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News Does 'pack journalism' shape the science news we read?

  1. Apr 2, 2017 #1
    This is old news by now, but having just visited the Christian Science Monitor's rather sparse online site, I thought I would browse their science section, which is even sparser; and came across this story from 2016 about the time that EurekAlert! was hacked. The interesting point to the story is the claim by some (not many, it doesn't seem) that although a centralized clearinghouse for press releases & studies is incredibly handy for reporters, the accompanying feature of requiring these journalists to agree to an embargo on new information until the agreed-upon release date may have an odd effect: encouraging pack journalism in science reporting. As I will relate further on, pack journalism is usually a Bad Thing thing in topics other than science, e.g. politics; so I'm curious as to whether it matters or not in science reporting.

    Here's the 2016 Monitor article – Why science reporters were thrown for a loop this week - and here's a relevant passage about the 'pack journalism' issue (note they don't use that term as such). I'm going to indent the passage rather than quote it, for better legibility:

    . . . Embargoes allow writers to spend more time reading the research papers and understanding the underlying science. The idea is that giving journalists a few days to work on the story reduces the chances of getting it wrong.​

    But, as Undark.org media critic Paul Raeburn told Wired in May, "Embargoes are hard to resist." And this may mean that reporters feel like they have to report on something just because it is highlighted by EurekAlert!, for fear of missing something their competitors cover. So EurekAlert! is likely shaping the science news that ends up in your Google News feed, on the front page of the newspaper, or in your Facebook feed.​

    "Embargoes may seem like a dry and arcane topic, but when it comes to science, they play a central role in what the public finds out about, and when they find out about it," Ivan Oransky, medical journalist, professor, physician, and creator of the blog EmbargoWatch told Vocativ. "In exchange for time and access, journalists agree to wait to report on studies until journals say they can. What emerges is a very warped sense of how science works."​

    Also here is the 2016 Wired story that was referenced by Reaburn in the above passage; note the story's title directly alludes to the issue: Inside EurekAlert, the New Hub That Shapes the Science You Read. Here are some excerpts:

    Science news gets around. But a lot of it—you probably didn’t know this—comes from the same place. A website called EurekAlert gives journalists access to the latest studies before publication, before those studies are revealed to the general public. Launched 20 years ago this week, EurekAlert has tracked, and in some ways shaped, the way places like WIRED cover science in the digital era.​

    That centralization, coupled with the embargo system (which has existed way before EurekAlert), has contributed to a longstanding tension within science journalism about what gets covered—and what does not. Embargoes prohibit scientists and journalists from publicizing any new research until a given date has passed, specified by whatever journal is publishing the work.​

    Embargoes serve several purposes. First, they ensure that any new research has been properly peer reviewed before being presented to the public. Second, embargoes give reporters enough time to report the science accurately, without worrying about beating their competition to press. Inevitably, the system also creates PR for the research itself. Ever wonder why some days, in the middle of the morning, eleventy-one different news organizations will suddenly spam Google News, Facebook, and Twitter with the same groundbreaking discovery? An embargo has lifted, unleashing a flood of coverage.​

    The Wired story concludes with what I'll guess is what most of us would believe: that overall, the advantages of a central clearing house for science reporters, operated as it is by a responsible nonprofit organization, the AAAS, does far more good than bad.

    However, it is cautionary to note that just how bad pack journalism is in all other fields of coverage; this especially includes politics, but also includes crime reporting and pretty much the reporting of any breaking sensationalistic news story. I will add that as a news reporter myself, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I experienced the pressure of pack journalism personally and found it destructive to my own efforts to concentrate on good journalism rather than bad. A few links to the general phenomenon:
    But none of this necessarily shows that pack journalism in popular science reporting is a problem. Regarding EurekAlert, I'd still have to go along with the idea that by itself, responsible centralization of studies & press releases does more good than harm; and one might even argue that having multiple outlets cover the same story at the same time is a good thing. Even so I'd be interested in thoughts from those here who regularly monitor science news in particular fields. Is it possible EurekAlert inadvertently causes pack journalism of the unwelcome sort, with regard to breaking science stories? If so can you recall specific instances? And more generally, is pack journalism as much a problem in popular science reporting as it is in other topics, e.g. politics; and again, any specific instances?

    P.S. It looks like the blog mentioned in the Monitor article, EmbargoWatch, would be an interesting place to visit; the blog's sub-title is "Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage." I'm going to check it out. The blogger, medical journalist Ivan Oransky, mentions that he published an opinion piece in late 2016 in Vox about why he thinks embargoes are bad; and it's nice to see that on his blog he printed a counter-argument from a PR person.
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2017
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  3. Apr 2, 2017 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    This is like having a patient rolled into the ER with six gunshot wounds to the chest and worrying about a pimple.

    In the information age, real news is so 20th century. Today, "news" is there to do one of two things:
    • Promote a particular opinion
    • Sell advertising
    The only reason to accurately inform is to assist in the second point, but even now it's dawning on people that clickbait is more effective.
  4. Apr 2, 2017 #3


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    If that is your actual opinion (rather than sarcastic commentary on the state of the "mainstream" media) where do you obtain your news? Because even in the "information age", you still need to discern what source of "information" to trust.
  5. Apr 2, 2017 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    I read as many different sources as I can, looking for what is common and what is not.
  6. Apr 4, 2017 #5
    I don't quite understand what your first comment means. Your metaphor gets in the way, but as near as I can make out, you are expressing cynicism in some fashion. Can you rephrase more seriously & amplify if need be?

    Your second comment expresses what you do when gathering information; but what I am interested in is helping others do so who are perhaps not as experienced or educated. I hope this is something you haven't given up on yet?
  7. Apr 4, 2017 #6
    Does pack journalism existing have anything to do with a void left by scientists and researchers?
  8. Apr 4, 2017 #7
    No. It's something journalists do more than it is something subject matter experts do.
  9. Apr 5, 2017 #8
    There was a time when I probably would have agreed with you. If it wasn't for the journalists the health issues and needed services demanded because of Agent Orange would still be denied vets and now their children. Your subject matter experts squeezed their cheeks in fear of the backlash from the military and government in favor of future opportunities. What about those that outright lied? Similar examples abound.

    Is it realistic to expect the general public to subscribe to journals? Of course not. Yet I don't see "subject matter experts" reducing their work down to the pertinent facts the general public can absorb and understand. In fact from what I've read here most "experts" don't think that's part of their job description. When the dissemination of information is abdicated to anyone willing to define and disseminate information on their own terms how can they be blamed for the effects? This reminds me of global warming. When the "experts" don't think their work is important enough to ensure the information gets to the general public factually how can the "experts" blame or find fault with anyone making an attempt? How can the experts be anything but to blame for those that pervert information to support something that isn't in the general publics interest? How can anyone proclaim "no ideology" yet find fault with how information is presented? Actually under the "experts" own terms, why do "experts" even care?

    The only time I hear about "experts" and global warming is in relation to some global conference event but then they are silent for the next year. The state of global warming in this country lays at the feet of the "experts." All the complaining and condescension they can muster is useless without participation but that would imply again, an ideology. We can't have that can we?

    What about you? When was the last time you wrote or spoke for the general public? Einstein enjoyed rock star status because he embraced the public. In 1951, W.E.B. Du Bois was on trial and just because Einstein offered to speak on his behalf the judge dropped the case. "Experts" have power unless they cower from using it. Without the Einstein like personalities the current alternative is pack journalism. A choice of the "experts."
  10. Apr 5, 2017 #9


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    I'm not @Vanadium 50, but I'm of exactly the same opinion, so I'll respond:

    Online news sources make money by getting you to view ads and even better to click on ads. Since they are businesses, profit overrides all other considerations. So where profit and good journalism overlap/interfere, news organizations often choose to go with what turns the most profit. Clickbait, fake news and advertisements masquerading as news are all tactics used by most major news sources to try to increase their profits.

    Slight aside: the current thorn in my side is Motley Fool/USA Today. Motley Fool provides "partner" content to USA Today ("hey, we can actually charge people to write content for us and call it news!"), but it is fake news advertising masquerading as news. It's a more aggressive spin than I think I've seen before (typically, the ad content is more clearly marked, even if only a little).

    Bias might play into the motive to be more opinionated. As FoxNews showed there was a market for news biased toward the other side, and it has been my perception that CNN has responded by being more open/aggressive about their bias in response. It is impossible to know, however, if they are doing it because of the profit motive, because they just can't control their bias, or a combination of both. And I'm not even sure which is more or less cynical!
    I don't think there is any way around the need to seek news from multiple, diverse sources and compare them. There just isn't any one source of news that can be pointed to and say: "That one is reliable - use that as your primary source."
  11. Apr 5, 2017 #10


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    To state the obvious: news media is run by and populated by journalists. Not scientists. Scientists work for the government, academic institutions and private companies that do research. Their job descriptions do not overlap.

    What you are basically expecting is that for scientists as a hobby to produce and disseminate better quality news than journalists do as a job. Sorry, but that is an unreasonable expectation.
  12. Apr 5, 2017 #11


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    I think you have missed the mark ever-so-slightly on what the problem is. The problem isn't that news outlets collaborate and produce homogenous stories -- so what, if they are good? The problem is that they report bad stories, or, more to the point, they don't "report" anything, they just regurgitate in paraphrase what they read and don't do any analysis of it to understand what they are reading and "reporting". The clearinghouses are the ones doing the journalism and everyone else is just copying.

    I'm not quite sure what you are after for examples, and I'm not sure if we can verify which stories came from these clearinghouses, but I generally see two types of bad science reporting on a weekly basis:

    1. Inventions/discoveries that haven't been vetted/analyzed at all, just breathlessly repeating the claims.
    2. "According to a study released today, eggs/milk/pork/olive oil/the sun/TV is now good/bad for you." [circle one from each blank]

    The first link you gave listed some funny fall-out: Reporters might have to start *gasp* doing research and making phone calls if they lose their clearinghouses! You mean they might have to start doing their jobs? Oh, the horror!
  13. Apr 5, 2017 #12

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    Oat Bran. The hidden killer.
  14. Apr 5, 2017 #13
    I long ago gave up on expecting anything from anybody. As far as your work, possibly life's work goes, it's up to you to choose its value and if it has any inherent need for dissemination as a public good. It's unrealistic though to expect the general public to subscribe to journals and expect they will grasp the content. It just all seems to be a waste of time though to go through the motions for the sake of doing it and nothing more. Face it, "science" as a thing could care less what you do or don't know or discover. Nothing changes as discoveries are made. Gravity won't morph in to something else when it's underlying nature is discovered. It will keep on doing what it does. That leaves me wondering what is the value in pursuing science for science sake if a relatively small group of people have the knowledge but do nothing with it because it's their job. Of course I am keeping this pertinent to and for the general public. If an "expert's" work is the next iteration of "8, 16 or 32" in computers the general public will be using the knowledge in their next, best thing long before any inherent value to the knowledge of "it's" workings will reveal itself.

    I've had many jobs that required speaking and greeting the public so to suggest I've presented a novel idea here won't fly with me. It's up to "you" to decide if the work you do is needed or not or how important it is. But if it has value and generically "you" chose the role of innocent bystander while the general public suffers by remaining ignorant or worse, don't blame them for picking entertainment news over what they don't know they don't know. Which by the way I see the linked "news" story as entertainment, not journalism. I have seen first hand what a real journalist is and I won't insult them by accepting and defining what is behind making that link available to be journalism. It's amusing, entertainment "lite" at best.

    As I said this doesn't apply to all, all the time but when it does it seems knowledge becomes responsibility just as it's also power. If the power and responsibility is rationalized away why should society support or believe in you? An attitude of superiority and being condescending isn't attractive to anyone. So who is responsible for the understanding of global warming in this country? It's not those talking the BS. Their voice was handed to them free and clear. It's those that know better but couldn't be bothered to stand up to it. It's not like we haven't seen that before. It should be in the scientist's best interest to get involved anyway. History is full of examples where when there is a need for a fall guy the intellectuals top the list.
  15. Apr 5, 2017 #14


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    I agree that the general public shouldn't have to (and more forcefully, shouldn't be) subscribing to scientific journals. Your post is long and I had some trouble following it, but it appears to me you are saying scientists should be responsible for disseminating scientific knowledge to the public. To put a finer point on my previous statements, I disagree because:

    1. There is no mechanism currently available for scientists to communicate directly with the public on an organized/consolidated basis. If you disagree or have an idea of how it might be accomplished, I'm all ears.

    2. That's what the media is for. If something scientific is newsworthy, they should be reporting it. Accurately. So I would prefer if reporters would just do their jobs. To that end, large media corporations should at least employ consultants to vet stories before publishing (or vet them before even writing the stories!).
  16. Apr 5, 2017 #15
    I get the impression you didn't visit any of the links & haven't thought at any length about pack journalism as a model. It is difficult for many intelligent people who have never worked in the news industry to understand how it operates. Let me give a try at explaining pack journalism again.

    Let's take the broad case - politics, sports, international news, whatever. A breaking story might be problematic in some way, not necessarily obvious; but if it is sufficiently sensationalistic, and your editor sees that other publications are running with it, then he/she will likely require you to pick it up also; or you may decide yourself to pick it up so you don't get scooped. And remember, the "story" in journalism isn't just "facts" - it's the "angle" or slant on those facts. And so in a worst-case scenario, which alas occurs all too often on many beats, you will be expected to adopt the same slant as the competition, with new details if possible. That's how pack journalism tends to work and that's why it can be bad - it can prevent editors & reporters from exercising good judgement, assuming they have any.

    Thus, getting back to "popular science" stories in the mainstream media: Say that a new study in some field or other is problematic - bad assumption, poorly done statistics, what have you; but nonetheless there is a press release & the embargo to make it available ahead of time; and perhaps it has a potentially sexy or sensationalistic element to it. And so a news outlet picks it up and makes a big deal out of it, not noticing the problems. Or maybe it's the news outlet that misinterprets what is otherwise a decent study & exaggerates the claim. Regardless, it gets out there & gets attention; and so science editors at mainstream publications see that the story is getting a lot of reads or hits or whatever; and thus they tell their reporters to do the same story, including the sensationalistic angle if there is one. You are right that sometimes those picking it up are not doing as much work as they should; but pack journalism is in large part about how competition & deadlines interfere with careful journalism. (Limited news budgets are even more destructive of careful journalism, but never mind that for now.)

    An interesting phenomenon is when a savvy reporter or editor realizes that a trending story is wrong in some important way; they can then do a counter-story. But that requires critical thought, expertise, and the time and resources to do whatever reporting was missed before. Also, for political stories, as we all know angles are often partisan or perceived as partisan; but that's a whole other subject.
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2017
  17. Apr 7, 2017 #16
    I had many doubts about saying anything to a subset of a community about that community. My thoughts are not directed at any individual or personality but they are about my experiences. There is a long history of "experts" in the "public eye," but today with the explosion of social media or just access to media in general why hasn't there been a growth from the "expert" community participating like every other community has?

    The general public probably would have trouble identifying more then a handful of "experts" which is probably about the same as 50 years ago. I think the way Pluto was demoted from planet status and the publics reaction, as silly as it may have been, suggests they are more then willing to engage and learn from the "experts." But that's not going to happen if the "experts" are absent. Why do most American's identify Al Gore as the face of global warming? A politician. Where is the Sagan like "expert" to take the lead? I understand it's not a position for any or every "expert," but none? I wonder if this "no ideology" nonsense, which is itself an ideology, hasn't become part of the education process and a self fulfilling prophecy?

    Face it, most journalists or reporters did not spend time choosing between journalism or designing super colliders as potential career options. Why expect them to be competent to report on a collider? Or anything a fraction as complex for that matter?

    I disagree there is no mechanism for the "experts" to reach the public. There are more mechanisms now then there ever has been. Organized or consolidated? I don't know but I do know not much is organized or consolidated without being made to be. I also know if nobody tries it not going to happen. I also know nothing stays the same. Ignorance is limitless so if no one tries the general public will get more ignorant because of who they do listen to. Right now they have little choice about who they are listening to and as I've said, the "expert" community owns that.

    Old saying, "Proof that, "not to be named" can move mountains, the shovel."
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