Sunday, January 10, 2010

Science, money, journalism

Coming soon to a couple of newspapers that may or may not be near you: A corporate-sponsored science section! Here's the editor of the Obs to explain:

On Monday, the Observer and The News & Observer will jointly launch a weekly, two-page package of science and technology news from the Carolinas and beyond called "SciTech." ...

We will feature science and high-tech at work in laboratories, at field sites and in classrooms. We'll profile blogs and other sources of special interest. We will use color graphics to illustrate scientific principles and breakthroughs.

To bring this to you, we employed an NPR-like model for fundraising: Find a company willing to underwrite costs for high-quality content in return for public acknowledgement that it supports that kind of content.

We found that company in Duke Energy, which has agreed to be the exclusive funding source for "SciTech" in both Charlotte and Raleigh. ... Duke will play no role in the selection of the news content, which will be handled independently by the Charlotte and Raleigh newsrooms.

We think this funding model could potentially work for other kinds of high-quality content that you would welcome into your newspaper.

Since we're doing so well at finding sponsorship in "the Carolinas" -- can't wait for that Middle East section underwritten by Blackwater! But early-morning snark aside, what about it? Is there a model here worth considering? Here are a few points to ponder.

One, more news is better than less news. Rick is being a tad bit disingenuous in citing "a time when economic pressures were forcing newspapers to condense and combine sections"; what he means is that newspapers were throwing content -- particularly non-staff, non-"local" content -- overboard as fast as they could. Reinflating the news section, even if it's only 12 columns a week, is a good thing.

Two, all funding systems involve compromises. We tend not to think about the ones that drive the current system because they're familiar. Sponsorship isn't the best or only answer (I'm partial to some sort of BBC-style public funding for broadcasting, for example), but there's no reason it can't be a good answer.

Three, it's nice to know that the content will be produced independently by journalists, but are we sure that's part of the solution and not part of the problem? It's unlikely that Duke Energy would lean on someone to tweak the adverbs in a climate change story. But independent journalism is still prone to the "teach the controversy" approach, leading to more "Climategate: Threat or Menace?" stories and less explanation of how peer review works and what it might mean to tweak various sets of data. Until we're good at making clear that science and politics operate under different norms of reporting, I'm going to be a bit wary of the "high-quality" part.

Want an example from today's headlines? This is from McClatchy's coverage of the latest language scandal:

Obama also quickly forgave then-Sen. Joe Biden in 2007, after Biden referred to him in racial terms as both men launched their quests for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," Biden said.

In a word, no. Biden didn't say that* -- at least, when his statement is examined under the terms of the science of language, he said something quite different. Here's a summary from Mark Liberman's account at the Log three years ago:

The quote as they printed it, though it reproduced Biden's words in the order in which he said them (ignoring some false starts whose removal was normal and expected), was objectively dishonest as a representation of his meaning.

I find his case persuasive, and I don't see why newspapers insist on repeating this mistake. If you're going to play by the rules of science, it strikes me as indefensible. It's no excuse that the New York Times** does it too, or that it's been reported dozens of times in the past, or that it's been made fun of on talk shows -- if it's wrong, it's wrong. You need to correct it, and you need to take steps to ensure that you don't do it again.

When I see the correction, I'll be confident in the quality of the new science section. Until then, I'll be happy to see a little bit more news that, in many cases, might make people a little bit smarter. At least until you start in on the talking animals.

* I have no idea what the writer meant by "referred to him in racial terms" -- it seems it'd be hard to point out that Obama is black without using "racial terms."
** At least the Times made some effort to put Harry Reid's comments (both stories repeat the Biden error in reporting the Reid story) into context.

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Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

"In racial terms" means "clean and articulate", adjectives you'd be hard put to find anyone using to describe most white politicians.

That said, I agree that Joe's gotten a bad rap for that statement.

11:51 AM, January 11, 2010  
Blogger John Cowan said...

More news may be better than less news, but less propaganda is better than more propaganda. When corporations sponsor news, it tends to turn into propaganda.

12:45 PM, January 11, 2010  

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