Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Journalists, competence, and redshift

Cosmic Variance informs about a strange story: the media have celebrated a discovery of a galaxy at redshift 8 - except that months earlier, a galaxy at redshift 10 (which is more impressive) had been discovered. The reason for this skewed reporting was that the less impressive result was announced in a press release while the more impressive result was only described in an arXiv preprint.

Such things occur pretty frequently. But there is a debate whether such a sloppy journalistic job should be okayed. Sean Carroll wrote that it was unreasonable to expect journalists to follow or investigate the arXiv. He added:
And let’s not even think about the idea that journalists should spend time (and money) going to lots of conferences and talks and chatting with scientists about what’s hot in their fields these days — the resources just aren’t there.
That's a pretty outrageous apology for the deterioration of the journalistic occupation. You know, I remember people like James Glanz who attended a high-energy physics conference in Santa Barbara, among other things. He did all the things that Carroll thinks that the science journalists shouldn't do. Yes, this guy also wrote a NYT article about your humble correspondent and the arXiv in 2001. The journalists who suck and who never check their facts usually write articles about very different people.

A reader named Erik agreed with my sentiments and he responded:
Hopefully I’m not the only one who took issue with this. Why shouldn’t we expect newspapers that want to report on science to have competent people who can scan and read through the new additions to arxiv?
Sean Carroll's answer was sharp:
You can “expect” it all you want. But newspapers are busy firing science journalists, not asking them to spend more time on each story.
Well, except that the causal relationship implicitly assumed by Sean Carroll could have a wrong arrow of time - something he has huge problems to understand quite generally.

In reality, it is conceivable that the science journalists are being fired because they are as lousy as this one. The classical "stony" media are being paid for mostly because people believe - for partly rational, partly historical, and partly irrational reasons - that they offer more robust, relevant, far-reaching, and reliable information. What do you think that the people pay for? If you want any stuff, there's a lot of it on the Internet for free.

If the media can only offer the same incomplete and speculative information as the blogosphere (or worse), and if the journalists in the media can only copy press releases and add some obvious and universal junk grammar, bias, and hype around it, then people have no good reason to pay for them. They can read the blogs for free. And the owners of the media don't have any reason to pay for such journalists - or have science sections in the first place.

So yes, I do expect "stony" journalists who write about the discovery of the most redshifted galaxies to be both willing and able to look for and find the preprint - either by themselves, or using some contacts with astronomers - that actually discovered a galaxy at a higher redshift. I wouldn't be buying newspapers whose science sections - and/or other sections - don't pass this basic quality test.

Otherwise it's very good if they're fired by the professional media, and if there's no one on the job market who can do this basic journalistic job (including fact checking) properly for a reasonable salary, then it's sensible for the newspapers to abolish their science sections because at the same poor level of quality that they could do (or better), this work is being done for free by others so the media wouldn't be competitive.

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