Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Hold the Front Page!

By Peter Bowditch

The loss of specialist reporters in the clickbait era of journalism matters more for science than other rounds.

Once upon a time the mainstream media employed journalists with expertise in their round. Newspapers would have one or two editions per day, with strict deadlines dictated by when the presses had to start rolling. Television had two main bulletins per day and radio stations had hourly news broadcasts. The electronic media would break into programs when significant news stories broke, such as political crises or natural disasters, and newspapers would bring out the occasional special edition in the same situations, although printing and distribution logistics meant that it had to be a really big story.

Two things have changed since Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur Broadway comedy The Front Page. Nobody seems to employ specialist (or even a sufficient number of) journalists anymore, and the news cycle has changed so that the deadline is always “right now” because the website has to be updated as soon as anything happens.

Apart from general news about world events, I have three areas of interest that rarely if ever have earth-shattering breaking news: information technology, motor sport, and health and science. These areas aren’t, or shouldn’t be, affected by the incessant and constant need to attract eyeballs to web pages, and should allow journalists to put some time and thought into what they write.

A few years ago, people working in IT would eagerly await the Tuesday editions of the big papers for the several pages of well written information about the development of computers and other technology and how these technologies were being applied. Today the knowledgeable journalists have gone (to retirement or low circulation specialist publications) and the mainstream media seems to just feature media releases slightly rewritten by people who think that computer technology started with the iPhone.

General writing about cars and motoring is still done by competent journalists, many of whom seem to be the sons of journalists I knew back when I was heavily involved with the sport (one current motoring journalist is the nephew of my first rally navigator), but the reporting on the sporting side is generally abysmal. Except for the exploits of Australian Dan Ricciardo in Formula One (where the content is largely FIA media releases), prominent coverage requires a crash, pictures and significant injury to competitors or spectators.

I recently did media coverage for an international rally and I saw only two stories about the event in mainstream media. (I write for a regional paper; I don’t get into big dailies.) Both were written by someone describing himself as a “sports journalist”, both mentioned only one driver in the field, and one of them was about how the journalist had spent one minute and 45 seconds as a passenger in a rally car (his total experience of the sport) and the emphasis was on how terrifying and life-threatening the experience had been. (The accompanying video on the website indicated that the car was travelling at about half the speed it would be in competition.)

In truth, neither of these really matter. Despite the occasional obsessive brand loyalty, it doesn’t matter whether you carry an iPhone or a Samsung device or if the computer in front of you is a Mac or runs Windows or Linux. Most cars in a price or style category do the job as well as any other. Sport is always irrelevant and has little effect on the course of human affairs, despite what the fans think.

This is a science magazine, so you’re asking “When is he going to start talking about science?”. The difference with science or health reporting is that there can be severe ramifications if this is done wrongly or from a position of ignorance. Not only is there danger of people receiving wrong or easily misinterpreted health news, but it’s easy to give the impression that science consists of people doing random research and throwing the results out without thinking.

Two recent examples of this had fear-inspiring headlines with a bit of truth buried so far down that readers might have given up before they got there. One started with: “Taking common anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen for only a week can significantly raise the risk of having a heart attack”. It finished many hundreds of words later with: “The increased heart attack risk may actually be caused by the complaint prompting a person to take painkillers”. The second article reported a study apparently linking the consumption of aspartame to dementia. The study actually mentioned that it could be that diabetes increases the risk of dementia and the consumption of artificial sweeteners just happens to be one of the things that people with diabetes do.

Unfortunately the only time that journalism itself seems to get a mention in the mainstream media is when a major media outlet sacks a large number of journalists, so I can’t see things improving much.

Luckily there are magazines like this one to get the real stories out there. Now to get more people to read them.


Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (www.skeptics.com.au).