Researchers Ask If Neuroscientists Prefer Traditional Journalism to Blogging. Controversy Ensues.


Newspaper racks/Wikimedia Commons

This week, the journal BioScience made available an upcoming paper with the rather unassuming title "Journalism and Social Media as Means of Observing the Contexts of Science".  On first glance, you might think this an unlikely study to generate an angry response.

You have to read a little farther to get to the explosive potential. The paper, published by communications researchers in Germany and the United States, results from a survey of neuroscientists in both countries who were asked to weight the relative value and influence of traditional news outlets versus blogs. Or as the researchers put it in the abstract, to assess "the influence of various types of 'old' and 'new" media on public opinion and political decision making.

Based on the response of some 250 scientists (fairly evenly divided between the countries), the researchers found that scientists tended to give more weight to the influence of traditional media. For instance, more than 90 percent of neuroscientists in both countries said they relied on traditional journalist sources – both in print and online – to follow news about scientific events compared to around 20 percent for blogs.

Not surprisingly, these results provoked instant debate among those in the science blogging community, some of whom questioned the methodology, questions asked, and statistical analysis. But the angrier reaction involved some of the interpretation (or speculation by the study authors) as to the reasoning for the neuroscientists' answers.  Carl Zimmer, an influential science writer and blogger for National Geographic, responded by opening up a discussion on Branch, which attracted strong responses from other leaders in field such as Ed Yong and Bora Zivkovic.

Zimmer opened the conversation like this:

This new paper surveys the attitudes of neuroscientists about traditional media and social media (including blogs). On Twitter, some of us who blog about the brain take issue with passages like this:
"Blog posts also tend to be shorter narratives, bereft of the kind of complexity and nuance possible only in long-form journalism." This seems wrong-headed to me and others. But Twitter is overloading on this (too many handles in each tweet)–so, let's take it over here, shall we?

And here is Yong's response:

That whole paragraph is just nonsense. First: "Scientists may understand that neuroscience stories in legacy media channels are likely to be of higher quality than similar narratives found in blogs."
REALLY? Neuroscience reporting in legacy media is notoriously bad. Here's a paper on that, which gets cited in the one we're discussing but not in this context. And bloggers, many of whom are active scientists themselves, often do a much better job at correctly reporting neurostories, and/or debunking shoddy coverage.

In the interests of transparency at this point, let me say that I am a science blogger at Wired and also a long-time traditional journalist.  And as I sometimes see myself in a state of evolution – balancing both those parts of the profession – so I saw this paper as a essentially a data set on a line of evolving attitudes. We might ask the same questions a few years from now – or even tomorrow – and get very different answers. But it's worth it to measure and better understand such change. In the Branch discussion, American University research Matt Nisbet said:

Just like we are behind in studying perceptions of scientists and their use of media, we are even more behind in studying content & nature of science blogging, good, bad & ugly. It's good to see this study out on scientist behaviors & perceptions, builds on a few previous ones, but we need more in this area across fields.

And Dominique Brossard, one of the study's co-authors added that the most controversial paragraphs, which suggested that blogging was not up to the standard of traditional journalism, generated an interesting discussion among the authors as well. I am, for my part, not a big fan of a simple dichotomization of "blogging" versus "journalism." Some academics are still thinking along these lines though and it does raise an interesting empirical question as it relates to trustworthiness and other concepts that have been traditionally attached to, say, the New York Times. So do scientists make these distinctions when they go online and follow science news through blogs?

Brossard is based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and again, in the interests of transparency, I teach writing in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison where I am a colleague of another of the study's co-authors, Sharon Dunwoody. I am not myself a communication researcher and I am not sure that Professor Dunwoody considered this proximity a particular advantage yesterday when I hunted her down to raise questions about the study.

But she replied:

I just reread our Bioscience article, and I can certainly see how that paragraph at the bottom of the piece would be a red flag to the talented bloggers who monitor our science landscape.  Folks like you, Carl, Bora and Ed are influential users of this form.  I am a regular reader of a few blogs, am passionate about the good writing I find in some of them, and (as I will inform Bora at some point) am using his and Jennifer Ouellette's book The Best Science Writing Online 2012 in J415 [science writing class] this semester.  That paragraph in our article reads too much like an indictment of all blogging, and that was a mistake.


The primary goal of our survey was to capture a sense of how neuroscientists in both the US and Germany use and perceive the many information channels available to them to monitor new developments in science.  We found that they indicated a strong personal preference for more traditional media channels (both in legacy forms and online) and that, when asked explicitly, chose not to indicate a personal reliance on blogs or social channels such as Facebook and Twitter.  As you can see from the article, they believe that others rely on such channels, even policymakers.  But they themselves assert that they do not do so.


The material at the bottom of the article, then, seeks to reflect on possible reasons for that pattern.  We offered a series of speculations, something typically done in a research article.  These speculations are, by definition, not backed by data.  Rather, they are intended to serve as invitations to gather data, as specific statements about the kind of research that needs to be done.

So I started out by describing the paper as a controversy-generator. But in putting together this piece I've come to realize that's too knee-jerk a description. What we find here is an impassioned but also thoughtful discussion by people who genuinely believe that science communication, in all its forms, matters.

And as we continue on that evolutionary path I mentioned earlier, it's these kinds of discussion – and the gathering of data to fuel them –  that will encourage us to pursue the smartest directions on that journey.

                                                                                                                                                                                      — Deborah Blum