The futurity of science journalism?
September 23, 2009 11:04 AM   Subscribe

In response to the declining quantity and quality of science journalism in U.S., a group of 35 universities have created their own online wire service called Futurity.org to distribute research results directly to news sites like Yahoo and Google News.

The hope is that this new model of science journalism can avoid the budgetary and "equal time" issues that newspapers face, which have contributed to Americans being less informed about science issues than people in other Western countries.
posted by albrecht (38 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is PR Newswire for higher education topics and interests. I don't see any student-written stories.
posted by parmanparman at 11:08 AM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is a terrible idea. There are far too many "studies show" stories as it is.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:08 AM on September 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


I suspect American will still manage to remain shockingly ill-informed. I think it's part of that American Exceptionalism we read all about.
posted by chunking express at 11:11 AM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


But good thing they're keeping up the fearmongering like a traditional media outlet.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:12 AM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


This is an excellent idea. The problem with the current "studies show" articles is that they are written by people who scanned the first and last paragraphs of the report summary and then consider themselves qualified to inform the public. This wire service can only improve the quality, and therefore the knowledge of the readers.
posted by Kickstart70 at 11:12 AM on September 23, 2009


Americans.

God damn it I can't write a comment today.
posted by chunking express at 11:13 AM on September 23, 2009


Maybe I'm just cynical, but the problem isn't the lack of credible and accessible scientific sources (PBS's Nova for example). Rather it's with the politicization of science. Even if futurity.org provides the clearest and most well-researched reports about the state of science, people with special interests will still accuse it of being biased.

Ultimately, the difficulty lies with teaching people to differentiate fact from fiction based on scientific evidence. That, unfortunately, needs a well-funded and disinterested education system, something that doesn't exist at the moment. Until that's fixed, sites like Futurity.org will just be preaching to the choir.

Of course, as a member of that choir, I think this is still a very positive development.
posted by reformedjerk at 11:14 AM on September 23, 2009


It's good that news organizations will be able to point readers closer to the sources of the studies they report on. Additions to public knowledge can only be a net benefit. However, I doubt it will do much to stop the general trend toward ignorance, especially when ignorance is so commercially valuable. So, whatever, I guess.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 11:17 AM on September 23, 2009


"The quality of research university news releases is quite high. They are rather reliable," he added. "But they are completely absent any skepticism or investigative side."

Right, because the process leading to the news release lacked skepticism and investigation.

It's been rare for me to see popular science articles (outside of a few rags - Seed Magazine and Scientific American come to mind) where the writer had a clear understanding of what was being described. What it comes down to, I think, is that the nature of most science research is incremental and requires plenty of prior knowledge. All too often have popular science articles been titled things like 'Science finds gene for obesity!' or something, when the research article was much more conservative in its presentation of findings.

Anyway, I like it.
posted by palindromic at 11:18 AM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I like it, but there's a big thing missing. Each article should have a link to the actual paper.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:20 AM on September 23, 2009 [10 favorites]


Given that journalists often get it wrong given a press release, I'm skeptical this will lead to better quality.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:27 AM on September 23, 2009


I saw science journalism and read Futility.org

Actually, the PR person for my hospital did an excellent job of working with me to create a release that was informative and accurate without going into too much detail. They did at least as good a job as the writer for the NYT.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:29 AM on September 23, 2009


Obama and his communist socialist buddies at their public-supported ivory-tower elitist institutions are trying to put free-market science reporters out of business!

When I want reporting about science, I'll get it from agribusiness conglomerates and defense contractors!
posted by box at 11:33 AM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is such a great idea, but I feel like newspapers will still only zone in on "Scientists show that what you thought was bad is good for you!" and the website itself needs to work on some of its easily misunderstood headlines.

Here's hoping I never have to read another "Scientists cure diabetes!" or "Study shows beer is good for you!" again, thanks to this!
posted by battlebison at 11:48 AM on September 23, 2009


Also, the name is rather dopey. Why not just call it sciwire or something simple? Futurity sounds like a cheesy Popular Science competitor.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:52 AM on September 23, 2009


Has potential, I'll check in from time to time. But this is a pretty bad start. The illustration is unreadable, and doesn't magnify. A bunch of poking around, and you'll find a pdf with what one would hope is only a partial description of what was done.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:58 AM on September 23, 2009


I don't see that big of a problem, so long as they very explicitly set rules on requiring peer reviewed papers from top journals as a prerequisite for publication. Anything sort of compromise on that point would be damaging.
posted by amuseDetachment at 11:59 AM on September 23, 2009


I doubt it will do much to stop the general trend toward ignorance

Where, exactly, does this "general trend towards ignorance" manifest? The entire world is becoming more educated, decade over decade. Perhaps the effect you notice is like cleaning an attic: before you can sweep away the cobwebs you have to realize they exist. We're still realizing how many cobwebs we have in our attic.

Each article should have a link to the actual paper.

All of the articles I read that were based on papers had a link to them at the bottom. Many of the articles were just talking about ongoing research.
posted by napkin at 12:02 PM on September 23, 2009


The problem is that these are *just* the press releases that are sent to science reporters-- there are no outside comments, so they basically only present the point of view of the researcher. As a science writer, I receive many of these and while many of them are useful and well-done, they often contain the same hype and misinformation that winds up copied by lazy science writers.

Now, many science journalists do little more than rewrite these-- but most editors will at minimum, require one comment from a scientist who knows the field and is not an author of the paper. That should provide at least a tiny bit of context etc.

Obviously, the best science journalism does much more than that-- but this isn't adding to that. It's just making lazy science writers more obsolete than they are already are.
posted by Maias at 12:05 PM on September 23, 2009


Science Daily does something similar, but seems to have more posts per day than Futurity.org (so far). I particularly like the headlines section of Science Daily, which lets you see in a glance almost everything that later turns up in New Scientist or more mainstream media.
posted by chortly at 12:07 PM on September 23, 2009


...the problem [is] with the politicization of science.

What, you mean you want them to stop "showing both sides of the science?"

How dare you.
posted by rokusan at 12:20 PM on September 23, 2009


I like this service, because it seems like at the least it will act as a good aggregator.

But, and sorry to get all empirical, is there really evidence that there has been a recent "decline" in science reporting? Both Futurity and the post use that word, but is there anything other than the normal human rose colored glasses at work behind it?
posted by OmieWise at 12:37 PM on September 23, 2009


But, and sorry to get all empirical, is there really evidence that there has been a recent "decline" in science reporting?

Not sure if this counts as evidence, but the Mercury News article has statements like, "Whereas 20 years ago nearly 150 U.S. newspapers had a science section, today fewer than 20 do, and those are often dominated by health and lifestyle coverage" as well as some examples of major papers that have reduced or eliminated their science coverage.
posted by albrecht at 12:47 PM on September 23, 2009


Burhanistan,

In the case of the showerheads, after hearing Norm Pace on Science Friday, I think the fear is justified.
posted by lukemeister at 1:05 PM on September 23, 2009


albrecht, that seems reasonable. The link to that article seems to be dead for me, and the URL indicates that maybe it was in a temporary "breaking news" location.
posted by OmieWise at 1:08 PM on September 23, 2009


Sorry about that--I think this should be a working link to the story.
posted by albrecht at 1:28 PM on September 23, 2009


"Futurity.org" sounds a bit truthy.
posted by rokusan at 2:07 PM on September 23, 2009


i've found the KNIGHT SCIENCE JOURNALISM TRACKER ("peer review within science journalism") hosted by mit.edu to be one of my favorite blogs ever, linking headlines by topic and singling out exceptional stories as well as taking on dubious ledes with discretion, credibility, and good-natured criticism.

bookmarked for good.
posted by Hammond Rye at 3:11 PM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I use three or four services when I want to release a news release related to scientific or medical topics to the media. I tend to prefer Newswise and EurekaAlert! as they allow embargoes and review journalist and PIO credentials before allowing unfettered access. They're also extremely easy and helpful to work with.

Futurity is interesting. But the overriding problem with bypassing science journalists is a lack of critical analysis of research results. When it comes to scientific topics, a proper journalistic review process is vital to establish perspective before results are released to the public. That was discussed to some extent in this thread last year.
posted by zarq at 3:50 PM on September 23, 2009


"Wire Service" != "Press Release channel"
posted by majick at 4:44 PM on September 23, 2009


"Wire Service" != "Press Release channel"

This doesn't negate my point. The stories on futurity.org are basically press releases.

Newswise and EurekaAlert! call themselves "news services." This is no different. The difference there is that the intended audience is journalists. Here, the service wishes to cut out the middle man and speak directly to the public. That's all well and good for the involved organizations, but doing so is a disservice to the average consumer.

In theory, with regard to scientific research, the media should serve an important purpose. They should provide a filtered perspective into whether a study's conclusions are appropriate, given the results. They should be able to take one study's results and see how others have addressed the same hypotheses. Above all, they should be able to say whether a given organization's research studies may be biased by private funding.

Are the stories on futurity.org being presented to the public by science journalists who will present the facts objectively and don't have a vested interest in biasing the material? No.
posted by zarq at 5:01 PM on September 23, 2009


"This doesn't negate my point."

It's not intended to. In fact, I didn't say anything intended to relate to you, a comment you made, or a point you wish to make in any way whatsoever. Please accept my apologies if that was unclear.

It was described as a "wire service" in the text of the post. It isn't. It's an aggregation of "studies show" and "could lead to" stories.
posted by majick at 5:20 PM on September 23, 2009


They should provide a filtered perspective into whether a study's conclusions are appropriate, given the results. They should be able to take one study's results and see how others have addressed the same hypotheses.

Perhaps true, but looking through the articles on Futurity, nearly all of them conclude with a link to the paper describing the research, which is published in a peer-reviewed journal. Generally speaking, the peer review is done by researchers in the same or a similar field, with the knowledge of the topic in question to critically evaluate the claims made in the paper. It doesn't seem clear to me how a journalistic review will improve the estimation of the study's quality, as the journalists writing the pieces are more likely to be unfamiliar with the subject matter.

On the other hand, you make a very good point about examining biases from studies' sources of funding. Heck, I'm somewhat biased here, coming from the science side of things. The news cycle goes something like this in my imagination.
posted by Upton O'Good at 5:21 PM on September 23, 2009


It's not intended to. In fact, I didn't say anything intended to relate to you, a comment you made, or a point you wish to make in any way whatsoever. Please accept my apologies if that was unclear.

Oops. You have no need to apologize. That was completely my mistake, and I apologize for misinterpreting. I saw your comment below mine and drew the wrong conclusion.
posted by zarq at 5:57 PM on September 23, 2009


Oldie but a goldie
posted by kersplunk at 6:11 PM on September 23, 2009


Perhaps true, but looking through the articles on Futurity, nearly all of them conclude with a link to the paper describing the research, which is published in a peer-reviewed journal. Generally speaking, the peer review is done by researchers in the same or a similar field, with the knowledge of the topic in question to critically evaluate the claims made in the paper.

Peer review doesn't necessarily provide context in the same way that a consumer publication might. A peer review does evaluate claims, yes. But if the claims seem appropriate and the methodologies used were sound, that might be where a review will end.

It doesn't seem clear to me how a journalistic review will improve the estimation of the study's quality, as the journalists writing the pieces are more likely to be unfamiliar with the subject matter.

I'm a publicist. To be perfectly honest, it depends on the journalist and the news being reported. "Local EyeWitlessNews" is far less likely to ask discerning questions or draw conclusions than say, the New York Times or even Discover Magazine. Television reporters look for sensationalistic sound-bites. So do tabloids. But good reporters will do their jobs properly.

I once spoke with a physician who had published several articles in mainstream, peer-reviewed medical journals on what he referred to as a "comprehensive" study on facelifts using a threading technique. The papers drew positive conclusions about the procedure, which had been successfully tested on hundreds of patients. The article included data on the patients' six-month follow-up evaluations.

When we met and spoke, we both were attending a medical conference, waiting for a lecture to begin. He complained bitterly to me about a reporter from the NY Times who had been asking about his studies' long-term conclusions. At the time, there weren't any -- it was a relatively new technique. The reporter had expressed skepticism that "a few threads" would be able to withstand the inevitable friction and wear caused by the movement of two to three dozen facial muscles over a long period of time. The physician was quite upset. He was the expert. He'd done studies. How dare a mere reporter who hadn't even gone to medical school question his conclusions?

"That's what they're supposed to do," I told him. He didn't get it. The public needs to see the full picture and be able to draw their own conclusions.

Fast-forward 4 or 5 years and the technique still has its proponents and its critics. I've casually spoken with plastic and cosmetic surgeons who are on either side of the fence -- some say threadlifts don't produce lasting results, and others say they're an inexpensive, viable alternative to facelifts.

I'm simplifying a complex topic to make a point, of course. :)

A reporter is supposed to analyze objectively, draw conclusions and report them. The good ones do. But a scientific journal, even a peer-reviewed one, won't necessarily do so in a way that the public needs.

On the other hand, you make a very good point about examining biases from studies' sources of funding. Heck, I'm somewhat biased here, coming from the science side of things. The news cycle goes something like this in my imagination.

That's a brilliant cartoon. Truer than you might think. :)

Bias is rampant. Pharmaceutical study results may be skewed when patients don't react in expected ways to medications. That happens often in chemotherapy drug trials. And yes, funding matters a great deal. So do board memberships.
posted by zarq at 6:40 PM on September 23, 2009


Recent thread studies show that mefites are tired of "studies show" stories.
posted by Pronoiac at 3:39 PM on September 24, 2009


So there are five somewhat overlapping parties to the discussion here: scientists, university PR depts, journalists, bloggers, and the public.

Journalists say PR depts need watching and bloggers say journalists need watching and scientists say PR depts and journalists and bloggers all need watching. They're all right. In my experience, journalists are far more likely to commit the errors of sensationalism and HeSaidSheSaid that they decry, but they'll say I'm only saying that because I'm a blogger. Perhaps I'm a blogger because I've noticed the crimes of distortion and false "equal time" reporting coming from them? Whatever. There's no objective point of reference from which to adjudicate my or their claims, but the fact is that it's no longer true that being reported on gives a scientific result any validity.

Certain outlets tend to be more or less dependable for certain things. I particularly like Ars Technica and The Register for IT related items and dismiss with prejudice anything said by Cnet about the same topics. I like the physics arxiv blog run by MIT's tech review for physics topics, and there are various bloggers that I like for various other subjects, which I won't repeat here but have written about before.

From my undoubtedly slanted perspective, that's where we're at: There's a choice of outlets for information from primary research to tertiary reporting, but what really distinguishes each source is the intelligence, wit, and integrity of the person behind the outlet, not the medium used. Each person has to find that and make that determination for themselves. I've done my part above.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 11:51 AM on October 4, 2009


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