Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Science journalism and the methane "time bomb"

It must really suck to be a science journalist at a high profile international newspaper. It's a genuinely difficult area to get up to speed on but unlike your colleagues covering Britney Spears you have essentially no chance of getting a scoop.

All the big science news and quite a lot of not very big news gets published in the refereed journals Science and Nature. But both of those journals prepare their own media materials and strictly embargo articles published in them. These embargoes are very tightly enforced by the journals, sometimes even to the extent of sending staff to scientific conferences to check that the authors do not spill the beans in advance of publication. Every week you can find out what's big in Science or Nature by reading the press release regurgitated in the NYT or on CNN's web page.

If you want to make a splash as a science journalist though you should get some hapless fool of a scientist to talk to you about their recent work prior to acceptance, prior even to writing a scientific paper. As No Right Turn and Hot Topic have noted, Steve Connor at the Independent has recently pulled this wheeze. (Note the proud billing "exclusive") We are told that frightening amounts methane are being emitted from ground exposed by thawing permafrost.

Unfortunately it is totally impossible to assess the merits of this research without a scientific article. What I can guarantee is that Orjan Gustafsson's scientific colleagues are spitting tacks at this display of science by press release. And yes, we learn that the enterprising science writer at the Guardian has already found one of them to describe Gustafsson's work as "speculation". The wonders of journalistic competition!

These kinds of articles are part of the problem not part of the solution. Science journalists could make themselves more useful but reporting on the settled scientific knowledge about our changing climate and thinking seriously about difficult issues like "false balance" in their reporting.


Gareth said...

Well, I sort of agree and disagree. Connor has done his job - found a piece of "news" (sourced from a blog by the scientist) and presented it reasonably faithfully. It was public - by being blogged - so Connor was within his rights to draw attention to it. I would also be prepared to argue that he didn't overplay its importance - though I'm sure some would. ;-)

Looking for someone to provide some context, as the Guardian did, is also good, but not very helpful because until the stuff is published nobody who wasn't there can make a useful judgement.

But the fact of the methane "chimneys" is good hard news. After all, we didn't have to wait for a peer-reviewed paper to learn about ice on Mars...

Andrew D said...

I certainly agree that the subject was fair game and that Conor has done his job. The article was in my opinion overblown, perhaps more by the subeditors, and not the right priority but certainly not any kind of travesty.

I agree that the comment in the Guardian pretty much cannot be well informed but as I say I think it will accurately reflect a certain amount of anger on the part of some working in the field, I've observed at least one case like this before in my own field.

We seem to be agreed though that from a scientific point of view it will always be hard to judge the facts of the matter until publication while certain advances are definitely "news" regardless of the ins and outs of peer review. Articles like this are a fact of life but I certainly don't think they work to advance science and neither do they really inform the public on the state of the play in climate change.