What’s Wrong with Science Journalism in the U.K.?

The state of the universe.
May 29 2012 6:45 AM

Dodgy Boffins

What's wrong with science journalism in the U.K.?

(Continued from Page 1)

This sounds like jingoism, I know. Vince Kiernan, a veteran reporter who now studies the history and practice of science journalism at Georgetown, doesn't see much difference between the coverage in Britain and America. Science journalism is globalized, he told me, and U.S. businesses employ their own set of PR shenanigans. Maybe he's right: Even the New York Times makes a practice of letting companies tout their self-serving, unpublished research from time to time in its opinion pages. But it seems to me the Times would never run the shameless labvertisements that get play in the British press. More to the point, I don't think you'd find these cash-for-science stories even in our smaller, less scrupulous newspapers. (Television news may be a different story.) And I can't remember ever seeing a product-sponsored mathematical formula that showed up first in the American press. Why not?

I posed this question to a few of my favorite science journalists in both countries and got some vague answers. Not all British newspapers operate according to the same (low) standards, my sources told me, but even at the best venues it can be a struggle to stay out of the gutter. "When I was at The Times [of London], I judged my success as much by what I kept out of the paper as what I got into it," said Mark Henderson, former science editor and author of The Geek Manifesto. (He also claims to have taken a hard line on dodgy formulae.) The Telegraph, now one of that nation’s most egregious purveyors of junk science, by all accounts maintained a solid reputation until a few years ago, when two of its best reporters left the staff.

British journalists also tend to see themselves as tradesmen rather than professionals. They learn on the job. They're more interested in storytelling and entertainment than they are in balance and standards. As a result, some of them don't give a crap. Journalists might indulge in a shameless bit of pseudoscience for the sake of a little fun. They’re just having a laugh.

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I'd been hoping for something more specific, so I asked Vince Kiernan to speculate. It could have to do with the history of science coverage in both countries, he said. American journalism started to professionalize in 1934, with the formation of the National Association of Science Writers. "Then in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, the empire strikes back." As the scientific establishment grew in wealth and influence after World War II, its leaders began to push their own, conservative agenda on the members of the NASW. They doubled down on the idea that only "legitimate science"—that is to say, studies that were peer-reviewed and published in academic journals—should be reported to the public. The real science news, they said, was Big Science news. American journalists learned to follow their rules. Could things have developed along a different path in Britain?

While mulling this over—and chanting U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! to myself in front of the computer—I noticed something about all these lousy British science stories that had escaped my attention. Yes, they described fake studies conducted by disreputable scientists, and they used the data promote a product. But they were honest about it. Almost every story announced its lack of quality without shame or serious effort at deception. Scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University studied the five-second rule; a cleaning-supplies company called Vileda paid for the work; and now for a message from our sponsor …

But when the stories drift to the United States, via aggregator sites and blogs and TV news programs, that transparency can boil right off. The five-second rule has "long been considered an old wives' tale, but now actual scientists are actually testing it," said a reporter on Good Morning America—with no mention of the cleaning supplies outfit that sponsored the research. Neither did HuffPo or Gizmodo point out the conflict of interest. That's the danger of receiving this crap from overseas: Once it gets here, we repackage it in the self-serious American style. What starts out as entertainment ends up looking like real news.

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