Where the team behind MATTER write about writing about the future.

May 29, 2012 at 3:03pm

What’s wrong with science journalism?

THERE’S A PIECE in Slate today that tackles a subject close to our heart: it asks "what’s wrong with British science journalism?"

That’s a broad title intended to provoke a reaction (and for a pair of British journalists, you can be sure that did).

But change the focus a little and what the writer, Daniel Engber, actually means is “why has tabloid science reporting taken hold in Britain?”. In fact keep zooming in and what he really means “why do the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph publish tabloid science?”. And then, as always, there’s the subtext: “…and is it better or worse than anywhere else?”

There are specific reasons why some science journalism is rotten, but in the end most of them boil down to something very simple: the belief among some editors that being read is more important than being right.

But I think the bigger issue is not identifying a problem, it’s looking for an answer.

And that’s an important part of why we started MATTER.

(photograph of Daily Mail used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Jem Stone)

Yes, a lot of what passes for science journalism is junk. But I think that’s in part because we’re increasingly seeing two different modes of science journalism in action — and the gap between them could (or should) be closed.

The way I see it, science and technology journalism tends to fall into a couple of categories. There’s news (“here is something that somebody has discovered”) and there’s explanation (“here is a deep insight into how something works”). Both categories cross a spectrum of different styles, from the entertaining-but-untrue tabloid gawping that creeps Engber out, to the dry, academic, just-the-facts approach, and everywhere in between.

What we realised is that while news can sometimes include an explanation, and explanations can sometimes deliver news, the two rarely combine to produce something that is more than the sum of its parts.

Science and technology are incredibly complex, beautiful, dark subjects that are full of new information and require deep thinking and storytelling. And while there is a lot of brilliant writing out there, the stories that synthesize all of these qualities into one place are far more rare than they should be.

I like to think that we can turn that ratio around a little by creating a very focused, very careful publication that tries to deliver both news and context in the same package. It’s not easy, of course, which is why we have to adhere to a “less is more" philosophy. But it’s possible.

I know the best writers and editors can combine startling investigation work and headline-grabbing news with something deeper and more challenging. They just need a place to breathe. And I know there are lots of readers out there who want to devour that sort of material: they just need a place to find it.

So from my position, then, Slate’s inquiring headline is not just baiting — it’s also a distraction. The real question is not “what’s wrong?”: it’s “what are you doing to make it better?”

Bobbie, MATTER co-founder