February 24, 2014

Backreaction | Uncertain Principles

Scientists and the journalists who cover them are locked in an “eternal tug of war,” Sabine Hossenfelder writes. The journos feel they have to elide detail so a general audience can read them. The scientists feel the resulting “knowledge transfer” to readers is pitifully low. Hossenfelder illustrates the problem with a series of graphs, like this one:

Hossenfelder notes that sports journalism doesn’t assume its readers need their reports dumbed-down, and suggests online science journalism may hold a solution: “a system with a few layers – call them beginner, advanced, pro – would already make a big difference.”

One simple way towards this would be to allow the frustrated scientist whose details got scraped to add explanations and references in a way that readers can access them when they wish. This would also have the benefit of not putting more load on the journalist.

Hossenfelder’s sports journalism analogy isn’t perfect, Chad Orzel writes in reply. One example, curling. “If you look at more obscure sports, that are only regionally popular, the coverage for hard-core fans is just as inscrutable as anything scientists write.”

Orzel is skeptical about Hossenfelder’s multi-layered approach, but he thinks publications could do something like that with links. Unfortunately, “most media organizations regard links to other publications as slightly less desirable than painful and disfiguring disease,” he writes. “Most of them won’t even link to the source papers and/or press releases, which is maddening.”

He suggests “a sort of meta-journalism site, something that would aggregate and sort stories by their level of background, and present those links.” Social media may present the solution he’s looking for: One commenter says Reddit and Slashdot already fill those roles.

Related: The 10 biggest science-reporting mistakes (and how to avoid them)

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
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