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Science Bloggers: Diversifying the news

August 11, 2010

A typical blogger: Ready for Battle

So you know that old, sorry debate about science journalism versus science blogging? The one where the mainstream media are the legitimate suppliers of news about the world, and bloggers are resigned to being snarky commentators?

Or how about the one where blogging creates an echo chamber, where the diversity of sources withers, leaving people in a pool of ideology-reinforcing consistency.

Well have I got some news for you!

These arguments may not only be patently illogical, but rather, the opposite might be true.

In a recent study in the journal Journalism Studies, Gina Walejko and Thomas Ksiazek, both PhD students at Northwestern University, compared the sources that traditional journalists, political bloggers, and science bloggers each turn to when producing their posts.

They found that science bloggers, unlike the other two camps, rely on a higher diversity of sources, particularly primary literature or other academic work. Science bloggers are also much less self-referential; they don’t talk about themselves as much.

The researchers analyzed all of the links, as well as unlinked sources, from 600 select blog posts written between 2004 and 2007 on two politically charged topics -climate change and intelligent design – in an attempt to answer two questions:

1: Do the linking practices of science bloggers differ from those reported in previous sourcing studies and, if so, how?

2: Do the linking practices of science bloggers differ from those of popular political bloggers and, if so, how?

Ksiazek and Waleijko sampled from the most visited science and politics blogs that had written about climate change or intelligent design at least ten times during the study period, including such favourites as: Adventures in Ethics and Science, Bad Astronomy, A Blog Around the Clock, The Intersection, Loom, Pharyngula, and The Frontal Cortex.

The political blogs included Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo,  Outside The Beltway,  and Instapundit among others. The politics blogs were controlled to have equal representation from left- and right-leaning sites.

So how’d it all shake down?

Well for climate change, science bloggers referenced traditional news sources 15% of the time, half as much as political bloggers. They also dropped 18% of their links on academic sources and 11% on government sources. Political blogs gave these 4% and 5% respectively.

The gap only widens for hyper-ideological intelligent design. Apparently the best place for answers to the question ‘where did we come from?’ is traditional media outlets… at least if you’re a political blogger – they sourced back to the press 37% of the time. Science blogs, however, gave 9%.

Then, put this in the context of prior analyses of mainstream media coverage, where up to 80% of the sources in a story are affiliated with the government.

According to Ksiazek and Waleijko, “these patterns indicate that science bloggers expand the diversity of voices heard in traditional journalism by linking to academic institutions and non-profit entities, and these sources may help to increase the quality of science news reporting.”

For the times science bloggers do link to the mainstream press, however, the motivation seems to differ from why a political blog might link to them.

“While science bloggers sometimes link to traditional news media to express agreement, they are more likely to link out of frustration with mass media reports on global warming,” said the authors.

“To rectify these frustrations, science bloggers link to academic sources that provide more in-depth explanation of scientific processes and studies.”

So much for the closed-off echo chamber; science bloggers are actually increasing the diversity of voices.

As for the journalism versus blogging debate? Ksiazek and Walejko leave us with this little tid-bit.

“Because many writers lack the skills necessary to make critical judgments on the accuracy of scientific trials and experiments, science writers may be misled… Could science bloggers, often individuals with advanced scientific training and connections to multiple scientific sources, change traditional science journalism sourcing practices for the better?”

Walejko, G., & Ksiazek, T. (2010). BLOGGING FROM THE NICHES Journalism Studies, 11 (3), 412-427 DOI: 10.1080/14616700903407429

18 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2010 12:28 am

    So is this post is science blogging about science about science blogging (which is itself about science in the first place.)

    I think the arguments that end up being derogatory towards science blogging often boil down to “journalism is already a profession, and science blogging is not, and so journalists are more valid sources of information.” I find it really frustrating that people go on about how good journalists are at fact checking, verifying, filtering, and reporting, given the huge inaccuracies that routinely get printed about scientific discoveries in traditional media.

  2. August 12, 2010 3:48 am

    Wonderful. Good stuff, Colin.

    The “echo chamber” argument is rapidly becoming my most irritating trope about blogging, second only to the journalism/blogging debate. When you have such a diverse group of people speaking to a variety of audiences, how can it possibly make sense to claim that they’re all (or even, mostly) speaking to themselves? Sure, some may be. And, by all means, challenge bloggers to demonstrate what sort of impact they’re having in the wider world. But for God’s sake, approach it as an open question rather than a pre-judged proclamation.

  3. August 12, 2010 8:23 am

    I think the “echo chamber” criticism must make more sense from a journalistic perspective.

    “Those bloggers only link to each other!”
    “But we also link to the primary literature, and…”
    “I’m not interested in that. What I meant was you don’t link to us.”

  4. Anonymous permalink
    August 12, 2010 3:23 pm

    Great, but also an example of the downside to linking to academic sources.

    Those browsing from their academic ivory tower networks will be let trough the publishers paywall gate without ever noticing it is there while the common folk with a common ip address are denied and told we need to cough up 30 dollars every time we want slightly more data and some basic methodological information.

    • August 12, 2010 3:28 pm

      Alternatively, you could fall back on an old journalistic practice. If you are indeed so keen, you have the option of emailing the researchers and asking if they would be kind enough to share a copy of their paper with you.

      But I do get your point, which also explains the open access push that seems to be pretty strong within the blogging community.

  5. August 12, 2010 4:47 pm

    You could also e-mail the blogger and ask them to send you a copy.

    Not that it’s legal.


  6. August 16, 2010 1:36 am

    Very interesting. I had not known that so much of mainstream journalism’s sources came from the government, which I suppose makes me naive. What I have observed is that mainstream science news tends to essentially republish press releases. You’ll see many different articles from many different papers worded very similarly, with no probing questions about the researchers’ claims.

  7. akshatrathi294 permalink
    August 25, 2010 7:12 am

    Hi Colin,

    Thanks for the wonderful post. It is heartening to see that such studies are done. Keeps the science blogging community going, you see. :)

    Just wanted to know whether your remark on science bloggers being less self-referential is backed up by a study. If yes, could you share a link please?


    PS: I could not find any reference to this fact in the journalism studies paper.

    • February 23, 2011 4:14 am

      It’s linked on the DOI at the end of the article. Subscription need for access to the article, though. (Abstract is free.)

      I’m not that surprised at what they find.

      I also find the echo chamber a bit weird for science communication, as it’s targeted at people *outside* the sphere of the writers. (Some meta-blogging does sometimes seem to reverberate with a little echo to my mind, however, but being meta-blogging that’s not that surprising either.)

      • February 23, 2011 5:09 am

        The echo chamber *thing* (Missed a word, sorry: late at night and I’m crashing.)

  8. May 10, 2013 9:34 pm

    It’s going to be ending of mine day, except before end I am reading this wonderful piece of writing to increase my know-how.


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