Monthly Archives: January 2012

Recycling the news

There’s an oft quoted line from Ulrich Beck about how “modernity is becoming its own theme”. This, along with David Quantick’s warning that “pop will eat itself”, rang through my ears earlier today when I spotted this in the City of London: a flashy new newspaper recycling bin, which provides weather, travel and news updates through sparkly screens running down its side.

That’s a newspaper recycling bin that, itself, gives you the news. I’d say “welcome to the future” but I think it’s quite obvious that the future arrived a while back and we’re trying to find ever more inventive ways to deal with this.

Anyway, here’s a scary new technological object. I’m not sure what to make of it. I’d be interested to know how other people feel.

EDIT: 30th Jan. The Guardian are now live-blogging the Guardian. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does demonstrate another way in which news is eating itself (I don’t think this is an especially new development by the way, just interesting to spot new iterations of it).

Debating climate science

I’m currently working on the pilot for an exciting new undergrad course at Imperial which uses science policy issues to challenge students to think about a range of areas of scientific research (not just their degree stream) and put this in some social, political, ethical, epistemological and cultural context. The topic we’ve picked for the pilot is climate change, so we kicked things off this week with a keynote lecture from Brian Hoskins (EDIT 31/1: listen to a podcast of the lecture) Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, and one of the most striking things he said was that he tries to avoid agreeing to take part in debates.

I don’t think he was necessarily against either scientific discussion or democratic engagement. It was more than he didn’t feel climate science could be communicated well via a structure which pits one extreme view up against another. He happened to use the example of the Today Programme putting Nigel Lawson up against a climate scientist and coincidentally, Lawson popped up on Today the following morning. This was a debate on shale gas and he was debating Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth, not a Professor of Meteorology, but in many respects it’s a good example of the problem Sir Brian was flagging up. You can have a listen to the interview yourself on the BBC’s website. The interviewer didn’t challenge Lawson’s views as much as many would have wanted, but perhaps you agree that this is appropriate (the Daily Express seem to). Perhaps more straightforwardly, Today could have challenged Lawson on the motivations of his Global Warming Policy Foundation (see this report of a recent campaign on this, and an older post by Bob Ward). Which they did not. My personal position is that providing that sort of context, if not an outright challenge to Lawson, would be basic active journalism. I also think it makes him a slightly suspect choice, though I’m sure some people might say the same about Juniper.

The issue of “false balance” – where a marginal view is put up against scientific consensus as if they were equivalent – is something the BBC has been accused of before (recent BMJ editorial on this). Although it is also worth stressing that empirical research undertaken at Imperial College last year found that, if anything, the problem was lack of context, number and diversity of voices in science reports. Too often there simply weren’t enough people interviewed for balance to be an issue (old post from me when the report was published outlining this). With this in mind, I thought it was odd that although Today did also produce a longer package which gave more context and several other voices, this was broadcast over an hour before. Why not put this with the Lawson/ Juniper interview?

This isn’t just a UK issue (although it might be an English Language one). Earlier this week the Knight Science Journalism Tracker summed up US and Australian coverage of a similar story which they dubbed “the fracking duel“, noting the appeal of an apparent fight for the news business.

On the topic of how and if we can debate climate science, it’s probably worth reading Naomi Oreskes’ recent oped for the LA Times – “The verdict is in on climate change” – where she argues for leadership not debate when it comes to climate change, suggesting it’s unfair to expect the public to make up their own minds. You might also be interested in a recent interview with climate scientist Micheal Mann where he warns that “Scientists have to recognise that they are in a street fight”. I don’t think what Mann suggests is the same as the issue of being set up in a polarised debate, but his view is something to think about along side the others.

A version of this is cross-posted to the Imperial Horizon’s blog. Something I left off there, but worth flagging up is that I noticed Brian Hoskins’ name in the list of attendees at the ‘Chemistry Club’ exclusive networking events for corporate lobbyists (see Guardian datablog). At least when the Today Programme invite Nigel Lawson to debate a Fellow of the Royal Society, we can all listen in.

For fracks sake

“Who even invented that word fracking anyway? I bet it was an environmentalist.”

Anthony Giddens, 17th January 2012

Anthony Giddens doesn’t seem to like the word fracking. At a debate on shale gas at the Policy Network earlier this week he wrapped his mouth around it as if the very sound produced a bad smell right there under his nose. It sounds ever so slightly like a rude word you see (I know. Naughty) which leads to punning headlines which sensationalises debate.

I disagree with this as necessarily a problem though. In fact, I’m all for punning headlines when it comes to very esoteric debates like shale gas. Yeah, you could see it as a distraction from real* issues. Or you could see it as an invitation. This thing that sometimes gets called “sensationalism” is not necessarily a bad thing.

The crucial issue for me was that Giddens expressed this distaste for the word fracking while sitting in a small, not especially full room in the centre of Westminster; a small room in the shadow of Big Ben, above an ecclesiastical outfitters and nestled behind one of the UK’s most exclusive private schools. There were at least two members of the House of Lords there. Possibly more (I’m not very good at peer-spotting). There were certainly a lot of suits. Apparently it was an open event, although an academic from the LSE also told me it was invite only and although it may not have been intensionally closed, it did feel a tad elitist. I felt scared emailing to ask if I could go, and slightly out of place when I arrived. And I work for two of top universities in the country. I even used to work in those offices, above J Whipple and Sons ecclesiastical outfitters, back when it was rented by NESTA. I should feel reasonably at home there.

I should make it clear that I don’t want energy policy dictated by punning headline. I do want people who make the decisions on these issues to take the time to be expert, probably for them to understand it better than I do and talk about things I don’t have time to learn how to understand. I like that people sit in small rooms in Westminster being a bit geeky. But I do not want them to be disdainful of popular debate while they do so. In fact, I’d want them to spend time thinking about how to open the debate up as much as possible. Punning headlines being part of that.

Let’s take, for example the Fracking Song which includes this little beauty of a lyric: “What the frack is going on with all this fracking going on, I think we need some facts to come to light…” (complete a slight emphasis on facts to assonate with frack). The song accompanies a short animated video which is offered as an introduction to the issue, something it’s makers describe as an “explainer”. They stress that an explainer is not meant to take the place of the detailed investigation, it’s just a starting point. It’s a lovely bit of video; really makes you feel like you understand an issue and are able and want to know more. It is also, I should underline still a framing of the issue, a starting point from a particular position. For all that the word explainer may sound comfortingly straightforward, logical and educational, it is still a version of the more complex events going on. It is still a take on the topic, a story, form of spin even. That lovely feeling where you think you understand an issue is produced because it’s such a great piece of rhetoric. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a bad thing, just that it’s rhetoric. Lots of things are rhetoric. Including all the debate from Giddens et al I heard on shale gas (not fracking) at the Policy Network. One person’s “sensationalism” is another’s “hit the nail on the head”.

So, let’s talk about fracking. And if Giddens thinks this is the wrong way into a debate about shale gas he should join in and help enrich public debate, not turn his nose up at it.

* Whatever the “real” issues are. Personally, I think the focus of these issues is up for debate, which is part of the point. Incidentally, I don’t think it was an environmental campaigner who coined the term fracking, it’s been an industrial process for several decades. But even if it was I’m not entirely sure what the problem is.

EDITED TO ADD: years ago, when I was an undergrad studying science in the mass media I wrote an essay on the politics of sensationalism and remember reading this paper (paywall, sorry). Not sure I agreed with it then, or now, but people reading this might find it interesting.

Science in the mass media

I’m working a day a week at UCL this term, teaching the ‘Science and the Mass Media’ course in the Department of Science and Technology Studies.

Nosey people can see the full syllabus here (pdf). Or, if you want to play along at home, I’ve pasted some of the essay questions below.

Yesterday’s news(papers).

A couple of thousand words due by the end of term. No, I won’t mark your answers (unless you are actually registered on the course, obviously, in which case I am very much looking forward to reading your work).

1. In early 2010, an expert group working on behalf of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills published a report entitled “Science and the Media: Securing the Future”. To what extent do you believe this report reflects what Steven Hiltgartner, writing in 1990, described as the then “dominant concern” of popular science? Has anything changed in approaches to science in the mass media over the last 20 years?

2. Have the roles of science journalist and PR officer blurred too much in recent years?

3. Last year, the UK’s chief scientist Sir John Beddington was reported as saying: “We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality… We are not – and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this – grossly intolerant of pseudo-science.” Do you agree that such gross intolerance is the correct approach to take here, or are there alternatives?

4. Are bloggers the new science journalists?

5. To what extent can an NGO do effective science communication? Is the case different for environmental campaigning groups compared to medical charities?

6. John Rennie, a former editor of Scientific American, recently argued against what he calls the “big paper of the week” approach to science journalism. He went on to suggest an experiment where everyone agreed not to write about research until six months after publication. Do you agree that a focus on the publication of papers is a bad approach to reporting science? Should journalists wait six months, as Rennie suggests, and/ or write about science pre-publication?

7. What is the ‘inverted pyramid’ of news reporting, and how are science writers using online tools to re-invent science storytelling?

8. How might we go about studying the representation of women in science media? Your answer should discuss both possible research questions and methods for analysis, referring to the body of work already undertaken in this subject.