The Sorry State of the Fourth Estate

Why, oh why can’t journalists simply present a scientific story and leave it at that? There’s usually enough content to be impressed by without some added sensationalism from desperate spin doctoring without which newspaper editors clearly think the general public cannot appreciate and assimilate an article (for further issues with superciliousness over scientific content see my other post Insult to Human Intelligence).
One of the latest idiotic treatments to be meted out was by The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, and many more. Oh, and The Mail (but that goes without saying). This time it’s so stupid, it’s even being picked up and ridiculed by a fellow hack in The Guardian (UN plan for ‘alien ambassador’ a case of science fiction?), precipitating a legal complaint by Jonathan Leake, science editor of The Sunday Times, no less.

UN ‘to appoint space ambassador to greet alien visitors’

A space ambassador could be appointed by the United Nations to act as the first point of contact for aliens trying to communicate with Earth.

If only the other papers had asked the scientist in question, Professor Mazlan Othman, herself, (notably as did The Guardian, but wait until you’ve read about their failing below before you write in your admiration), rather than filling in their own misinformed interpretation: “an email from Othman … ‘It sounds really cool but I have to deny it’ “, explaining that her official mandate relates to the UN discussion of near-Earth objects and space debris. Oh, really? That sounds interesting and in fact critical to our well-being. So, why couldn’t a newspaper have covered that, instead of ET stories?
I would suggest it may involve the fundamental that underpins everything from X-Factor to church-going. Namely, an addiction to emotional extremes, and the media’s pampering towards it. Shouting at the TV, promises of The Rapture and video games deliver far more instant physiochemical rewards than mulling over a set of formulae or even studying those biochemical pathways that enable you to get your rocks off. When people complain about how hard science is, it’s not all their fault for being apathetic. Some of that blame is in the way the media bastardise scientific content.
Unfortunately, as was the case with Professor Othman, not approaching the scientist in question may indicate a wider attitude problem that journalists have towards the scientific community. Perhaps it’s through feelings of insecurity that when reviewing a recent BBC Horizon programme (What Happened Before the Big Bang?), Sam Wollaston resorted to calling the scientists featured, “a bunch of pointy heads” and singled out an individual as, “one dude” (TV review: Horizon).

TV review: Horizon: What Happened Before the Big Bang? and Wild Britain with Ray Mears

What was the universe like before the big bang? A big Swiss cheese fondue, according to one scientist on Horizon

Reviewing a scientific programme shares the same responsibilities as scientific journalism in presenting science to the public, and  Wollaston’s treatment of this flagship science programme is no less than disgusting given the long-term respect and appreciation it has received over the approximately 50 years it has been running, and continues to muster. Just because he refuses, or thinks himself unable, to engage with the subject matter, he resorts to mocking it,
in Ohio, is the biggest vacuum chamber in the world, which has 8ft-thick aluminium walls and takes more than a week to empty of everything, by pumping out the air and then freezing the remaining molecules. It’s a cathedral of nothing. Fascinating.
and dismissing it,
when you get really, really small, gravity becomes repulsive (yuk) rather than attractive (mmm). To be honest, I can’t quite remember why that’s a problem, but it is, believe me. Big bang? Big sham more like.
It is tragic that this is the state of science journalism.
I wasn’t surprised to find that with such a poor attitude, Wollaston has form. He displays staggering arsemongery when reviewing Richard Dawkins’ programme on faith schools in the UK, Faith Schools Menace? For example, on hearing Dawkins retelling how he wrote to his daughter about belief, Wollaston suggests her response might have been,
“Hey Dad. Thanks for your interesting letter. You could always talk to me you know. I’m the one sitting at the other side of the table in the morning. Anyway, I’ve taken on board your stuff. I know you’re well into evolution, but I’m not going to believe it just because you say it’s true …”
Of course, anyone able to type into Google will tell you, there were reasons why Dawkins wrote to his daughter. No doubt, he had wanted to set his thoughts down permanently, rather than a quick chat in person or by phone. But, primarily, he was already estranged from Marion, his wife; they had divorced in 1984, the same year Juliet was born. As one clued up commenter has pointed out to Wollaston after his article,
While Dawkins has been (understandably) reticent in publicly discussing the break-up of his marriage to his daughter mother, it doesn’t take very much research to turn up that (a) they separated early; (b) Dawkins didn’t see much of Juliet while she was growing up; and (c) this was far from being your choice. Given those easily discoverable facts, this reviewer was being a colossally insensitive prat.
The one overriding, consistent accusation against journalists who covering scientific content badly, is that they fail to do their research, giving us lazy, inaccurate copy. How will this sorry state of science journalism ever improve if they can get away with it?

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About JFDerry

Writer. Darwin, science & more. 4 books: Piospheres, Darwin in Scotland, Serial Killers. Current project is THE DISSENT OF MAN. Born near London, raised near Primrose Hill and in Lincolnshire, and studied at the Universities of Bangor, York and Edinburgh for degrees in Biochemistry, Bioelectronics and Biological Computation, and a PhD in African Ecology. Mainly working in British and African universities, but also in Spain, Brussels, Mongolia and Australia, to date, publication history is mostly in academic journals, on aspects of computational biology, pastoralism and on Charles Darwin and evolution. However, also written for several national newspapers, various governments, several major record labels and independent book publishers. Fiction has appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and poetry is at the Human Genre Project. Lives in Edinburgh, with partner and their two daughters.
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