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Wednesday, September 05, 2007


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I very much enjoyed this post. Since you and I evidently read a great deal of the same news sources, I had read two of these reports (the rock star longevity one, and the one on the skinny gene. I think I read the one about attractive women being attractive ten years ago).

Not to ignore your larger concern, which is significant, I also share one of your smaller concerns--that is, the problem with making "skinniness" purely genetic. When news reports or headlines make those universalizing claims, it drives me crazy. I find myself more and more concerned that I'm going to hear people say things like, "I'm sorry I'm obnoxious and arrogant, but it's genetic" or "It's too bad that I have the genes for blurting out inappropriate thoughts." Scientific journalism--rather than the research itself--the strips all individual responsibility can be simultaneously dangerous and irritating when put in the wrong hands.


As a profession, journalists aren't particularly literate when it comes to science, and the two cultures clash.

Much of my favorite year as a reporter was spent covering science, which I'd been told wasn't very interesting to readers. Yet after every "boring" science story i wrote, people made a point of contacting me to tell me how interested they were. I got named Journalist of the Year in my state for that body of work, praised for "making science interesting," and a few months later, once I'd moved on to another assignment, the newspaper dumped the science portion of our weekly Health & Science section, turning it into a press-release driven "Your Health" page.

So why are newspaper editors so convinced that people aren't interested? Because science frustrates and confuses them. American journalism, as a profession, developed in response to a two-party system, with tit-of-tat ideas about fairness and getting "both sides of the story." Things that don't fall into those categories get treated like novelty baubles... cats that watch TV, middle-age mothers, people who idolize Ethel Merman. Things of little or no consequence that catch your eye, but aren't worthy of a second look.

As an industry, we like the kind of junk you write about in this post because it is so digestible. Devoid of context and meaning, these "No-Shit Studies" fit easily into whatever we already believe and require no particular explaining. The study about men and attractive women just re-enforced existing stereotypes and seemed kind of humorous, so it was the perfect science story. It was everywhere I looked online for about 24 hours, and every newspaper carried it.


I completely agree that scientific journalism at the big media companies can be lacking. Usually they focus on some sensational aspect of the study, and they almost never provide a reference or link to the published results.

Because of that, I do not think we should condemn any of these studies as devoid of value based on a single article from CNN, ABC, or MSNBC.

(Well, ok: maybe the one about rock star mortality.)

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