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Not Exactly an Interview with Ed Yong

March 13, 2010

So thanks to the journal reading/interview setting up/marathon transcribing sessions, I guess I just can’t let this project go. Even when I’m trying to ride the bus home from meeting a friend for coffee.

Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science was kind enough to actually read the pile of text I’ve thrown at this site in the last week. He found them interesting (I hope), and posted a tweet. Since my head is so stuck in the project, I had to take the opportunity to ask him a few questions. It’s not so much an interview…. it’s more like a…. twitterview?

Anyway, I’m taking the liberty of turning tweeted short-form words into full words. I hope I’m not breaking any sacred internet taboos.

Ed: Enjoying Colin Schultz’s interviews with science journalists. Interesting contrast between Nicola Jones‘ answers and Carl Zimmer‘s.

Colin: Which point do you think they disagree on the most?

E: “News you can use”. Must science tie directly into people’s lives? Or is it interesting in itself? Carl says latter, I agree.

C: The follow up to that then is, how do you engage people who don’t like science/avoid the science section?

E: Combine good stories with good storytelling. Same as for any other area. Perhaps more difficult with science but not impossible. Not Exactly Rocket Science has many readers who don’t read other science blogs or magazines. Not just preaching to converted. Web surprisingly good for baiting others.

C: What about explaining the science of the news of the day, instead of just the new science?

E: Different challenge. Possibly simpler since news angle comes ready-made. Trick is to fit it in without “Here comes the science bit.”

C: Wouldn’t you think that current affairs science might teach more science to more people?

E: In short-term, yes. But in long term, don’t underestimate the power of “this is cool” stories. Ultimately, mix of tactics good.

C: Cool stories are probable better for engaging, but what about explaining science-driven policy issue-of-the-day to people with science-phobia?

And then I guess he probably went to bed, considering it’s about midnight in the UK.

The discussion of current affairs science journalism versus “this is cool” science journalism is I think one that will continue to plague the field for a long time to come. I think it really will boil down to personal preference of the author. Not everyone needs to do it all, but all of it needs to get done.

What I do think is that science journalists need to be aware that they play a significant public role  far beyond engaging the public’s interest in science. Science never escapes from the rest of society, even if we’d like to think the products of science can stand alone.

‘Irresponsible’ reporting is not usually due to ignorance or lack of appropriate experience, rather it happens when the original story takes on a broader significance… Journalism will never be a cautious profession as long as its aim is to find and communicate events that are of interest to broad sectors of society. (1)

I’m not really sure why people think it’s not necessary to expand the science to the bigger picture, and why investigative science journalism is looked down upon. What I do know is that someone needs to keep an eye on the scientists. And who else is better positioned than people who understand science and care about it’s ramifications on society.

…it is particularly striking how the role investigative journalism and the PD Notebook documentary  played  in  exposing Hwang went  relatively  unremarked. This is in spite of the courage of journalists in pursuing such work in the face of everything from death threats to companies pulling their advertising from the channel. Perhaps this relative lack of recognition is because to have celebrated the role of investigative reporting might have high-lighted the limitations of the routine news/science reporting genre and raised questions about the close relations between science journalists and scientists. (2)

(1) Moore, Andrew. “Bad science in the headlines”. EMBO reports. 7. 12 (2006). 1193-1196.

(2) Haran, Joan and Kitzinger, Jenny. “Modest witnessing and managing the boundaries between science and the media: A case study of breakthrough and scandal”. Public Understanding of Science. 18. 6 (2009): 634-652.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Ed Yong permalink
    March 13, 2010 7:33 pm

    Heh. I actually had to shut down Twitter because the conversation was interesting and I had articles to be getting on with. ;-)

    I agree with your point that “not everyone needs to do it all, but all of it needs to get done”, which is what I was getting at when I said, “Ultimately, mix of tactics good.” At an individual level, I don’t really care who does what as long as (a) at a population level, it all gets done and (b) no one looks down on anyone else for using a different tactic.

    On another matter, it’s interesting that you bring up Hwang because AFAIK, the initial impetus to the excellent investigative reporting that brought him down was some whistleblowing from some of his colleagues. Which, of course, is exactly Bora’s point – scientists are often best placed to investigate their own colleagues.

  2. Ed Yong permalink
    March 13, 2010 7:47 pm

    Btw, I love that this was based on a Twitterview. I also like that you expanded all the abbreviations without actually adding in any words. That’s probably the best protocol as far as any etiquette goes.

  3. March 13, 2010 7:53 pm

    I figured it was the safest way to make it readable, but without accidentally altering context/content.

  4. March 13, 2010 8:11 pm

    Nice post. But I don’t think the discussion will “plague” the field, as long as the “hey this is cool!” author and the “hey this is an urgent science-y thing I want to point out about your daily life” author BOTH realize they can work together in the social media sphere, and collaborate directly on novel types of multimedia content that effectively transcend the dichotomy.

  5. March 13, 2010 8:21 pm

    That’s one of the biggest things that I’m starting to find with all this research, and one of the failings of science journalism as it stands. Science journalism takes place in fantastic, but segregated, areas. The science pages. The science blogs. The science magazines.

    While it’s definitely necessary to have these outlets for the scientifically inclined, as a place to go into depth, they do little to engage people who don’t think they care about science. All of my interviews have pointed out that strong story and strong characters can get someone to read your science story, but what if they don’t open the section? I think that’s where your idea of social media engagement will come in handy, reaching people where they are, instead of waiting for them to come to us (unlikely).

  6. March 14, 2010 9:03 am

    Add a section to that list of segregrations: The academic department/academic journals.

  7. March 14, 2010 10:37 pm

    I totally agree on the “its interesting in itself” point, but this is where blogging for yourself versus trying to convince an editor to accept a pitch is like reaching a proverbial fork in the publishing road.

  8. March 16, 2010 7:50 am

    A follow-up post on the value of “this is cool” science stories here: http://bit.ly/cyQFnN

  9. March 16, 2010 11:30 am

    Can I say as a science consumer, that is someone without a science background, but with deep interest in anything science, I find these kinds of conversations between science communicators very interesting?

    My question though is are you, as science communicators, coming it seems mostly from the hard sciences, using the science of communicating, or is that not considered enough sciency, or doesn’t predict results enough?

    • March 16, 2010 11:36 am

      Hi Jerry,

      The post I wrote http://colinschultz.wordpress.com/2010/02/28/do-what-they-say-not-what-you-do/ is actually the product of my delving into the science communication literature. The main sources I went to were the Journal of Science Communication, and the journal Public Understanding of Science.

      That’s actually what my whole project is set out to do – find the overlap between practicing science journalists and the prescriptions of science communication academics.

      I just got feedback from my project supervisor, and will be updating that article shortly.

      • March 16, 2010 6:06 pm

        Nice you’ll be focussing more on the science of communicating science.

        Do you know of more communication science communicators communicating their science?

      • March 16, 2010 6:09 pm

        That’s a mouthful! I haven’t come across any science comm academics actively discussing it (blogs and all that), but I have also been tending to stick to the peer-reviewed lit.

  10. March 16, 2010 9:24 pm

    Well, to see how scientists (or at least science bloggers, aka scientists who are self-selected as interested in communication) and professional communicators (including those who use blogs to communicate) relate to each other, there is one place where one has to start – the Framing Wars: http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2007/04/onestop_shopping_for_the_frami.php

    The rest is just aftershocks….

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  1. Science Journalism/Communication week in review « Science in the Triangle

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