Friday, 13 July 2012

Explaining or exposing: it's more exciting than that

Heard the row about ‘explainers’ versus ‘exposers’ or between the ‘boat-rockers’ versus the ‘cheerleaders for science’?  No? My goodness guys where have you been? At the recent UK Conference of Science Journalists this apparent divide in science reporting became the main talking point of the day. Roughly translated the debate is between those who think that too high a proportion of science journalism is dedicated to rewriting the daily diet of press releases from journals or universities announcing wonderful new discoveries in science.  These journalists write well and skillfully explain complicated science to a mass audience but what they do not do, according to their critics, is ‘expose’ wrong doing in science, interrogate the scientific claims they are reporting or rock the cosy world of the scientific establishment by asking hard questions.

In the Meet the Editors session I chaired, Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian, conceded that there was perhaps less ‘boat-rocking’ from his science reporters than other specialists and while I missed the session on scientific fraud I gather that chief boat rocker Peter Aldhous from New Scientist added his voice to those lamenting the lack of this kind of reporting.

The day finished with a plenary session focused almost exclusively on the same issue.  Evan Davis, presenter of the Today programme, challenged the notion that journalism that ‘explains’ is the poor cousin of journalism that ‘exposes’. Davis argued that journalists should do the kind of journalism they are good at and pointed out that much that passes for investigative journalism is not very good.  According to Davis even the best exposés probably reveal less than we sometimes suggest and he quoted a psychologist’s observation that the MP’s expenses scandal effectively demonstrated  that, faced with a deeply flawed and easily corruptible expenses system, our politicians behaved like human beings – some easily corrupted, others less so and some positively angelic.  Davis summed up by saying that as long as ‘explainers’ avoid ‘group think’ this kind of journalism can be as important as any other and there is a danger that, if the ‘exposers’ take over the asylum, the quality of discourse could suffer and we might end up perversely interrogating and scrutinising the very people who actually do stuff and make things happen.

But Davis was challenged by the panelists with more experience of the science camp. William Cullerne Bown, founder of Research Fortnight argued that science journalism is failing by ignoring the stories about policy, funding and structure that are bread and butter to those reporting the worlds of finance and politics. Connie St Louis from City University, the main organiser of the conference, accepted Davis’ general points about the need for a ‘mixed economy’ of explaining and exposing but suggested that the balance has gone badly wrong in science journalism, leaving us overrun by science communicators, science writers and science PR.

The session was a great way to end a stimulating and fascinating day.  But I felt uneasy.  Boring as it is to be the one to say ‘it’s more complicated than that,’ I could not get that thought out of my head.  The idea that science reporting neatly breaks down into explaining or exposing just does not ring true for me.
I have never done the maths but I suspect that the amount of time the SMC spends working on the ‘explaining’ sort of stories is minimal.  Indeed we look on enviously at beautiful stories like the one last week where scientists at the MRC’s new research Centre at Imperial College London used scanning equipment for the first time to watch an infection unfurl in real time in an animal; Great and important science beautifully explained by great press officers and working with great science journalists.

But that kind of story rarely, if ever, ends up at our door.  For the SMC to get stuck-in a science story needs to be messy, complicated, open to interpretation and ripe for misreporting.  But where do these stories fit into the explainers versus exposers narrative?  What was Fukushima? The story that changed almost every hour, that unfolded in a total information vacuum from Japan, that was seized on by pro- and anti-nuclear campaigners to drive their messages home, that was scary, complicated, technical and hard to report.  And what about climategate, swine flu, volcanic ash, the sacking of David Nutt? True, lots of these also involve a degree of explaining the science, but the driving force behind none of them was purely explanation and there was hardly a press release in sight.

In fact Ian Katz could well have pointed with some pride to the Guardians’ coverage of climategate as ‘boat–rocking’. In their series of lengthy articles by seasoned environment reporter Fred Pearce, the Guardian peeled off layer after layer of the climate wars.  If journalism is intended to afflict the comfortable it certainly did the job and many climate scientists have never forgiven the Guardian for rocking that particular boat with such vigour.  And, more generally, whatever you thought of the media coverage of climategate you could not suggest that science journalists acted as ‘cheerleaders’ for science or spent their days rewriting press releases.

And there is another aspect of these debates that unsettles me. For the critics of ‘explaining’ journalism, it is often enough to summon the words ‘science PR’ to prove their point and rest their case.  The picture presented is of busy journalists with little time to do any more than rewrite material provided by the growing army of science PR officers working at universities, funding agencies and scientific journals.  Of course there is a strong element of truth in this scenario and (in its midst) you can find plenty of examples of science PR = science churn = journalists as mouthpiece. But it’s really not the full story and lots of the people in this chain are not playing the role assigned to them in this over simplistic narrative.

Bear with me while I muddy the waters from my own daily experience. How about the science journalists who regularly call the SMC to report terrible press releases and ask our help to find experts who will expose the weaknesses and caveats of the study? Not much churning going on there. And what of the science press officers working on stories like climategate, swine flu, Fukushima, animal research and the sacking of David Nutt? They were not churning out happy clappy PR, they were grappling with messy complicated stories, often trying to persuade reluctant scientists to get out there and engage, or fighting  against more senior conservative forces inside their organisations.

I’m quite sure that the SMC is seen as a classic example of ‘science PR’ by some of those who are critical of that concept.  But does that pejorative label really apply to what we actually do?

How about the story(£) we brought to the media this year about the intimidation of UK airlines and ferry companies out of transporting animals for research - a story that some in government and the scientific community had tried to keep quiet for seven years. Or the story we brought to the Today programme that revealed a group of CFS researchers were planning to abandon the field after a campaign of intimidation by activists – something that they had been too scared to talk about publicly before they met us. Or the fact that, along with our friends at UEA press office, we managed to get Phil Jones into the SMC to face journalists less than 24 hours after the latest stolen emails were dumped onto a website? Or the story we broke with our sister organisations around the world about the serious error about the extent of glacier retreat found in the internationally respected Times Atlas? I could go on and on. Is this science PR?  And what of the fact that about 80% of SMC press releases are essentially scientists and statisticians pointing out that studies that might look like a cure, cause or breakthrough are way too preliminary to be reported under any such headline.  Does ‘science PR’ include punching the air when we get another email from a journalist saying they have decided not to cover a study after hearing about the caveats from the SMC?

I think we need all kinds of science journalism - great explaining reporting, as we saw on Higgs last week, and much more investigative reporting that unearths fraud and holds the science establishment to account. But we also need a stock of science, media and environment reporters who can report the messy politicised controversies that engulf science just as much as any other issue. It would be ironic if those of us who care about science journalism enough to debate it and write about it ended up putting science stories back into a narrow ghetto of our own making at the very time when others seem to have accepted that science stories are actually just stories. By appointing science editors for the first time to sit alongside politics, economics etc. the management at the BBC and Channel 4 seem to have a better grasp of the breadth of science stories than we do.

For us and many other science press offices the biggest stories this year have been the row over the possible censorship of H5N1 papers, the extraordinary open letter on GM from Rothamsted, shale gas and the row over open access publishing.  These are messy complicated stories that don’t neatly fit the ‘explaining’, ‘exposing’ or ‘science PR’ camps. Perhaps this explains why these kinds of stories are so rarely even referenced in some of the debates about bad science. It’s time we included them.


Anonymous said...

Bravo Fiona. There is a balance to be stcuk. The world would be a crooked and boring place without the exposers, but it would be a lot dumber without the explainers.

Peter Aldhous said...

Hi Fiona,

Indeed, there's a danger of establishing a false dichotomy. You describe me as "chief boat rocker", but I don't think I'm in one camp or another.

I spend much of my time explaining, and acknowledged in my comments in the plenary that explanatory science journalism is very valuable. I also spend most of my time dealing with messy, complicated stories in which science is just one part.

In responding to Ian Katz's observation - and describing myself as a "part time" boat rocker (certainly not "chief") - I was pointing out that boat-rocking will never happen if a reporter's mindset is exclusively geared to explanation. You simply won't ask the questions that lead to these sorts of stories.

My comments in the misconduct session arose when a science writer who works both in communications for a research organisation and as a freelance writer/broadcaster asked whether reporting that exposes misconduct by scientists undermines the task of "cheerleading" for science.

I responded pretty vigorously that I'm not a cheerleader for science. The fact that this was discussed in a conference on science journalism suggests to me that we do have to look at whether the relationship between PR and journalism in science is too cosy.

I agree that it's a question of balance, not either/or. But when ABSW is unable to produce a shortlist in the investigative category in its annual awards, we should ask whether the balance is skewed.

There are several reasons why this might be the case (here's one: But I would contend that a dominance of an explanatory over an investigative mindset is one factor, and that the close relationship between science PR and science reporting is another.

Evan Davis made some excellent comments about the inflated value sometimes attached to investigative journalism, and its variable quality. But as you note, his observations were informed by the broader sweep of journalism, not specifically science reporting.

It would be easy for science reporters to say: "OK, Evan says we need good explainers, so we've got the balance right." I'm not convinced that we have.

Best wishes,

Peter Aldhous