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Tue Jan 24, 2012, 10:08 AM

The Way Things Are

By Brian Switek

I haven’t seen the movie Babe in years, but there is one part of the piglet’s story that has stuck with me. Early in the film the heroic little ham is told that there is a certain order to life. There’s nothing an individual can do to change the role they have to play on the farm. Babe’s destiny to wind up as bacon is, as one of the film’s anthropomorphic mice squeaks at the beginning of one chapter, simply “The way things are.”

“The way things are” could also serve as an alternate title to Ananyo Bhattacharya’s Guardian science blog op-ed “Nine ways scientists demonstrate they don’t understand journalism.” Bhattacharya, the chief online editor for Nature, presents a laundry list of common complaints he has received from scientists about press coverage of their work. Bhattacharya’s response to each seems to boil down to “Deal with it.”

In some cases, this is the proper reaction. Some scientists might not like the fact that journalists are obliged to interview outside researchers for second, third, and fourth opinions about new findings, Bhattacharya notes, but that is part of what separates responsible journalism from university-generated press releases. If journalists uncritically repeated the conclusions of new papers, then they would only be science cheerleaders and would fail at their task of responsibly communicating science news to the public. And Bhattacharya is also entirely correct when he says that mistakes in news reports are inevitable. We must strive to get things right, but, when we don’t, at least we have the option of issuing an update or correction (especially in an age when so much science news is disseminated online).

But, in other ways, Bhattacharya’s editorial is a defense of a journalistic status quo that I believe does a disservice to both scientists and the public. Several points in the list of nine defend items of contention which often make scientists and responsible journalists alike send their foreheads careening towards their desks. Hyperbolic headlines, a tabloid on research, and the popular “inverted pyramid” storytelling style are all aspects of science reporting that are not going anywhere, Bhattacharya says.


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