Revisiting the Pacific Standard Critique of Science Journalism

Earlier this week, Pacific Standard magazine published an article of mine that was critical of science journalism. I received warm responses from many science journalists. But others were upset.

On Twitter, some critics called my piece a “college-level gloss” that offered “nothing new or insightful.” Others called it “bad journalism,” while Pulitzer-winning New York University professor and Undark Advisory Board member Dan Fagin compared my article to a high school term paper. He also described the argument as “Trumpian.”

viewpointsMy article was far from perfect. But these negative responses seemed to underestimate the scope of the problem, and to ignore the piece’s most important points.

In Pacific Standard, I argued that science reporting remains stuck between the realms of journalism and public relations, a tension that dates back to the earliest days of the field. Journalists rarely focus on shoddy scientific practices, and they present a view of scientific inquiry that’s cleaner and more progress-oriented than the realities of research. As a result, few journalists do much to hold scientists accountable. Most present a misleading view of research to the public.

None of these claims are new. Versions of this argument have appeared many times, most recently from Brooke Borel in The Guardian, and in Paul Raeburn’s work for Nieman Reports.

Critics have identified two particular weaknesses in my argument. The first is that I lay the blame on individual journalists, rather than recognizing the pressures of a fast-moving, cash-strapped marketplace. The second is that the breadth of my piece sweeps up good reporters along with the bad.

“There’s probably no field of journalism that’s less skeptical, less critical, less given to investigative work, and less independent of its sources than science reporting,” I wrote. Understandably, many skilled, hardworking journalists were upset by that statement. It does paint the field with a broad brush, and it’s thinly sourced.

These are valid criticisms, but they don’t address the piece’s central concern, which was more about science than it was about science journalism. Right now, scientific communities are facing a series of crises related to publication, replication, and self-policing. Peer review can be a superb arbiter. But, like any watchdog, it cannot act alone. In far too many cases, peer reviewers are unable to catch fraud, identify conflicts of interest, or even catch major methodological errors. Meanwhile, there are systematic biases in selecting which results get published, and which don’t. Those biases can shape entire fields.

The question for science journalists seems to be clear: Will the field address these issues, or will it proceed as if they do not exist? That’s a broad way to frame the question, of course; many journalists will do the former, and others the latter. But I think it’s apparent that the field has skewed strongly in the direction of disengagement. Even readers of a nuanced, critical science section, such as that of The New York Times, could have limited exposure to the politics and controversies within scientific communities.

Meanwhile, the basic model of reporting — one that treats individual studies as breaking news items, and that rarely follows up with studies months or years down the line — seems fundamentally out of sync with the slower, messier cycle of scientific consensus construction.

Again, I’m not the first person to make these points. But they’re worth reiterating.

Conversations about retraction, peer review, and results bias are not an unfortunate blemish on the larger story of science. Right now, they are central to that story. Journalism is an extraordinary watchdog, but too often it does not seem to be playing that role in any regular and serious way  within the scientific world. There are many, many reasons why that may be the case, but it seems plausible that a culture of uncritical science boosterism is at least one of them.

As I discuss in my Pacific Standard piece, many people are already doing great investigative work. Some are exploring new models of collaboration between scientists, journalists, and academic journals. These collaborations can combine the best of peer review with the best of journalistic work, and they need not be collusive. Collaborating with a source, and collaborating with someone who has the same job as your source, are two very different things.

Work like this can help make both science and science journalism stronger, and there’s potential for much more of it to take place.

Michael Schulson is a freelance writer and co-editor of The Cubit, a blog examining the intersections of science, religion, technology, and ethics. The opinions expressed here are his own. 

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.