In Defense of Science Blogs (yes again)

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Two days ago, the acclaimed British science journalist and blogger, Ed Yong, published a post titled I think you have all you need for a blog.  This detailed an e-mail exchange with a public information officer who’d been approached for, surprisingly enough, information for a story.

The PIO was – let’s say – reluctant to help. He explained that after 15 years as a journalist, he was able to judge who needed in-depth details and, apparently, it wasn’t a blogger.  The PIO in question – later identified as Aeron Haworth of the University of Manchester – went on to assert that Yong was only a “journalist wannabe.” This latter – let’s say – exercise in poor judgment appeared in the comment section of another blog post, this one from another notable journalist/blogger, Ivan Oransky, a health editor at Reuters, titled How to demonstrate you’re not about transparency and piss off reporters – as a PIO.

As Oransky noted, Haworth was refusing to share information about a study that was, in fact, already widely available. That angle was picked up by another outstanding journalist/blogger, Maryn McKenna, in a post titled How Not to Publicize Science: A Sad and Cautionary Tale (Bring Popcorn). In fact, the Haworth debacle was promptly picked up as “please don’t do this” example by David Harris, who writes the savvy blog, The Enlightened PIO.

Myself, I want to pick at another point, found in that remark: “I think you have all you need for a blog.” Italics mine. Haworth critics have justly pointed out that his fumble began with not being clued in enough to know that Ed Yong, who writes award-winning blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science, for Discover, is justly regarded as one of best science writers working today. The other two science bloggers I cited are also at the top of the game. Oransky (an MD) is executive health editor for Reuters; McKenna is author of the influential book on emerging infections, Superbug. My point is not to emulate Who’s Who here; my point is that the world of science blogging is populated with some of the best journalists I know.

And my particular complain is not that Haworth wasn’t  sharp enough to know who Ed Yong is -  its that he wasn’t sharp enough to recognize just how good – and how influential – the world of science blogging has become. Or that bloggers are starting to set new standards in excellence regarding how we share information about research.

“I was a journalist for 15 years, which included being a newspaper reporter and a magazine publisher” Mr. Haworth says, explaining why he knows that a blog isn’t worth his time. Well, not to date myself too much, but I was a newspaper staff writer for 22 years, during which time I won a Pulitzer Prize and began president of the National Association of Science Writers (USA).  So I also feel somewhat qualified to judge meaningful journalism.

And what I’ve come realize, despite my print background, despite my abiding love for the science  journalism I practiced at a traditional newspaper, is that science blogs offer some of the best, most illuminating, most intelligent communication of science out there today.  I’m not telling you that I admire all blogs any more than I would claim to admire all newspapers. I am telling you that it’s a mistake to let a newspaper background blind one to the sometimes amazing work being done online.

I blog myself – obviously – at the network hosted by the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and I’ve done work I’m proud of here. But sometimes, seriously, I am humbled by my fellow bloggers (and I wish I could list all them) – the incredible reporting done by Emily Anthes in her piece, Real, Live Practice Babies, the almost physically beautiful writing of Steve Silberman in posts like this one; the wonderfully smart work of John Rennie. If I could be as smart and funny as John, I am positive I would have won that second Pulitzer that I’ve always coveted. (No, I am never satisfied.)

But I am smart enough to recognize a blaze of talent and good journalism when I see it.  I acknowledge that we’re still in an evolutionary period in journalism – painful for many of my generation. It’s not only public information officers who dismiss – or angst about – bloggers. Last October, as you may remember, the editor of the journal Analytical Chemistry went off into a rant about blogs and the future of science education and communication.

I suspect these miscues and rants are simply part of the process of change. But they offer opportunity as well as irritation. As is now ongoing, we dissect the mistakes. And we use the moment to illuminate the increasing professionalism of science blogging.  Eventually, I hope, this leads us to a time in which whether it’s an Ed Yong or a Tim Oleson, one of my science journalism students at the University of Wisconsin, who blogs about geology, the response is the same.

And it goes like this: “So glad you contacted me. How can I help?”

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