We’ve forgotten that reality matters most, writes Brooke Borel
The article below by the journalist Brooke Borel gives an interesting insight into the thuggish manner in which the pro-GMO scientist Kevin Folta’s supporters work. After Borel wrote critically about Folta’s undisclosed ties to Monsanto, she says, “A vocal but small group of pro-biotech researchers and science writers told me that I was ruining their cause and silencing scientists by discouraging scientific outreach. Others called me anti-science.
“A few weeks after the story published, when Folta announced that he was taking a break from his outreach – specifically his blog, his podcast and his Twitter account, endeavors separate from his scientific research – I got angry messages demanding a response about my role in his departure.”
Borel notes: “To me, this showed a twisted view of science journalism” – for reasons elaborated in the article below.
For more on how Folta’s supporters try to intimidate critics of his behaviour, see this article by GMWatch’s Jonathan Matthews.
The problem with science journalism: we’ve forgotten that reality matters most
The Guardian, 30 Dec 2015
[links to sources are at the URL above]
It’s the job of science journalists to look beyond data – we have to look at the people doing the science and whether they have conflicts of interest
As a science journalist, a lot of your time is spent reporting on new studies, natural phenomena and how research may affect our lives. But there is another key piece to science, and that is the people who produce it. When we ignore these people – or omit key facts that cast researchers or their work in a negative light – we miss important stories.
In October, I wrote a long piece about a plant scientist and prominent GMO advocate named Kevin Folta. Folta works at the University of Florida and researches plant genetics and small fruit crops, such as strawberries. At the time, he was also active in science communication, particularly with respect to GMOs.
My piece covered, among other things, some questionable choices Folta had made as part of this scientific outreach. These included undisclosed ties to the biotech giant Monsanto, which were uncovered by a controversial FoI act request instigated by the anti-GMO group US Right to Know.
Relevant, too, is the fact that Folta published a pseudonymous podcast, a platform he used to interview his peers – even going as far as covertly interviewing himself – about science, including GMOs.
The reaction to the piece was swift and intense. I expected it; I’ve covered genetic engineering for a few years now and I’m familiar with the fights, which get nasty. But I found one trend particularly worrying.
A vocal but small group of pro-biotech researchers and science writers told me that I was ruining their cause and silencing scientists by discouraging scientific outreach. Others called me anti-science.
A few weeks after the story published, when Folta announced that he was taking a break from his outreach – specifically his blog, his podcast and his Twitter account, endeavors separate from his scientific research – I got angry messages demanding a response about my role in his departure.
To me, this showed a twisted view of science journalism. Should political journalists stick to positive profiles of politicians? Should business writers only consider the positives from a company’s actions? Should those who write about literature ignore the intent of the pieces they cover?
Of course not. And the same goes for science.
This debate is nothing new. In a 2009 essay in Nature, Boyce Rensberger, the former director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship program at the MIT, traced the history of the field “from cheerleaders to watchdogs”.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Rensberger wrote, science journalists sought to “persuade the public to accept science as the salvation of society”. Great emphasis was put “on the wonders of science and respect for scientists, rather than on any analysis of the work being done or any anticipation of its effects on society”.
There are dangers to this approach. Take for example, as Rensberger did, William Laurence, a New York Times science reporter who was also on the US government’s payroll to write about the Manhattan Project. Laurence wrote positive accounts of the atomic bomb as a reporter as well as press releases for the government, and he called Japan’s reports of radiation sickness “propaganda”. For these efforts, he won a Pulitzer in 1946.
Such conversations about science journalism and its proper role persist to this day. Part of the problem is a continued misunderstanding of what science journalism is, and how it differs from other forms of science communication.
At its best science communication, like any nonfiction writing, tries to portray truth. Science communicators do this by explaining how a natural phenomenon works, or highlighting how scientists learned something new. But how that truth is portrayed – and what is included or left out – depends on the writer’s intentions.
It’s a broad genre, says Dan Fagin, a science journalist and director of New York University’s Science, health & environmental reporting program: “It’s really any kind of communicating of science, and that can have all sorts of agendas. It can encourage people to become scientists, or encourage scientists to talk about science, or encourage a particular policy, or advance the interests of whichever group is paying for the communication.”
Science journalism is different. “Science journalism’s ultimate loyalty, when practiced properly, is to the closest possible depiction of reality, period,” Fagin says. “And no other agendas should interfere with that.”
Science journalists may write about science, but it’s also our job to look beyond wonders, hypotheses and data. It is to look at the people doing the science and whether they have conflicts of interest, or trace where their money is coming from. It is to look at power structures, to see who is included in the work and who is excluded or marginalized, whether because of gender or race or any other identity.
All these factors matter because they influence who has access to the production of science, and who has influence over its production. It matters, too, in cases like Folta’s – where readers deserve the full context of his scientific communication, including how he approached it and who supported it.
“As journalists we fail to do justice to what science is by somehow artificially presenting it as an inhuman, dispassionate inquiry. It’s human. People make human decisions,” says Deborah Blum, a science journalist and current director of Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. “And anyone who works in the process of science who is honest about that will say that. If we’re any good at what we do, we present science in a full human context.”
This doesn’t mean science journalists are always gunning for scientists, or that every interview is a gotcha or fodder for an exposé. Most science journalists I’ve talked to were drawn to this work because they love science; some even used to be scientists and decided to leave the bench for the reporter’s notebook. But we should maintain our skepticism (a hard task, to balance skepticism with general delight) and shouldn’t gloss over misdeeds or questionable behavior.
More worryingly, sweeping aside poor research or dubious activities can also erode the public’s trust in science.
“If your goal as a writer is to get people to question their assumptions and grapple with the world as it really exists, and not as they want it to exist, then doing things like hiding your affiliations or writing a piece in support of someone without acknowledging that you have a previous public or personal relationship is going to make it harder for people to understand the world as it is,” says Seth Mnookin, associate director of the graduate program in science writing at MIT.
All this isn’t to say that science communication – and specifically science advocacy or activism, with all its agendas – is inherently bad. But the intentions of the writer should be clear.
“My opinion remains that reality matters no matter how complicated it may be,” says Andrew Revkin, a writer whose blog, Dot Earth, shifted from news to the opinion section at the New York Times in 2010 and who teaches environmental communications at Pace University. “To me, it’s all about transparency. If you have an agenda, state your agenda,” he adds. “And if you’re claiming to be objective, then demonstrate the objectivity.”
Our media ecosystem blurs these distinctions even more, with bylines of both journalists and advocates appearing at the same media outlets. “There are a lot more voices, and it is a lot more confusing to all of us who the advocates are and who the independent journalists,” says Kelly McBride, vice-president of academic programs at the Poynter Institute.
Regardless of this blurring, the fact remains that the production of scientific knowledge thrives on criticism and debate – look no further than the peer review process and the dreaded, though perhaps mythical, third reviewer who is notoriously harsh or the heated conversations in the Q&A sessions at scientific conferences for proof.
Science journalists are not science advocates. And scientists aren’t science. When we confuse one for the other, it’s not just an innocent matter of semantics – it’s a great disservice both to readers and to science.