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Scientific Journalism Is Moribund, Dead, Perhaps Alive

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(thanks to Bill Clement for inspiring the gist of this blog)

In hindsight, it should have been clear long ago. It wasn’t going to be pretty, nor it could have been. On one side, journalists with the vaguest notions of the scientific method, mostly convinced that science is what a scientist does (need to remember Piero Manzoni, anybody?).

On the other side, a number of determined bloggers “that have made themselves experts in general climate science (in the words of Roger Harrabin), “ordinary people [who] can say [to scientists] ‘look, you said this, you said that, the two don’t match, explain yourself’” (in the words of Richard North).

Of course, it was going to be carnage. The journalists would not and could not survive the confrontation by any stretch of imagination. And so they didn’t. As noted by Matt Ridley in The Spectator:

It was not Private Eye, or the BBC or the News of the World, but a retired electrical engineer in Northampton, David Holland, whose freedom-of-information requests caused the Climategate scientists to break the law, according to the Information Commissioner. By contrast, it has so far attracted little attention that the leaked emails of Climategate include messages from reporters obsequiously seeking ammunition against the sceptics. Other emails have shown reporters meekly changing headlines to suit green activists, or being threatened with ostracism for even reporting the existence of a sceptical angle

As far as the average skeptical blogger is concerned, scientific journalism in matters of climate should be considered dying if not dead, only a place where to find nice but wholly un-necessary confirmation of one’s doubts. Or should it?

The underlying problem is suggested by Roger Harrabin in the same radio debate mentioned above:

What’s been difficult for people reporting mainstream debate in the past has been that what we would call our trusted sources of science, people like the Royal Society and the various other corollary bodies in different countries, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change set up to be the touchstone of probity on this issue, they have been the providers of news and the people who have been doubting these news have generally speaking not been academics, I am on the trawl for academics at the moment in British universities there are hardly any and there have been doubters from other quarters and it’s been very difficult for us to tell what are the credentials when all these establishment voices are lined up on one side, how can we put them against a blogger on the other side that might happen to be a blogger who has for the past 15 years spent 100 hundred hours on the Internet reading climate science and has a good knowledge but we don’t know how to test this

Note the choice of words…”our trusted sources of science“, “the providers of news“…these are the words of somebody with the mindset of being an information broker between “the scientists” and “the general public”. It is a way of seeing “scientific journalism” as some kind of translation service, from the high-brow vocabulary of the scientists to the simpleton’s expressions even the most empty-headed Joe Public might understand.

Obviously, such a mindset leaves no space at all to a critical analysis of what the scientists say: because “how can we put them against a blogger [whose knowledge] we don’t know how to test“. Harrabin might be more right on this than he is ever likely to wish: after all, as commented by Bill:

The Press, too, have few within their ranks with a genuine science background. The result – regurgitation (syndication) of the few articles written

Mind you, journalists might not see that as an issue. It all depends on what “journalism” is meant to be. Here’s how award-winning science writer Ed Yong recommends scientists to approach interviews:

[The journalists’] job is not to grill you with hard questions – it’s to find The Story and get you to say something interesting. Your job, interestingly enough, is not to answer their questions to the letter, but to get your message across and to do so in an interesting way. Note the compatibility between these two goals.

The easiest way to mutually assured victory is to get your message across in a way that’s interesting enough that you practically hand them The Story on a plate. Journalism is a game but it’s not a zero-sum one. You and the journalist are not vicious gladiatorial opponents; you are engaging in a collaborative venture and treating it as such will help you get more out of it.

The (skeptical) bloggers write about their quest for Truth. The journalists write instead about…”The Story“. Has “The Story” got any relationship with Truth? Who knows, and does anybody care? (hey…some editors go all the way and get rid of reporters trying to find out what the Truth is…).

Just as “The Story” on climate was the overwhelming consensus in 2009, it is now the overwhelming amount of evidence indicating the IPCC documents have been biased in a miriad of ways towards reporting exactly what the paymasters/Governments wanted them to report.

Kudos to all journalists following the new “Story” but don’t expect their articles to become the new WUWT or EU Referendum. They can not: check the somehow inadvertently comical situation described by Ivan Oranski, executive editor of Reuters Health, on how to choose one’s sources. It looks like Mr Oranski has been around the block quite a few times, so to speak. He even recommends “to always read papers you’re reporting on, instead of relying solely on press releases” (no sh*t!). But not even once Mr Oranski dares thinking he could use himself, his ongoing knowledge of the topic, his ability to cross-reference findings throughout the mountains of scientific papers he has read.

The above suggests “scientific journalism” is still a long, long way from getting in the same league as, say, political journalistic analysis of internal or foreign affairs, where a healthy skepticism of politicians’ statements is nowadays a matter of course. One suspects, too many “scientific journalists” haven’t had their Cronkite moment as yet. But there is hope. Here’s an example of a scientific journalist actually using his brains, however briefly (Nicholas Wade, “Ancient Man in Greenland Has Genome Decoded“, The New York Times Feb 10, 2010):

Perhaps reflecting the so far somewhat limited reach of personal genomics, the researchers note that the ancient Greenlander was at risk for baldness, a surprising assessment given that all that remains of him is his hair

Ed Yong seems also more open than most to the new challenges of the present:

There is rampant churnalism, a dearth of fact-checking, misguided attempts at balance at the cost of accuracy. On the other hand, there is plenty of work from non-traditional sources that does espouse these values, including the writings of many freelance science writers and working scientists (and many of the so-called elements of journalism are elements of good scientific practice too).

If you play out this taxonomic game, you quickly see that many people who ostensibly work in science journalism produce work that is nothing of the sort. Likewise, amateurs who wouldn’t classify themselves as science journalists, actually ought to count.

Journalists are even waking up to the extraordinary amount of news they can produce from “inspirations” found in blogs and other forms of online social media. One interesting lead fresh out of the AAAS 2010 meeting: some scientists still don’t get it (will they ever), others understand they need new ways of thinking in order to explain themselves to the outside world.

And of course there is one reliable anchor that hasn’t been much affected by all of this: the minute group of scientific journalists that have actually been scientists themselves, know how scientific publications work, and can read and critique a scientific article on their own, if need be. I am talking about people like journalism-award-winning academic David Whitehouse.

No prize to guess what Dr Whitehouse thinks of climate alarmism.

(many thanks to @TheGreenDemon and @ThisIsTrue for sharing some of the links above)

Richard Black Is Not Alone

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Anybody wondering how did BBC’s Richard Black manage to post as poorly argued a blog as today’s, wonder no more: a few hours earlier, BBC’s Duncan Kennedy from Rome wrote an article with a gem like this:

In Italy, politics has literally become a contact sport

Looks like Mr Kennedy is reporting despite showing little awareness of his surroundings: between 1947 and 2008, there have been more than 35 political/mafia massacres in Italy. And many more individual assassinations. A “contact sport” indeed.

If that’s the new standard of BBC journalism, expect Richard Black to dive ever lower.

Written by omnologos

2009/Dec/16 at 10:25:35

Posted in BBC, Italy, Journalism

Not Much Hope For Journalism Standards Worldwide

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I was already disappointed enough after learning a few details about British journalism in Nick Davies’ “Flat Earth News”. And I better reserve my comments about Italian journalism. Could it have gotten any worse?

It could. And it did. Here’s a story from Randy Cassingham’s (unmissable) “This is True” (28 June 2009):

PICTURE THIS: The magazine Paris Match announced its annual prize for student photojournalism. The winners, Guillaume Chauvin and Remi Hubert from the Strasbourg School of Decorative Arts, were handed their prize: a check for 5,000 euros (US$7,050), for their investigative report on student poverty. The magazine published the photos, showing how students had to resort to prostitution, or digging in the trash for food, to survive. “We pushed the cliches to the limit,” Chauvin and Hubert said. “We thought the whole thing was so hackneyed that it could never win.” The real subject of their project, they announced at the award ceremony, was to use staged photos “to call into question the inner workings of the attitude of the kind of media which portrays human distress with complacency and voyeurism.” The “crestfallen” judges still managed to applaud, reporters say — but Paris Match stopped payment on the prize check. “There was nothing in the rules of the competition to say that rigged photos were banned,” Hubert told a reporter. (London Independent) …No worries: the project should easily qualify to win the 10,000-euro Striking the Match Prize.
©2009 Randy Cassingham, excerpted from This is True with the author’s permission

Yes, there is a very good point in blogging!!

Written by omnologos

2009/Nov/02 at 00:14:54

Media And Democracy In Italy – What Freedom? And Whose Freedom?

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Berlusconi and the case of La Repubblica’s ten questions

Taylorian Institute, Room 2
Wednesday 21st October – 5 pm

A panel discussion organised by
Italian Studies at Oxford and the Axess Programme on Journalism and Democracy
In collaboration with the Oxford Italian Society

Chair: John Lloyd
Director of the Axess Programme, Contributing Editor of the Financial
Times and Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Enrico Franceschini
London Correspondent and London Bureau Chief, La Repubblica

Dr. Daniele Albertazzi
Senior Lecturer in European Media, University of Birmingham

Maurizio Morabito
Press Secretary, Freedom Party (PdL), London Circle

Prof. Andrea Biondi
Secretary, Democratic Party (PD) London Circle

for more information, please contact:


Written by omnologos

2009/Oct/20 at 21:07:31

Posted in Italy, Journalism, Politics

Feeling Sorry For Douglas Bailey…

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It is with deeply-held feeling of sorry for its author that I am going to comment on Douglas Bailey’s “Do not comment on this article” (IHT, 25 July 2009; as one should expect, still not available on the NYT website…).

Mr Bailey wishes publishers would abandon “comment forums at the end of articles on newspaper Web sites“, because those are “insidiously contributing to the devaluation of journalism, blurring the truth, confusing the issues and diminishing serious discourse beyond even talk radio’s worst examples“. Can’t Mr Bailey simply avoid reading comment forums, one wonders? Or has he been ordered to do so by the doctor? (if that’s the case, it’s time for a second opinion!)

How thin can the skin of journalists be, and how soft-bodied their stories if all it takes to “tear down” one of their articles is for “some agenda-driven bonehead” to publish a comment? And what should worry us most…allowing people to freely express and exchange their ideas, or the unremitting deluge of scaried-up, sexed-up, hyped-up invariably “breaking” news pieces that has been befalling upon us since the invention of news business and especially after the advent of 24/7 news?

All in all, what I am really, really sorry about is to see a person like Mr Bailey approach the internet by renouncing critical thinking, and believing instead that writing a note in a web site grants “an aura of legitimacy from the association with the host’s brand“. Yeah, right…with such an attitude, I wish good luck to Mr Bailey’s business.

Written by omnologos

2009/Jul/27 at 00:57:05

Polar Bears: Has the Daily Mail Just Pulled a Deceiving Article?

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In my “Maurizio Morabito” blog in Italian, I have been following for the last few days the developing story of drowning polar bears, lost at sea after “the ice float they lived on melted”.

The story (“The heartbreaking picture of the polar bears with 400 miles to swim to the nearest ice “) originated in the pages of the Daily Mail, likely on Saturday Aug 30, and was immediately distributed in Italy by daily La Repubblica.

Trouble is, that story is, shall I dare say this, “not true”. And tonight, it looks like it has been pulled off the Daily Mail website altogether.


Actually, the story is based on something that has actually happened, and was reported by the WWF on Aug 22: nine polar bears have been spotted (by chance) swimming near Alaska. One of them was at least 60 miles from land.

But the Daily Mail article, by a Barry Wigmore, “embellished” the original story with so many incorrect details, the end result was abysmally not-true and deceiving.

A couple of days ago the WWF published some clarifying statements. From those it would be easy to spot where Wigmore’s article basically made things up. But as I said, the Daily Mail website has “lost” the page.

Here it is, saved from another website:

So which bits were patently baseless?

  1. 400 miles to swim to the nearest ice” (wrong: the WWF confirms nobody knows where the bears are, and when spotted, none of them was more than 60 miles away from the nearest land or ice)
  2. Struggling against the waves” (wrong: the bear in the picture is simply looking back to the helicopter where the pictures are being taken from, and whose rotors are causing the waves)
  3. polar bear faces almost certain death” (wrong: the WWF makes the point that polar bears are strong animals, and “a polar bear in the water, even one far from land or ice, is not always a polar bear that needs saving”
  4. becoming lost at sea” (made-up: there is no way to know if the bears were or were not just doing what polar bears have done innumerable times in the past)
  5. the creatures’ homing instinct has sent them north” (made-up: the WWF reports nothing on the direction the bears have been heading. Actually, there is no practical way to find any of them)
  6. the World Wide Fund for Nature, said it was considering asking the U.S. government to send a ship” (made-up: the WWF press releases say nothing of the sort)


Last night I did send a comment to the Daily Mail urging the article’s author to check his facts.

Anyway: now that the story is not there any longer, conscious that it will linger on for years on many websites, thinking about how many people are needlessly worried by this story sexied-up to the point of not being true any longer, one can only reflect sadly at the sorry status of English and Italian journalism, trying to pass a fiction piece as a real story and/or gobbling it up without bothering to check the original sources.

Finally, since I criticized them in the past, I want to add that I appreciate the fact that the BBC News web site has not fallen for Wigmore’s drowning polar bear fantasy.

Written by omnologos

2008/Sep/03 at 22:40:43

Will Putin’s CNN Interview Herald a New Era of Media-Savvy International Leaders?

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Matthew Chance of CNN writes about his interview with Vladimir Putin, some 7 years after the last one for the American news channel:

Putin […] was constantly watching CNN to see how the conflict was being reported. And he didn’t like it. He hated it […] there was no one on TV putting across the Russian version of events.

Why was there no one? Because there is no access in Russia, we were not allowed to go to the Russian side of the conflict zone. No Russian officials were available to talk to us, as usual. Georgia played the media game, Russia did not.

A decision was taken then to change tack, to engage with the Western media, to aggressively argue Russia’s side. The Kremlin, which constantly complains of a bad press, could have learned this lesson years ago. But hopefully they see the value of us now. Doesn’t mean we agree with them, or that appearing on CNN will convert the West to Russia’s line.

Putin has made a few allegations, some of them ringing more true than others. But their truthness is not as important as the fact that they have been heard by many people that until yesterday could only get their own Government’s propaganda. Now they can see an actual “foreign” and “enemy” leader speak his mind in front of the cameras, a person and not just a communique’.

Anyway, the simple fact that the American and Russian versions of events cannot be both right at the same time, could and should encourage a little more critical thinkings…and that cannot be bad.

Interestingly, the lesson of how to avoid a bad press has been recently learned by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China too.

Next in line should be Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and Mohammed Ahmadinejad of Iran. For some reason neither of them has realized his potential in terms of worldwide media coverage. Perhaps Putin’s experience will change that: they do look like great TV material and if only they’d abandon the more hard-to-digest bits of their ideologies, many more people would watch (and listen) to them.

Written by omnologos

2008/Aug/29 at 22:23:43