little bit like Brian Deer’s work here. Seidel did such a good job that a couple of years ago she was actually “nuisance-subpoenaed” by a notorious anti-vaccine lawyer.

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