Sharing News Is Not the Same Thing as Journalism

1 July 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo credit: pawel_231/stock.xchng

Inspiration doesn’t always strike when it’s convenient. I often get ideas for blog posts while swimming laps, doing the dishes or am otherwise prevented from writing down an outline of the idea while it is fresh in my mind. As a result, my pockets are often filled with crumpled pieces of paper on which I’ve scribbled whatever (occasionally mysterious) fragments I can remember of what I thought was a good idea.

I recently ran across a weathered post-it note on which I’d written “Am I a news source?” I have no idea what spurred me to write that down, but I decided to explore the question. The answer, I think, is both yes and no.

Am I a news source? Yes. I am a science writer at a university, and I write about new research findings. It’s my job to push out information about recent or forthcoming journal articles, in hopes that other people will find them interesting or useful. So, assuming that some of the people who read what I write weren’t already familiar with the relevant journal article, I am providing them with science news.

I often do the same thing in my capacity as a blogger*, writing about new (or not so new) research findings or events that are relevant to the science communication community. The act of sharing information (occasionally even timely information), makes me a news source. That seems fairly straightforward, right?

But am I a news source? No.

If you are equating news with journalism, I don’t fit the bill. I’m not a journalist. Much of what I write for this blog consists of my opinions, and opinions do not equal journalism (in my opinion). As a SciLogs blogger, I’m more like a columnist (which I also do not equate with journalism).

And when I’m at my day job, wearing my PIO hat, I am definitely not a journalist. I do my best to be honest in everything I write, but I only tell one side of the story. I may read a journal article and interview its authors before writing a news release or university blog post, but I don’t contact other experts in the field at other universities. I write about research being done at my university because I am paid by the university to promote that research. For a journalist, that would be an unacceptable conflict of interest. For a PIO, that’s the job description.

I know a lot of reporters. Some of them like me and trust me. That’s great. None of them would ever accept what I tell them about new research at face value. They need to do some homework. Talk to sources. They need to figure out for themselves what the research might mean. That’s what makes them good reporters.

There are certain subjects that crop up repeatedly in scicomm circles. One that drives me nuts is whether we “need” science reporters any more, implying that the news content produced by research institutions can stand on its own. Forgive the coarse language, but I think that’s bullshit.

I’ve written about this before (and at greater length), but one perk of writing this blog is that it allows me to harp on things I think are important. Journalists sort through all of the announcements, releases and journal articles that come out every day in order to help us identify (and amplify) what’s important. And given the dizzying amount of information most of us receive on a daily basis, we need good journalists now more than ever.

*Note: I want to make sure there is no confusion on this – I am not making a distinction between bloggers and journalists. There are bloggers who are clearly journalists, such as Carl Zimmer or Ed Yong. I am simply saying that, in my role as a blogger, I would not call myself a journalist.


5 Responses to “Sharing News Is Not the Same Thing as Journalism”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    You say: "Much of what I write for this blog consists of my opinions, and opinions do not equal journalism (in my opinion)."

    That's fair enough although I do think that opinions shouldn't be dissociated from journalism, as it tends to be today. Increasingly, journalists are becoming experts in their fields so their opinions have value and are not just regular fleeting thoughts but rather thoughts backed by experience and knowledge. As such, it's important and helpful (to readers) to encourage journalists to be forefront about their opinions in a number of cases.

    This discussion can also led to the so-called "being balanced" culture that journalists have embraced. Here's an interesting, albeit a bit long and tedious, read that shows how this "being balanced" culture is bringing (investigative) journalism down in numerous ways.

  2. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Hi Khalil,
    I agree that reporters need to bring something to their stories. Experience and expertise allow reporters to contribute meaningful information and context to their stories. However, that contribution has to be substantive, rather than purely subjective. E.g., it's not enough for a reporter to simply say "This is wrong." That's an opinion. But if the reporter *knows* that something is wrong, he/she can write "That is wrong -- and here's why...." If they use their knowledge/expertise to contribute factual information, then it's not just an opinion -- it's analysis. I'm all for that. :)

    And, yeah, the "false balance" problem drives me nuts. For those unfamiliar with the concept, false balance is when you present two (or more) arguments as having equal value, when there is scientific evidence indicating that one argument is actually invalid.

    Here's an example: If Adam believes the Earth is round(ish), and John believes the Earth is flat, it would be false balance to present both arguments as holding equal weight. That is because there is sufficient evidence to show that the Earth is, in fact, round(ish) -- regardless of what anyone believes.

  3. Paige Brown Jarreau Reply | Permalink

    What a great post.

    I actually think, though, that you are a news source, as are other university science writers who not only write press releases, but expand on those releases through blogs, in-depth online features and magazine pieces, which can and indeed are often aimed at the 'public' directly. Any more, many science writers working for universities and other institutions are doing journalism. So far, in my own position as a university writer, I have been able to write any story, and anything I want to write about a story, even controversial stories that show negative effects of Louisiana's oil industry on wetlands and coastal environment, for example.

    HOWEVER, I can definitely envision circumstances, when a university science writer comes up against the interests of the institution itself, for example, when the writer could not necessarily voice their true thoughts about a given piece of research, for example. Maybe an important professor gives a quote over-claiming the science (although, personally, I would try to tame or leave out that quote). Maybe important controls were left out of a research project being promoted by an important professor or university partner (although again, I would try to point this out in a story). But in this case, a true science journalist, who is going to delve into the evidence, look at both sides, fight for the truth, etc. is absolutely necessary. [On a side note though, the person to do the in-depth story is probably going to be a blogger or science writer not necessarily associated with a traditional news medium].

    I totally agree with you, that science writing from universities and institutions CAN NOT stand alone. I write about coastal research for a university, and I (and hopefully all other university science writers, but I'm not sure) am careful to write about the limitations of a given piece of research, the context, future research needed, etc. But that alone isn't journalism. I think science journalism needs to come from all different kinds of media, platforms, and angles, to achieve a coherent, transparent, and accurate whole.

    [I hope my rambling makes sense lol].

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