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23/11/2014

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Blogs of war

Ollie Christophers considers churnalists and sock puppets

Recent years have seen the journalism industry decimated by its outmoded business model, leaving it teetering on the edge of the abyss. In a classic case of Darwinian evolution, blogs have evolved to fill the gaps left by newspapers.  Want to know what’s new with climate change, brain science or genetic manipulation? Blogs like realclimate.org, labspaces.net and the many subjects covered in the scienceblogs.com network will tell you.  Their ‘citizen journalist’ authors are battling with established science journalists.

Lines of engagement

Citizen journalists are criticised for a worrying lack of principles and poor quality writing. They have received little or no training and have no accepted rules of engagement. In contrast, the journalism industry has invested billions of pounds into its quest for ‘truthfulness, accuracy and objectivity’ and the professionals working in the field are justly regarded as the quality gatekeepers of their industry.

For the science community, the dangers of erroneous bloggers can be a serious issue. The need for accuracy and accountability in science reporting is arguably the most crucial among any matter in the public eye.

It’s unsurprising that people feel uneasy. Imagine the world of sci com with no need for transparency, no agreements on how to treat confidential information and no information about authors’ conflicts of interest.

Yet in spite of this, science blogging is reaching its zenith. Some people are starting to find blogs more accurate and compelling than the traditional outlets for science news.

As Fiona Fox, the Director of the Science Media Centre told the UK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ) in August, ‘Some bloggers put journalists to shame with their accuracy of reporting and quest for the truth.’

Haste and paste

The need to remain profitable has led to the workloads of journalists increasing vastly, leaving them much less time for original journalism and fact checking. Dr Andy Williams from Cardiff University School of Journalism said at the UKCSJ, ‘Science news is under huge economic restraints and the quality of reporting directly correlates with financial resources.’

His comments chime with reports of a trend dubbed “haste and paste”, where journalists are accused of simply copying and pasting their articles from press releases and publishing them.

The on-going power struggle between journalists and bloggers was stoked up again recently, with The Lay Scientist blogger Martin Robbins launching a scathing and thinly veiled attack on the BBC news website’s formulaic approach to reporting stories from a scientific paper.

A blistering critique of the state of modern journalism is even coming from within, with Guardian investigative journalist Nick Davies launching a tirade on his peers. Backed by research from Cardiff University, which found that some 12 per cent of stories appearing via our news outlets are recycled directly from PR sources, he has accused journalists of partaking in the mass production of ‘falsehood, distortion and propaganda’.  

Insults

The arguments about authenticity go both ways, with many insults being slung back and forth across the playground: “churnalists” to those who replicate content without any journalistic investigation and “sock puppets” to those writing blogs and pretending to be someone they are not.

Some highly-regarded bloggers, such as Ed Yong and Ben Goldacre, have appeared in the realm of sci com. With a meticulous and discerning readership, the authenticity and accuracy of science blogs must be impeccable. With public engagement budgets being slashed across the board, we should anticipate further endeavours into citizen science journalism.

Of course for the rest of us there’s always Twitter, but until we all become so articulate that we can explain a scientific theory in 140 characters, I don’t think the establishment has too much to worry about just yet.

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Ollie Christophers
Ollie Christophers is the British Science Association’s Communications Officer
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