A respectable scienceblogger has been seduced to the dark side

One of the more salient issues to me in the wake of Scienceblogs.org's PepsiBlog fiasco was the moderate schism it revealed between science bloggers (lower case) who self-identify as journalists and those who self-identify as scientists.

The uproar was driven in large part by the journalist types screaming about traditional journalist ethics and the supposed hard line that is drawn between the editorial and business sides of a media property.

My response to this was that as a profession and job sector this is nothing more than a convenient fiction. Recent history is rife with cases in which financial considerations clearly shaded, moved, biased or otherwise influenced content. Look, I get it. There are many cases in which the alleged Chinese wall works. Cases in which newsmedia entities published stories clearly against their own financial interest. And yes, there is a lot of print and J-school professor hot air wasted on devoted to the ethical line.

But at best, these forces for ethical hard lines are losing. Better bet is that the profession is just irretrievably conflicted and we are just going to have to muddle along.

But what really disturbed me was the eagerness of some otherwise respectable scientist-bloggers to start claiming that they (meaning "we) are quasi journalists. Claiming that they (and let's be honest, "we") actually should lean toward and adopt the supposed professional ethics of journalism.

An exchange I've been having on the Twitts today illustrates precisely why science bloggers should not only not adopt a journalist stance but should continue to disparage, correct and otherwise dissect journalistic "coverage" of a science-related story.

The news of the day is the judicial decision to block an executive order issued by President Obama to expand the number of stem cell lines which could be used in federally funded research. The NYT bit does a good job of summarizing the context.

For years, private financing has been used to create embryonic stem cell lines, mostly from discarded embryos from fertility clinics. The process destroys the embryos. President Bush agreed to finance embryonic stem cell research, but limited federally financed research to 21 cell lines already in existence by 2001.

Under the Obama administration, private money was still needed to obtain the embryonic stem cells, but federal money could be used to conduct research on hundreds more stem cell lines, as long as donors of embryos signed consent forms and complied with other rules.

See? This is by no means a complicated story. The grand hoopla over the original decision by President G. W. Bush to permit federal funding of research on a limited set of stem cell lines was a HUGE media storm. Really, even most lay people should be up to speed on the issues and rapidly appreciate the scope of the current judicial ruling.

And yet some respectable science blogger went ahead and Twitted this:

Yikes! Judge halts stem cell research http://is.gd/eAPR4

The link goes to the NYT piece, btw. Nice headline from @davemunger, right? A journalistic headline. The kind of headline that the typical author/journalist, when called on it's inaccuracy, tends to (wink, wink) blame on the editor. "Not my headline (shrug)" they will say in faux apology.

Irritated by this inaccurate sensationalism which clearly implies to the naive reader that this judicial act actually blocked all stem cell research, I responded to Dave with:

halts Obma's *expansion* of permitted use of *federal funds* RT: @davemunger: Yikes! Judge halts stem cell research http://is.gd/eAPR4

He came back with:

@drugmonkeyblog Sure, but not quite as exciting when you put it that way. The implications of the move are still drastic

Quite a tell, isn't it? Typical journalistic approach and why we need scientist-bloggers to oppose this sort of inaccurate communication. Sensationalism that draws the eye is "exciting". That is the justification. So what if the viewer/reader who just glances at headlines walks away with a totally inaccurate perception? He gave the link to the story, right? No fault of his if people don't read it and immediately grasp the nuance...

Yeah, well I object to this journalist tradition/ethic.

This is what I absolutely detest about journalism, dude. Just say no to inaccurate hypage RT: @davemunger: not quite as exciting..

What I object to is this notion that the closest approximation of the truth is optional. Inconvenient. That the business exists to get attention and readers, no matter the cost to the accurate transfer of the best possible information. It is, quite simply, offensive to my professional sensibilities. Yes, we have some movements toward hype in scientific publication but this doesn't mean I agree with it. In point of fact I draw parallels between journalism and GlamourMag science...and Dave Munger stepped right into the steaming pile of why this is so.
@davemunger:

@drugmonkeyblog What is inaccurate about my statement?

@drugmonkeyblog:

the judge did not "halt stem cell research" dude. He reversed the *expansion* of what could happen with fed funds.

@drugmonkeyblog:

.@davemunger return to the Bush scenario in which fed funds could be used for *some* stem cell res. private/state funds used despite fed

@davemunger:

@drugmonkeyblog TFA says It's actually unclear whether the ruling reverses back to Bush's compromise, or even rolls that back as well

Ahh, the typical journalist dodge-and-weave when called out on inaccurate reporting. No, this is not some discussion of he said / she said and what might possibly be the downstream implication. I might buy it if you'd started your comments with this or refined them. It is intellectually dishonest to claim you intended your initial Twitt to lead to this particular nuance. Bullshit. Sure, when backed into a corner you can find some loophole to try to weasel out of. Just like the next one...

@davemunger:

@drugmonkeyblog And he did "halt stem cell research." He may not have halted *all* stem cell research, but I didn't say that.

HAHAHAHA! Classic journalism. Use an unmodified and bold statement. When called out for the inaccuracy of what you know damn well was going to be the overwhelmingly frequent perception of the statement, retrench to Clintonian parsing of syntax. "I didn't say 'all', dude, not my fault if people inferred that from my unmodified statement. It could have easily meant 'judge halts one experiment involving stem cells in one obscure lab'! HAHA!"

Bullshit. You should be ashamed of yourself when you find yourself in this ridiculous attempt at a defense.

Unless you want to, you know, be a journalist. Then I guess it is totes okay to create whatever inaccurate impression you want via selective quoting, selective phrasing and other tricks.

Pfah. I spit on this journalist tradition. This is why it is an absolute mistake for people who identify as science bloggers to move toward being "more like journalists".

Their crappy practices are the very reason that we bother to blog about science!

How can you have forgotten this?

29 responses so far

  • A. Nuran says:

    An awful lot of scientists left or almost left Scienceblogs.com over that issue.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The Sb bloggers left over many issues. And make no mistake, the idea of financial conflict affects scientists too. If the PepsiBlog fiasco or related issues offend a scientist-blogger because of her professional stances, fine. You will note that I am blogging here now.

    But the notion that we need to be more like journalists is not any sort of good justification.

  • While I appreciate that you value accuracy in headlining and avoiding fear mongering, the dichotomy you draw between journalism and blogging is a false one. Journalists don't always fear monger and try to parse words for sensationalism, and bloggers don't always get it rite. I don't know why people feel the need to draw an "us vs them" distinction when it comes to blogging and journalism -- the two groups are already inextricably fused. If you're going to have any "us vs them" definitions, why can't it simply be "accurate vs inaccurate" on a case-by-case basis?

    You know I usually don't leave comments, but I felt compelled to here because when I was a "journalist" at a daily newspaper, I used to always make huge stinks about this kind of headline crap my editors would try to push on me. And I usually won.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Yup, I hear the "good" journalists talking this crap all the time. and yet the industry doesn't change. and you get static about the editor and the blah, blah and whatnot excuses from the supposed "good" journalists.

    and above all freaking else, you get the continued use of the pull quote to make the story. doesn't matter how representative it is of the person being quoted. doesn't matter what they were trying to communicate. All that matters is that you have them actually saying it *on record*.

    us vs them? psh. if the shoe fits dude. clean up your house, commit yourself to smacking down this sort of excess. notice I was the only one calling Munger out for this crap? where are all the science journalist communicator types piling on him? nowhere, that's where. Just like always.

  • Dave Munger says:

    You're right in some respects. In retrospect, it probably would have been more accurate to say something like "Judge halts a whole mess of stem cell research." Yes, qualifiers are important.

    But it's more complicated than just "rolling back to Bush era." The way the decision was worded, it could impact even the lines that Bush endorsed. The net result of all the confusion is that many people are simply stopping their research so they can figure out what to do next.

    Twitter is messy. I agree, we should strive for accuracy, even in tweets. I felt it was justified to make a dramatic tweet in this case to highlight the gravity of the situation, just as you (sarcastically, I hope) felt it was justified to argue that I've been "seduced to the dark side."

  • suzy brown says:

    I called Dave out on a inaccurate tweet headline recently too. Is it him or is it us? I doubt he's really trying to deceive people with these lines. Maybe we're holding sci-journo-bloggers to too high a twitter standard? Do certain people really have a moral obligation to uphold a certain level of tweet literalism?

  • Kevin Z says:

    Very interesting dialogue between 2 people who I respect! Not to toot my own horn (ok it is...) but I wrote a post about the scientist communicator vs. science communicator last March: http://deepseanews.com/2010/03/science-communicator-or-scientist-communicator/. Of course journalists argued it much like here.

    Do journalists fear losing their jobs to scientists? I doubt this would happen. I think we need to let go of sensationalist rhetoric. Sure, I use it sparingly in my blogging, usually out of subtle sarcasm. But, the reading public seems to be more and more riddled with sensationalism to the point they appear numb at times to very important news or stories unless it is written in a very black and white, deterministic way. I'm not saying this is most common form of reporting, but it is prevalent enough to be noticed.

  • becca says:

    Don't bullshit the bullshitters, DM.
    1) I remember your prior categorization of The Journalists' Motivation vs. The Scientists' Motivation for leaving SB. It struck me as awfully bizarre then. I saw the diaspora as many individuals, some of whom had similar perspectives as others that they were like in some fashion, but all of whom had an ultimately unique perspective and set of motivations.
    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought nearly everybody had multiple reasons for leaving.
    It reminds me of Laden using the survey that found that 72% of homeschoolers listed "to provide religious or moral instruction" as one motivation for homeschooling as a basis to say things like "Homeschoolers are *defined* by their motivation for brainwashing their kids with certain cultlike/religious worldviews". Actually, Laden is better than you- at least he has an attempt at a survey that actually tried to categorize the motivations of a group. You just went off your general impression from the many blog posts, categorizing new data in the framework which was salient to you (and being prone to discarding data that which did not fit into the model). (to be clear, I see this as a case of excessively exuberant pattern seeking, not dishonesty)
    2) Sensationalizing things is not necessary to the function of journalism (which you obviously know, or it wouldn't be worth asking them to pay attention to it).
    Moreover, having not been to j-school I can't be sure, but I'm betting that "sensationalism" would rank pretty low on "consensus journalistic ethics".
    I believe that one can adopt values of professional journalistic ethics, including but not limited to consideration for financial COI and disclosure of advertising, WITHOUT becoming a hype-addicted accuracies-be-damned sensationmonger.
    I wonder if there is a fundamental attribution error issue here. I.e. you feel that journalists have not said "you MUST have this sort of policy about financial supporters, or ethical problems will ensue", but instead have said "all responsible people have this sort of policy about financial supporters". Thus, you are basically responding with "HA! I don't want to be YOUR idea of a responsible person if it involves being a LIAR!"

  • Mr. Gunn says:

    DM - ease up a bit here. I think "halting stem cell research" could just as well be parsed to read planned research as well as ongoing research. That's how I read it, anyways, and I'm pretty well familiar with the whole situation.

    Dave is generally one of the good guys, so while I understand how it sounded like sensationalism and you're not out of place for speaking up about it, you're making just a bit more out of this than it really deserves.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I find myself very curious about the amount of time/ink expended in j-school and j-ethics / j-professionalism discussions that is expended on

    1) making sure you get the *intent* of the source as correct as possible

    vs.

    2) the nature of using and defining on-record vs. off-record statements and information

    I bet #2 dwarfs #1 by several orders of magnitude.

    Look at the General McChrystal debacle. All we seemed to ever hear about was if the journalist was using on/off record ethics appropriately. Comparatively much less about whether there was evidence that McChrystal and his staff were just loudmouths, genuinely and job-impairingly disrespectful of civilian oversight of the military or something else. Right? The story-about-the-story was all about the gotcha for what they *said*. Nothing at all about whether possible disrespect for the civilians in the oversight position affected their job performance. Nothing about whether this implied a disrespect for civilian oversight, as distinct from a disrespect for Biden or Obama. We are the lesser, as a political society, for the failure of the supposed Fourth Estate to sack up and do their damn job instead of being distracted (continually) the the journalistic equivalent of a beagle's squirrel.

    Science is no different.

  • Dave Munger says:

    Suzy, I think that was a different matter entirely -- an obvious case of snark/sarcasm, and political disagreement. (If everyone else wasn't listening in, here's the tweet in question).

    I do think there's an interesting question here regarding the level of responsibility "journalists" have for their tweets. Maybe I'll write a blog post about it.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Gunn. dude. it doesn't do this. it halts *federal* funding. yet there are a whole host of state and private funded efforts that arose in the midst of the Bush policies from the last go-round on public funding.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I do think there’s an interesting question here regarding the level of responsibility “journalists” have for their tweets.

    This sounds suspiciously to me like trying to incorporate yet one more excuse (deadline, editor did it, space limits..) into the journalists' list of reasons for why it is okay that they selected the sensationalistic version over the accurate depiction.

  • Dave Munger says:

    So it's okay to have a sensationalistic headline attacking an individual if it's intended to be sarcastic, but not okay to have a headline that is accurate but subject to possible misinterpretation. Got it.

  • suzy brown says:

    <<>>

    That's what I was getting at: twitter is such a casual form of communicating & if you don't really "know" the tweeter's style & background, the snark & sarcasm can be lost in a world of WTF. Does the tweeter owe a level of professionalism to their followers? Or is it up to the followers to glean the intent of the tweet/er?

  • suzy brown says:

    Lost a quote & gained italics! Sorry, I don't know how that happened.

  • Chris Rowan says:

    I can't help but note the irony of a blog post holding somebody's feet to the fire for sensationalism having 'turned to the dark side' in its title.

  • csrster says:

    Also "stem cell research" != "embryonic stem cell research"

    Presumably this ruling has no effect at all on research on adult or induced stem cells.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Dave, are you *seriously* trying to argue that "seduced to the dark side" is subject to the same misinterpretation as ""Judge halts stem cell research"?

    Really?

    That implies that one thinks the reader might believe in the Star Wars Light/Dark Force mythology OR that the reader might believe that *I* am some sort of religious person that believes seriously in evil *and* is seriously accusing you of having become evil.

    If anyone, even those that more or less believe in traditional Christian concepts of good and evil, actually deploys "seduced by the dark side" in common speech or writing for a secular audience I would very much like to know about that.

    In short, you are being ridiculous and trying to use journalistic techniques of "gotcha back" to avoid admitting unreservedly that you f-up on that and to avoid agreeing that I am right that this is a BadThing and the reason scienceblogging exists in the first place!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The funny part is that I have it on very good authority that ESC research is passe and it is all about induced stem cells in the glorious stem cell future....

  • Mary B says:

    As long as we're talking about how to write, was no one else bothered by Drug Monkey's (this post is no place for abbreviations!) "science bloggers (lower case) who self-identify as journalists and those who self-identify as scientists". Having never read him before, I predicted he would *identify* as "scientist" based on the fact that he had to qualify "identify" with "self". Who else would bloggers being identifying with if not themselves?

    Other than that, fascinating reading!

  • [...] statement, to my surprise, has given rise to a bit of controversy online. You can read about it here. Drugmonkey seems to feel that the statement is misleading because it could be read as meaning that [...]

  • Dave Munger says:

    Right. I was taking you completely literally. Now apologize to all those Tuscan Raider younglings. You frightened them.

    Seriously, is it not reasonable for a casual reader to misconstrue your headline is accusing me of ditching my standards as a "respectable science blogger"?

    Surely you're not taking one tweet, which I acknowledged was potentially misleading, as evidence that I'm some kind of soulless muckraker. Or maybe you are. In which case, I retract my snarky comment.

    Anyway, more composed thoughts are here.

  • Trillian26 says:

    While I am all against sensationalising and conveying incorrect information, your whole stand of "OMG he is behaving like a journalist" stinks. Why do you science bloggers have this holier than thou attitude about being the ones who will do correct reporting and that you are god's answers to journalists, who if you were to believed, can only indulge in hype, exaggeration and misrepresentation and what not.

    What about all these scientists that fake data? What about all those rotten papers that make it through peer review and get published, with huge gaping holes, inconsistencies and over-reaching conclusions? Would one then be justified in painting all scientists with the same brush? Oh god I don't want to read a science blogger's blog because don't you see how they all publish whatever crap they can and leave out important details and never answer emails when I write them asking for more detail in their paper?

    So, I am with Arikia who points out to this totally baseless dichotomy you are drawing. People exaggerate, misrepresent, falsify, and what not. Journalists and science bloggers notwithstanding. Journalists are trained to report. Its a pity what the state of affairs is today in the mainstream media, but that still doesn't allow you to equate bad journalism and journalists.

  • pinus says:

    how can I get in on this 'publishing papers with outrageous claims with huge holes in them' game? because every single paper i have published I had to fight and scrape to get in...how bout some easy stuff for ole pinus?!

  • becca says:

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2010/08/24/129406379/pfizer-cancer-journalists-reporters-conflict?sc=fb&cc=fp

    Why do I get the feeling Pfizer-sponsored trainee travel grants never raise an eyebrow?

  • The story-about-the-story was all about the gotcha for what they *said*. Nothing at all about whether possible disrespect for the civilians in the oversight position affected their job performance. Nothing about whether this implied a disrespect for civilian oversight, as distinct from a disrespect for Biden or Obama.

    Of course, this is because "journalists" are fucken lazy shitbags and it takes no effort to poop out thousands of words about what people said, while to actually address the underlying meaning and validity of what is being said requires some fucken work. Remember when journalism meant investigation?

  • skeptifem says:

    I approve of the journalism bashing in this thread.

  • skeptifem says:

    Er yeah, I also wanted to pimp out manufacturing consent one more time to DM. Journalists aren't making excuses, the crap ones are selected for by major interests that control media.

    Or, if you are lazy, watch the 5th season of "the wire".

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