Tag Archives: journalism

Paper on brain bloggers

A bit of brain-y street art, Shoreditch, London.

A while ago, I started some research into people who blog about the brain, in particular the ways they see their audiences  Sadly, changes in jobs meant I didn’t have time to develop that particular research interest (and I mean sadly, because this study only strengthened my belief that science bloggers are fascinating, for all sorts of reasons). However, I wrote up my preliminary notes for the Canadian Journal of Media Studies, and you can read it here (download pdf, no paywall).

The abstract follows, though please note (ht to Bora Zivkovic) the disjunction between speed of changes in science blogging and the slowness of scholarly publishing means some of the links don’t currently work. A bit of googling should get you round this, as usually it’s a case that blogs have moved but individual posts have kept the same titles and datestamp.

“ScienceBlogs is a high school clique, Nature Network is a private club”: Imagining the audiences of online science.

This paper is the result of preliminary research on science bloggers, with a focus on how science bloggers view their audiences, the community they sit within and their personal social identity within that. It starts with some broad background on science blogging, in particular the ways in which science bloggers seem to congregate around networks, their concerns over seeming exclusive, and they ways they may actively attempt to either maintain or blur boundaries around the social identity of scientist, journalist and blogger. I then move onto more detailed work on people who blog about the brain, offering some rough work-in-progress results of a small survey study. From this early analysis, it seems that an idea of an audience is important to many science bloggers, although they are not necessarily all that sure of the specific make up of this audience. Moreover, it seems that science bloggers see their audiences not simply as a recipient of scientific knowledge, but a potential resource, and as blogging as being part of an ongoing diverse conversation. As this is the first stage of analysis, I finish with some notes on how I see the next stage of this work.

A call for open journalism, and open campaigning, on climate change

A view from the Science Museum’s climate gallery.

This was originally published on Greenpeace’s Energy Desk blog and written for a debate they ran at the Frontline Club last month. I might well have written something different today, as I read debate over climate and Sandy and keep track of the anti-gas protest in West Burton. I still think it applies though.

Is journalism fit for purpose when it comes to energy and climate change? I have two answers. They’re both questions.

Firstly, whose purpose are we trying to fit to exactly? This is important. It draws our attention – crucially – to the politics of it all, because the public debate on energy and climate change is all about the politics.

We might, if in a conciliatory mood, agree that we all want to make a happier, safer future for us all. But what this future looks like and how we get there is up for debate. It might be nice to imagine scientists could simply pass their great knowledge on to the rest of the world. But they don’t know everything, and we’re not going to quickly believe them either. Neither is it as simple as a matter of saying we should argue with scientists. See, for example, cases of “false balance” (where a marginal view is put up against a rigorously worked out one, as if they were equivalent) or “merchants of doubt” (where small amounts of uncertainty are exploited to rhetorically unravel strong cases).

I give my students the difference between top-down versus discursive models of science communication to play with, but the reality is too complex for such rarefied models.

Secondly, is journalism really the problem? Greenpeace may organise an event like this, ready to point fingers at journalism, but they should take the chance to look at themselves too. For all that I’d like to see a continued role for professional, independent journalism, we’ll increasingly see direct communication to the public from activists, academics, politicians and more.

We could all be better.

The involvement recent Arctic Ready campaign came under particular criticism. I personally felt those wailing “but Greenpeace LIED” needed to get some perspective. It’s not like Greenpeace is the first to pull something like this. The Office of Fair Trading tried a similar game a few years ago, working with Sense About Science to highlight misinformation around health. Other parodies such as the pregnant man or downloadable tan invite people to consider quite how credulous they are when it comes to science and technology. Arctic Ready fooled you? You should ask yourself why. So far, so reflexive modernisation, perhaps. But I don’t think Greenpeace should cast their audiences in the role the fool. The public discourse on energy and climate change is shadowy, elitist and confusing enough already.

In contrast, Leo Hickman’s “Eco Audit” live blog is a good example of the sort of communication I’d like to see more of. He asks a question, shows the answers he’s actively gone looking for and provides a space for more people to chip in. He listens to these contributions, pulling bits out of the comments threads and twitter, before offering a conclusion.

If nothing else, this approach lets him draw on more expertise than he can imagine when he starts off. It leaves him more open to serendipitous surprise. It also helps build trust around his analysis; even if you only read his conclusion at the end, the workings are there to check if you want to.

I want to see more of this in environmental journalism, and I want to see politicians, activists and scientists similarly asking questions in public in such an interactive way too. Hickman’s approach isn’t as flashy as Arctic Ready, but it offers a more meaningful form of collaboration than space to upload photo-art or a point and click game. It asks readers what they know and think, not simply to perform jokes within a set framework. Maybe we do need more LOL-cat humour in the climate debate (LOLpolar bear? LOL oilrig?).

And arguably the odd bit of subversive art invites us all to think. But both politics and science can still be done with respect for the public sphere as a source of inspiration for what new directions to take, not simply a space to amass support on pre-set routes.

There is a place for privacy, even secrets, when it comes to a lot of work in climate change and energy. Many in the field are defensive for good reasons; be it email hacks, undercover cops or simply a desire for a bit of uninterrupted time to explore an idea on our own. But that doesn’t mean we should close off. Be bold, be open, listen.

Identifying arguments in climate science

George Bush used to say, in his generous way, that the science [of climate change] is uncertain. But it’s an almost content free statement because science is about uncertainty.

Lord Oxburgh FRS, Imperial College, 30th January 2012.

That quote comes from a debate on climate science in the mass media we held at Imperial last week, part of the pilot science in context course I’m working on. You can find a podcast of the debate at the college media site.

Oxburgh chaired the event, with a panel comprising of Louise Gray (Environment Correspondent, Telegraph), James Randerson (Environment and Science News Editor, Guardian), James Painter (Reuters Institute, University of Oxford) and Joe Smith (Open University), along with questions from our undergraduates.

A couple of students and tutors later told me they felt the panelists were too similar, that there wasn’t enough ‘debate’ and they’d have liked to see a climate sceptic. I take that point, but also disagree with it. There was, if you listen carefully, a fair bit of diversity within the discussion. It wasn’t one side vs. the other, and just because the panellists tended to be polite and smile and nod at each other didn’t mean they were all coming from the same position.

It’s worth reflecting on how we identify a ‘debate’ here. Debates do not always have to be a battle of two opposing views. Personally, I’d say that’s often the least productive sort of debate you can have. They can also just be a group of people playing with a particular issue; a matter of chatting to gradually identify problems and reflect on possible answers. Indeed, this question of how we structure and spot the debate within climate science was a key topic of this particular event, as it was in our previous class, with Brian Hoskins.

James Painter started things off by stressing there are many types of uncertainty involved in the public discussion of climate change, including many types of scepticism: ‘there are many ways you can question and be uncertain about climate science’. Drawing on his Poles Apart report, he suggested four types: people who are sceptical that global warming is happening, those who a sceptical that it is due to human action, those who are sceptical about aspects of climate change’s impact and people who are sceptical about specific policies.

James Randerson followed with a different track, noting the stretch of the issue with reference to an extraordinary letter to the Guardian from the medical community, calling for more transparently on climate lobbyists. Louise Gray offered another topical case study: the diversity of coverage of a recent UK government report on the impacts of climate change to the UK: the Guardian focused on the burden to poor where as the Telegraph noted possible opportunities for the tourist industry (you can google for yourself to see what the Mail said). As Gray argued, newspapers will have different frames for how they read climate news based on the editors’ ideas of their customers, a point underlined by Joe Smith later when he stressed the way we all bring our own cultural ‘baggage’ to climate change debates, and plugging Mike Hulme’s book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change

For his presentation, Joe Smith argued that in many ways climate science makes for a rubbish story in the mass media. There is simply too much of a consensus: too many of the experts agree, what really is there to report? He said he used to think the consensus on climate change was a good thing, but it does make it unreportably dull, which is why the contrarian views get pulled in, to liven it up. There isn’t enough of an edge, maybe we need more of an edge? Gray echoed this in discussion, saying we should pay attention to more of the ‘dodgy things’ going on around climate change – subsidies, inefficiencies of NGOs – that the real stories are less about sceptic vs non-sceptic and more about who is doing the right thing, how and when. Randerson and Oxburgh seemed slightly more cautious of Smith’s call for more arguments, laughing ‘careful what you wish for’ and noting the ways a stronger sense of disagreement plays in the US and Australia. I wonder if that misses Smith and Gray’s point though, which to me was more of a call to open up the political edginess of climate change policy. It was about the disagreements at the end of Painter’s typology of sceptics: debate over what to do about climate change, not whether it is happening or why.

For me, this was summed up in a comment from Gray near the end of the evening: ‘there’s a lot of heat and fire around a few sceptical people, but maybe that is the wrong focus’.

Maybe you disagree though.

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.

Context context context

Context context context. It’s what the mainstream media’s reporting on science always lacks, isn’t it? It’s the oft-repeated line ‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that’ which media critics such as myself can grump about from the cosiness of their ivory tower. Context context context: Easy to say, but hard to provide?

Context context context: Easy to say. For example, our content analysis for the BBC Trust’s review of impartiality and accuracy in science coverage (blogged about earlier this week) highlighted quite hand-waving descriptions of scientists’ roles and work, with a reliance on phrases such as ‘scientists have found’ and ‘experts say’. We also noted little exploration of experimental design, and that it was very rare that the funder of research was referred to. We worried that many reports relied on a single viewpoint or paraphrased alternative views, and the lack of explicit reference as to whether or not a contributor was involved in the research being reported (i.e. independence was hard to judge).

Context context context: Hard to provide? A journalist can easily, and quite fairly, reply to calls for more context with the argument that readers do not care. Of course the big wide world is more complex than depicted in the mass media, but a large part of a journalist’s job is to simplify this world, and that inevitably means losing some context. Personally, I think there are still ways journalists might rethink the traditional patterns for telling stories, and I expect professional journalists of the calibre working at the BBC to be imaginative and thoughtful about what parts of stories they choose to provide (and I know the good ones do, and that they are constrained in a lot of their work too).

One of the things we coded for in the study was if a piece pointed the audience to other information: the chance for people to find out more if they wanted to. This didn’t have to be online links, but would often be. We noticed it was rare that the broadcast news items ever explicitly directed viewers to the BBC website for further information about science items. In the online news, there were automatically generated links to other BBC reports on similar topics, but only 21 items (16%) included links to other BBC reports within the body of the text. However, almost 90% of online news items included at least one link to the source of the story, such as the laboratory where the research was carried out or the journal where it was published, but 70 items (54%) included no links to other external sources. So, over half of online news items the reader is not offered opportunities to find further information relevant to a science story other than that provided by the source.

Blogs in particular offer the opportunity of linking to other sources and, by enabling journalists to “show their working”, may help make visible the process of reporting too. Some of the BBC reporters’ blogs we looked at made use of this, particularly those of Jonathan Amos and Richard Black, but only one of Tom Feilden’s blogposts in our sample period contained any in-text links to sites other than the Today programme. Blogs also allow journalists to post longer quotes from sources than the edited versions included in broadcast reports, include links to other sources of information that the journalist has used to build their story, or track unfolding stories (as with the Guardian’s Science Story Tracker). However, we found few examples of this type of usage in the BBC blogs we looked at.

Like much of the content we looked at, blogs were more likely to mention benefits of scientific research than risks (eleven of the 27 unique postings cited benefits compared to just two mentioning risks). It seemed to us that as with a lot of the online science content (and science content overall), the blogs located science as a ‘good-news’ story where science provides benefits to society and is rarely the source of any risks. As with any of this, you may well be able to dig up an example or three to argue that the BBC blogs are ‘anti-science’ in some way (and this singular examples may well be very important, perhaps even because they are singular) but looking at our sample as a whole, this was not the picture we saw.

We saw a range of ways of using the blogging form amongst the science and technology reporters that blog for the BBC. Some reporters took the chance to contextualise news stories they have reported on (Richard Black), or to offer a more personal take on a story (Fergus Walsh). Others would trail upcoming items (Susan Watts), to summarise/ repeat a news item in another site, or describe related research (Tom Feilden, Jonathan Amos). Potentially, adopting a personal voice raises issues with respect to the BBC’s impartiality (there are editorial guidelines on this), although we found no evidence in the blogs we looked that it had actually compromised impartiality in action. If anything blogs can also offer a space to address questions of impartiality and accuracy when they arise though. We found a lovely example of this from Rory Cellan-Jones, where he reflected on an report for the BBC One News at Ten, saying he should have been he should have taken a more sceptical tone, and also took the chance to quote at length the scientist’s defence of the research.

You can find more details of this study in the full report (opens as pdf) especially pages 33-38.

As I’ve written before, the placing of a link is a rhetorical and, as such, creative process. Thinking about what you’ll link to, how and when (and when not to) is a challenge I personally adore when I write, and one of the many reasons I find writing online more professionally fulfilling than print. It really doesn’t seem to be used enough though, or thought about as much as it could be either (n.b. this is a general grumble, broader and looser than the BBC Trust study).

So, I guess for now I’ll keep banging on about ‘context, context, context’, knowing it’s hard for journalists to provide it but hoping they continue to try to be as imaginative and proactive as possible in facilitating connections between the information that is out there and those members of their audience who are interested to find out more.