In Defense of Science Blogs (yes again)

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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29 Responses to In Defense of Science Blogs (yes again)

  1. Pingback: Improbable Research » Blog Archive » Becoming famous: A watch-it-happen experiment

  2. John Rennie says:

    As always, Deborah, you are way, way too kind to me. But thank you very much. Getting compliments from you feels like being knighted!

  3. Deborah Blum says:

    That’s nice of you, John. But I call it like it is!

  4. Steve Silberman says:

    Oh, Deborah. That’s one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said about my writing. Thank you.

    Of course, my initial impulse is to deny and self-mortify; but if what you say is at all true, it’s probably my undergraduate education in poetry that’s behind it. Teachers of mine (notably Allen Ginsberg) focused a lot on concision, vividness of presentation, and the need for poets to be concrete and specific rather than vague and abstract. This training has served me well in science writing.

  5. I am grateful for your kind praise! And really value your larger point, that

    (Hope I did that coding right.)

    Because I give presos about science communication a lot, and also have PIOs as close friends (yes, really), I do want to say that I understand how hard this is: Keeping track of who in the new online world are your best coverage opportunities is granular, time-consuming work. I don’t know that there is a fix for this. For a good PIO, as for a good blogger, knowing who is writing about your topics is essential, and you simply have to put in the time to do it, or you are not doing your job.

  6. Arrggh, as expected, did the coding wrong. Here’s a second try:

    I am grateful for your kind praise! And really value your larger point, 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.”

    Because I give presos about science communication a lot, and also have PIOs as close friends (yes, really), I do want to say that I understand how hard this is: Keeping track of who in the new online world are your best coverage opportunities is granular, time-consuming work. I don’t know that there is a fix for this. For a good PIO, as for a good blogger, knowing who is writing about your topics is essential, and you simply have to put in the time to do it, or you are not doing your job.

  7. Pingback: Jekyll » Blog Archive » Uffici stampa contro i blogger scientifici

  8. Laura Dodd says:

    Curse you Deborah Blum for introducing me to so many other wonderful science blogs! I was already struggling to keep on track with my work while following yours and some others’, but now I will now have to abandon sleeping so that I may stay abreast of more fascinating science news.

  9. Seonaid says:

    Just wanted to let you know that the link to Ed Yong’s original post is broken.

  10. Brian Switek says:

    Great post, Deborah.

    You wrote: “science blogs offer some of the best, most illuminating, most intelligent communication of science out there today.”

    Definitely. These days, when too much of science “reporting” reads like a warmed-over press release, I often go to blogs first when I hear about an interesting new study. Not only is the writing better, but many bloggers are experts in their own right – be they scientists, amateurs, writers, etc. – and they have the space to tell stories that would otherwise have to be cut down to 500 words and given a sensational-sounding hook. More than anything else, though, I love that science bloggers can write about anything. Many news sources place such a major emphasis on what is new in Science or Nature during any given week that it makes me smile whenever someone picks a question no one else thought to ask and runs with it.

  11. Deborah Blum says:

    Agreed. I actually think that the best journalism makes you think – or makes you think of an issue in a new way – and these days blogs are really leading the way on that front. The good ones, anyway!

  12. Deborah Blum says:

    Thanks so much – fixed it as soon as I read this.

  13. Deborah Blum says:

    Oh, but you can’t go wrong. These guys are great!

  14. Deborah Blum says:

    I’m glad you wrote this because I too know and have a lot of respect for good PIOs (also number some as good friends). I’ve been steered to some of my favorite stories and I’ve had PIOs totally go to bat for me. When I was working on my series on primate research, literally the public relations officer for the primate center at UC-Davis could be found standing up for me to the point of arguing in the hallways. I’ve never forgotten it.

  15. Deborah Blum says:

    I do see that in your writing. I took a couple poetry classes as an undergrad and there’s nothing like it for realizing the sheer power and beauty of words. I also realized back then that I could never be a poet because it’s so personal, so revealing. But maybe someday, when I’ve got nothing to lose…

  16. Laura Newman says:

    Well said, and not a word wasted. I’d like to study writing with you, Deb! Good science blogging is beautiful. It is sad when a PIO or anyone considers blogging sloppy or lower-echelon, based on the form itself. It just ain’t so. There is also a bit of discomfort among some traditional media types that anything that smacks of interaction cannot stand on its own. To them, I suggest listening to Jay Rosen, who articulately describes the power of new media, the conversation.

  17. Pingback: Pulse on Techs » I’ve got your missing links right here (19th February 2011) | Not Exactly Rocket Science

  18. Pingback: I’ve got your missing links right here (19th February 2011) | Not Exactly Rocket Science

  19. Deborah Blum says:

    Yes, Jay Rosen is terrific, isn’t he? Thanks so much, Laura.

  20. Laura Dodd says:

    That I have discovered, along with more in the blog daisy chain.

  21. Karin Beehler says:

    The open-access quality of blogs and the ability for the readers to comment offers a checks and balances of the integrity of the reporting. Blog sites in essence serve as a peer-review process for the readership. The mainstream media has been tainted with corporate influence and advertising and while internet blogs are also vulnerable, the checks and balances aspect of the reader’s comments should keep the reporters honest.

  22. Pingback: Linktipps der Woche: Quora, Bloggen in der Wissenschaft und Universität Regensburg zu Open Access | Wissenschaft und neue Medien

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  25. Pingback: Has blogging changed science writing? « through the looking glass

  26. Excellent points Deborah. Please don’t sell yourself short though.. you’re an excellent blogger and I appreciate you.

    Sincerely – Bill

  27. Deborah Blum says:

    Thanks much, Bill. Much appreciated in return!

  28. Pingback: An Exercise in Irrelevance » Blog Archive » Separating the Content from the Medium

  29. If I’m 2 hours and 10 minutes into watching a movie, I wouldn’t want you or anyone else “slipping in” and plopping down behind me, either. It breaks the spell of the movie for those who see you do, for those whose personal real estate you invade… You’re caught up in a movie, then suddenly some lone wolf dude SNEAKS IN and pulls up a chair. Happens all the time at multiplexes, and it always takes me out of the movie, because then I’M wondering if you’re gonna do some distracting shit, because anyone who’d theater-hop is likely to do some other nuisance activity like texting or breaking out a bag of McDonalds. And like YOU have seen REDS six times, but I as the person you’re distracting don’t know that. I just see a guy entering a movie 2 hours in progress, and now IT’S ON ME to wonder how the fuck you could POSSIBLY know what’s going on, and thus you’ve created a big distraction and essentially COMPROMISED THE MOVIE for those who saw it.