An Endangered Writer Species

And the Microbe That Probably Isn’t

I’m a science writer. I trained to be one. Spent years in graduate school, plus many more years honing my knowledge of the science I write about. I know how to look stuff up and find the meat of a story. Apparently, that makes me overqualified for the mainstream media, which doesn’t hire science writers (much) or bother to check on the veracity of a story before they commit it to 72-point-type screaming headlines in their endless 24-hour rush for news primacy.

As a science writer, I now find that I’m a member of an endangered species because science journalists have been purged from media organizations over the past decade.  For whatever reason, having an expert science writer actually … like… you know, write about science, isn’t important to many media outlets anymore. On CNN.com, for example, they merged science and technology. Important science stories get buried in with the latest Android apps discussion and iPad reviews. Yet, look at some media outlets and you’ll see them swimming in wads of sports writers and clutches of fashion and celebrity gossip editors and pestilences of political commentary, sometimes written by people who don’t seem to have learned the basic rules of journalism.

Science is a HUGE part of our lives. We are swimming in the products of science each day. Yet, our largest, most influential media outlets seem to be afraid of it. Or want to write about science the way way they write about celebrity marriage disasters. What ever happened to having expert science writers do their jobs?

I swear, it seems easier for some outlets to publish news about the latest Charlie Sheen outrage or the ongoing pronouncements of doom from hysterical politicians (many of whom don’t know what they’re talking about), or stories that are really nothing more than fluff and nonsense. Sad to say, science gets the breathless treatment. Or it gets told as a narrative that’s framed by an editor’s limited understanding of the subject. Rarely does it seem that news editors check the veracity of what they’re publishing in science stories. I have to ask myself, if they get it wrong about science so much, what ELSE are they getting wrong? What else aren’t they publishing?

Last week a scientist announced that he had found what he was sure was life in a meteorite. He published his results in a “journal” that seems to be a front for conspiracy theorists and whackadoos. Why he did that, I have no idea. I won’t even speculate since I don’t have any insight. But, he did. And, of course, the mainstream media around the world, led by the spectacular-fail folks at Fox News, carried the “story” with breathless hype, screeching headlines and — as far as I can tell — very little research to see if this guy’s claims were even scientifically accurate.

A seasoned science reporter would have caught the nuances immediately and helped her or his media outlet run a balanced story. There’s an interesting entry over at the Columbia Journalism Review that quotes Knight Science Journalism Tracker Charlie Petit talking about the over-the-top coverage we saw last week, “That kind of hyperbolic gumption alone ought to set most reporter’s smell-a-rat instincts to high alert.” And whether it was the editor’s note or the memory of other astrobiology stories gone wrong, on high alert they were.”

I know when I read the first story and the release, I was immediately skeptical of the claims that the microbes in the rock were found in space. Especially after I read that the rock had been on Earth for many years — plenty of time for Earth-based life to contaminate it. I knew from geology class, for example, that rock is porous — and that microbes can get into rocks pretty easily. Had I been a science reporter at a reputable news outlet, I would have immediately called up other experts to get the skinny on the science.

Of course, the breathless reporting from Fox, et al, left the scientists who actually know the field to play catch-up in explaining the story.  Unfortunately, now that the corrective stories are coming out, the mainstream media has moved on to the next fluffy story and there’ll be nothing more said.

Luckily, for the discerning folk who want to learn more about science than what shows up on Fox News or the National Enquirer, there ARE science writers like me, Phil Plait, Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today, and many others who ARE reputable and thoughtful and can leap up and write about these stories with a measure of authority.  We’re here in the blogs, and the online outlets that specialize in science. You won’t always find us in the mainstream media, although some outlets are starting to syndicate some of us into their sites. (In my case, my work is appearing on SpaceTimesNews and occasionally on Christian Science Monitor’s Cool Astronomy Blog showcase ).  Unluckily, the mainstream READER who wants to get a good, honest science story isn’t always going to know how to find us (or other reputable sci-journalists).

What bothers me is that if the mainstream media isn’t getting this science correct, how do we know they are reporting medical science correctly? Or telling the whole story of a political event?  Or reporting world news properly? We don’t. Remember, we all watched as business writers missed out on the Wall Street depredations during the Bush years. So, there’s a disconnect not just in science writing but other areas. If the level of science coverage that is being foisted on us by the likes of Fox and other outlets is any indication, you have to wonder just how badly they’re screwing up other news, too.

It used to be that journalists checked their facts, checked out a story, and could tell the difference between bravo sierra and news.  In light of this most recent news debacle over the microbes that probably aren’t microbes, it’s clear that those of us who trained to do our jobs are in a rapidly vanishing minority, because you didn’t see much good science writing in the big media. You saw fluff and breathlessness.  And you, the readers, the taxpayers, the folks who live in an increasingly technological world, lose out when unknowledgeable writers jump on stories without any thought to making sure they’re accurate, or even worth bothering with.

4 Comments

  1. I’m not a science writer (just a writer who loves science) and even I suspected that the story was full of crap!

    I remember the last time when NASA mentioned something similar, and I was skeptical due to the fact that contamination from Earth life would be a high probability (and since we have yet to catalogue every creature and microbe I would be skeptical about any claims via meteorites).

    However IMHO Fox News should hire you in order to provide a more fair and balanced analysis instead of one composed of sensationalism.

  2. ccp

    Yes, that story was pretty transparent to all but Fox. I doubt I could stomach working for an organization that just flat-out makes up stuff and publishes slant as news. But, it’s an intriguing thought. I’d have to invest in a lot of Maalox, I suspect.

    The arsenic-eating bacteria story at least had some science behind it and the scientists were careful to emphasize the limits of their findings. I had no problem with the story itself, and I hope they are able to continue in the same vein of research. Life is turning out to be far more interesting and complex than even biologists thought.

  3. Truly Anomalous

    Thank you for a very good post. It is paradoxical that with the 24 hour news channels, instead of diversifying the news and giving us complete quality coverage of what is going on around the world, science, medicine, etc (how naive of me!), they give us 24 hour coverage of drivel (Charlie Sheen!!). I stopped watching CNN after they got rid of their science editors/reporters (remember Miles O’Brien?). And Fox ‘News’ is really the worst offender. FWIW, for the best coverage of news in the Middle East clearly Al-Jazeera is heads and shoulders above the rest.

  4. ccp

    Thank you. Yes, I DO remember Miles. He interviewed my husband for a special project once and was quite good. Sad to see him go, only to be replaced by Anderson Cooper, who isn’t anywhere near the science reporter he could be. Also agree with you about Al-Jazeera. Started reading their English edition almost as soon as it came up. If you want to know what someone’s doing in their home country, READ THEIR media. Not our country’s “interpretation” of events.

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