Futurity Imperfect

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

The science journalism community weighs in as a new website blurs the line between reporting and public relations.

Illustration: Mike Pick

A new website that invites readers to “discover the future” of scientific research and communication has the science journalism world abuzz, debating the future it presents.

Futurity.org touts itself as a solution to the decline of professional science journalism in “traditional news outlets.” And, indeed, it epitomizes what many who have been glumly watching that decline saw as an inevitable outcome of the inability to pay for content: stories and sources that are happy to cover and promote themselves.

Presented as “news from leading research universities,” Futurity primarily aggregates their science press releases. Its content may not be significantly different from what you’d find on other press-release aggregators, such as AAAS’s EurekaAlert, but its presentation is distinctly that of a journalistically driven news site. Individual press releases are accompanied by attractive images, are datelined (but not bylined), and are laid out in a style not unlike our own.

Futurity’s brand of “journalism” would be seen as anathema in the realm of politics (or even in sports, judging by the reaction to an NHL team’s hiring of a dedicated reporter). But the story gets more complicated when the subject is science, one of the few areas of public discourse where subjects actually create objectively new, never-before-known information. Scientists are already responsible for disseminating that knowledge through journals and conferences, so why should they not speak directly to the public as well?

Seed Media Group, which also powers ScienceBlogs and ResearchBlogging, obviously believes in the potential of new media tools to advance people’s understanding and appreciation of science. So it wasn’t surprising to find one of the more provocative defenses of Futurity coming from ScienceBlogs’ new-media maven, Bora Zivkovic. Bora is also an “online discussion expert” at the Public Library of Science, the premier open-access science journal, so he knows a thing or two about directly communicating science to citizens. 

It was surprising, however, to see him fire a shot across the bow of Wired Science’s Alexis Madrigal. Madrigal tweeted the assertion that “university PR shouldn’t get a free pass” and that Futurity was essentially proffering “propaganda.” Bora took this as “a very anti-science sentiment,” stating that Futurity could minimize the harm journalists can do to a science story in their coverage.

Bora’s point in wanting to reduce the number of intermediary steps in the transmission of “nature’s truths” is a valid one; journalistic coverage arguably adds another layer at which errors can creep in. And Futurity is certainly right when it asserts that universities and their researchers are some of the most credible sources of knowledge.

So, if journalists trust scientists, and the audience trusts journalists, why not cut out the middleman? Futurity, as its name implies, frames this as the new paradigm; journalists are some of the “barriers and gatekeepers” that stand between the public and science and, hence, a collapse of science journalism could be a boon for consumer freedom.

However: There is something perfectly twisted about this use of the term “gatekeeper.” Journalists were once—and in precious few places, still—held responsible for keeping wrong or misleading information out of the public sphere. They were trusted to inform issues, debates, and trends with a nuanced perspective. In the evolving media landscape, gatekeepers will not cease to exist—they will simply change locations, now residing in corporate and university press offices, where “journalists” with one employer, one set of sources, and clearly vested interests, assemble press releases.

Futurity is positing that, without journalistically imposed barriers, citizens will have no problem accessing all the new science information they want or need. That is a noble conception, to say the least, of the average person’s interest in and facility with science—as well as a noble conception of the trustworthiness of press releases.

As Carl Zimmer astutely notes, the decline of science journalism is decried because it is declining in precisely those places where it has the most reach. Futurity’s emphasis on presentation and social networking might help get science information in front of new sets of eyes, but it’s unlikely to bridge the gulf between experts and the scientifically illiterate.

One good thing about keeping reporters as middlemen is their ability to be a stanchion on which the perspectives of both sides of this communication bridge—source and audience—can be balanced. But that stanchion needs to be as close to the middle of the gulf as possible. Move it too close to the audience side, and you get entertaining punditry with little connection to real-world events. Move it too close to the scientist side, and you get a self-congratulatory echo chamber where few learn anything new. Neither extreme is informative, nor is it journalism.

PR machines are not engaged with this balance in mind. For example, a new early hominid fossil find, Ardipithecus, or “Ardi” for short, has just been announced in Science, and is about to get the same kind of treatment Darwinius masillae (Remember “Ida”?) got earlier this year. Darwinius was held up as “the missing link” and Ida was described as one of the most important fossils ever, though the reality was far more mundane

Ida’s handlers went directly to the public, filming a documentary for the Discovery Channel before their work was published. And while Ardi may be all the things Ida is not, it will be up to good journalists carefully interviewing good scientists to tell us if that’s so, to disentangle the hype from the reality.

Journalists may not be able to directly investigate the details of the natural world. But they can investigate the bigger picture, the world in which that research is conducted, funded, and disseminated. They can track stories over long arcs, like NPR did when reporting on NASA’s impending plutonium shortage. They can also situate them in historical and social contexts that give readers vital decision-making information, as the New York Times did over anti-vaccine hysteria and the flu

I’ll concede that Futurity isn’t without its merits. Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit points out that it could be a good transparency measure for gauging how much additional reporting goes into a journalist’s work. And it never hurts to have another place where scientists, journalists, and everyone else can come together and comment on a new finding. 

But as I said over at Bora’s blog, I hardly think it’s controversial to suggest that scientific inquiry and public relations have different objectives and methods. Science journalists may have to rely on actual scientists in assessing the validity of a new finding, but they do have the skills—and an ethical mandate—to speak plainly and honestly about those things and how they might be relevant to the reader.

That’s expressly not a publicist’s job. Public relations is about generating positive attention. Case in point: UPenn’s press release announcing its partnership with Futurity. Notice the two-word phrase that’s conspicuously absent in the announcement. I have highlighted it earlier in this paragraph.

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published October 2, 2009

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