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Bloggers versus journalists

By Hamish Johnston

…is it hype or reporting a neat idea?

Sorry for the navel gazing but I thought I would point out an interesting discussion of one of our news stories over on Chad Orzel’s Uncertain Principles blog.

The article in question is about a proposal for using ultracold atoms to make precise measurements of neutrino mass.

The question that Chad asks is whether it is appropriate for us to report as “news” what is really just an interesting idea that may or may not ever come to fruition? By doing so, are we guilty of hyping the importance of the proposal?

We decided to go with the story for two reasons — the first is that this experiment is a very clever way of using developments in one field of physics (ultracold atoms) to solve a fundamental problem in a seemingly unrelated field (particle physics).

The second reason — perhaps a bit more woolly — is that this proposal comes from a respected experimental physicist, which suggests to me that there is at least a chance that it could be realized.

Chad alludes to the idea that a blogger with expertise in the field of ultracold atoms would probably take a more cautious approach to reporting this proposal because they would have a better understanding of the technical challenges involved.

However, I’m guessing that if you asked a circa 1970 semiconductor physicist whether it would be possible to mass-produce CMOS devices with 32 nm features, you would be given a list of seemingly insurmountable technical challenges.

I suppose what I’m saying is that there’s nothing wrong with reporting on what a reputable group of physicists thinks may be possible, without getting too caught up in the nitty gritty of why it might never come to pass.

Indeed, coming up with such ideas (and having them shot down) is an important part of the scientific process, so I don’t think that we should shy away from reporting on informed speculation.

So should we have taken a more cautious approach? I don’t think so — we did after all make it clear that this was a proposal and that it would be difficult to implement.

However, I do agree with Chad that we perhaps should have toned down the headline a bit. I like one of the suggestions put forward in the comments on Chad’s blog: put a question mark at the end of the headline.

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  1. Nick Evanson

    “I like one of the suggestions put forward in the comments on Chad’s blog: put a question mark at the end of the headline.”
    When I worked as a full-time journalist and editor for a gaming publication, it was considered standard practice to do this for online news items where there was a degree of uncertainty over the content of the news article. Oddly, though, it seems less prevalent in the world of print media so perhaps it just needs to be a case of tweaking one’s editing style with respect to the medium used.
    As for whether the item was newsworthy or not, there’s no need to validate one’s decision – it was clearly interesting, regardless as to the chances of such an experiment ever taking place. If one is going to consider such proposals as not being newsworthy then advances in theoretical physics or cosmology are hardly ever going to be mentioned!

  2. Chad Orzel has a rather rose tinted view of people who blog about science. Sadly the blogosphere includes plenty of science bloggers who will launch personal and slanderous attacks against science journalists who write well-researched articles that conflict with a bloggers’ view. Take a look at some of the evolutionary biology blogs. It’s nasty, nasty stuff, reminiscent at best of playground bullying.
    Science journalists read research papers and speak to a wide variety of sources in order to understand the science, check facts and explore a story from different angles. Blogging can be – and is – different and can breed rumour and counter rumour, as Matthew Chalmers’s interview with CERN spokesperson James Gilles points out.
    Blogging very much has its place in reporting what’s happening in science. It’s a tremendously exciting medium and there are some fantastic physics blogs out there. But there is a lot of dross out there too and it’s wrong for bloggers to somehow think that they occupy the moral high ground, while journalists are in the gutter.

  3. Yes, I must say I agree with Valerie. While I try to keep my own blog reasonably factual, there are no real constraints. There are quite a few science blogs (particularly climate skeptic ones)that are far more opinionated and unbalanced than anything you will find by a reputable science journalist.
    Hamish, have you any idea how they measure anti-neutrinos as opposed to neutrinos? Someone asked me this last week, haven’t a clue…

  4. Yes, the bloggers usually have deeper insight into subject, but they’re more biased as well, just because they tend to describe only subjects of their personal preference. Extreme case of this duality is for example Lubos Motl, well known in blogosphere.
    Therefore I believe, independent journalists still have their significant place here.


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