In which I continue to whine about crappy science journalism blogging

Oct 21 2010 Published by under Journalism, Medicine

Note: Since publication, the referenced article has been removed without note.  Some might argue that a more useful, nuanced, and sophisticated approach to posting a terrible blog post would be to leave the critical discussion intact and perhaps annotate or addend the offending post.  But the memory hole is always tempting, no? --PalMD

From time to time, I write pieces rather critical of the way mainstream media cover science and medicine.  Unfortunately for me, there's nothing terribly unique about that, as there are a number of fine journalists and websites that do that every day, and do it well (see, among others, here, here, here, and here). Last year I had the good fortune to attend an event at USC's Annenberg School of Journalism, and met a number of terrific journalists.  One thing that is clear to me is that I don't know enough about journalism.  For one thing, I'm free of many of the pressures faced by mainstream journalists.  I've broken ties with two media organizations that I've written for in the past (Scienceblogs and Forbes) because of the blurring of advertising and news/editorial content.  As a full-time, practicing physician, I have that luxury.  But many journalists do not.

During the Pepsigate scandal at Scienceblogs, I forced myself to think a bit more about what I want out of my own writing.  I felt that if I am to continue to deliver accurate health information online, I'd better learn  a bit more about journalism and about how reporters think and write.  Blogging has become for me more than a simple hobby, but less than an actual journalism gig.  I've found science writers to be an incredibly generous and approachable lot, and every day I strive to improve my writing, to show that there is no reason that a humble blog like this one cannot be a useful stop for decent writing on science and health.

Some have argued (I think correctly) that it may be impossible to be a practicing doctor and a practicing health care journalist, but I'm arrogant and crazy enough to think that I may be able to pull it off.  Not that I think I can be a good full-time journalist, but I think I have something useful to add to coverage of science and medicine.  I take my writing seriously, even though "it's just a blog."  I would love to spend more time formally studying journalism, but hey, I have disease to stamp out, so I'll just have to do my best.

And while not everyone will look at their own blogging as something delusionally serious, I think that people writing about health and science have to be ready to be taken to task for bad reporting.   LabSpaces, a fairly new network emerging in this second wave of science blogging, has some terrific writers, but one of their projects is a disaster.

Many of us receive daily press releases and other announcements about the latest studies or breakthroughs.  Journalists, with their particular education and experience, usually know how to view these critically.  Usually. But we naive bloggers may succumb to the temptation to treat every press release as conveniently-delivered facts rather than the publicity and PR tools that they are.  The folks at LabSpaces are falling into this trap.

The piece linked above is cribbed directly from a press release (I'm on the same mailing list) and is pure PR, with no supporting data or citations.  It makes very bold claims (such as, "[scientists] have now scientifically demonstrated that strep can lead to brain dysfunction and OCD").  These are just the sort of claims that should lead a writer or journalist to either file away the info for later, or to contact the institution to ask some hard questions.  To do anything else is to serve as a free publicity conduit.

So while you may not take your blog as seriously as some, others may.  More and more, it seems, the mainstream media is blowing it on science coverage.  There is no reason we should make the same mistakes.

5 responses so far

  • k8 says:

    The fact that I come to your blog after I've read something I think might be a bit far fetched and come to find out it is INDEED far fetched, should tell you something about your writing. I appreciate it.

  • Namnezia says:

    I'm pretty sure Brian Krueger doesn't write these pieces. They are clearly labelled as press-releases. So he's not cribbing from them, he's just reproducing them and indicating this as such.

    • PalMD says:

      No, he calls them "featured articles". There is nothing other than their obvious nature to indicate that they are press releases.

  • tideliar says:

    I'm one of the Labspaces bloggers and I kind of agree with Pal TBH. news is one thing, but news needs to edited. We don't have the staff to do that and I'm not publishing PRs without comment is a great idea. This is how disinformation spreads - one grants a dodgy piece a certain authority when it is mass-reproduced on a 'scientific' site.

    I'll bring this up with Brian and the LS peeps.

  • Namnezia says:

    PalMD: That's a good point about calling them "Featured Articles". It can be misleading.