A farewell post: Three reasons why good science writing is worth defending.

After five-and-a-half years as a media critic at the Tracker, I’m more convinced than ever that science writing is thriving. I said that recently to Bethany Brookshire of Science News, and she seemed surprised. I asked why, and she said: “Because of what you write.”

I knew what she meant. I haven’t checked this out, but I suspect I’ve written more posts criticizing bad stories than praising good ones. It’s one of the ways I’ve made my mark on the Tracker–by focusing a lot of my effort on what I would call journalistic malpractice.

I had several reasons for that.

One was that we can often learn more from poorly executed stories than from good ones–especially when the poor execution occurs at first-rate news outlets that should know better. This happens far too often. When it did happen, I thought it was important to call attention to it publicly–and to name names.

A second reason is that the bad stories were the ones that most often grabbed me by the collar when I read them and made me feel compelled to post as soon as I could. It’s a character flaw, I admit, but when I see stories that reflect badly on our profession, I take it personally. I admire good stories, but I’m outraged by bad ones. I felt I had a responsibility to point out the problems. Bad stories reflect badly on all of us, and on our profession. If we don’t call them out, who will?

A third reason is that it’s important, when journalism is changing so rapidly, that we hold on to the values and principles that are the foundation of science journalism–and of all journalism.

The most important of those principles is that journalists’ allegiance should be exclusively to their readers. It sounds simple, but far too many journalists and journalism organizations are now directing their allegiance to their advertisers, or their investors, or to a manic scramble for clicks–more and endlessly more, until that becomes a goal in itself, rather than a reflection of whether a news outlet is serving its readers, listeners, or viewers.

The only way to legitimately build readers or followers is to be credible. Anything that damages our credibility jeopardizes our future. Journalism is simple: We find things out, and we tell people about them with no agenda other than to give them what they came for–the news. If they don’t believe us, all is lost.

I could have spent more time pointing out the best work that science journalists do, but many others were already doing that–including many other science writers and journalism websites. Also, good journalism is supposed to be what we do. It’s not news when the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and it’s not news when journalists do a good job. It often is news when they fail.

Science writing is indeed thriving, as I told Bethany. There are more jobs and more science news outlets than ever before. Some don’t pay well–or at all–but more of them are paying something closer to a reasonable wage. And I think that trend will continue.

I’ve been encouraged by the warm response I’ve received from many Tracker readers–some of whom have become friends after we’d met here. I’ve had wonderful conversations, here and on Twitter, and in person–offline–with readers and with writers whose work I’ve discussed here.

I’ve learned a lot from those conversations. I hope others have, too.

Before I sign off, I’d like to thank my former Tracker colleagues–especially those who gave us the opportunity to do what we’ve done here for eight years. First of all, we owe a great debt to Boyce Rensberger, a former director of the Knight program at MIT, and to ace science writer Charlie Petit, who conceived this thing, found the funds for it, and launched it in 2006. I would not have known how to begin without Charlie’s example.

Phil Hilts, who took over from Boyce, staffed up the Tracker during his watch. In March, 2009, he hired Pere Estupinya, who did a wonderful job covering Spanish-language science writing. Phil hired me in August, 2009, and later brought in Deb Blum and Faye Flam. It was as distinguished a group of writers as I’ve ever worked with.

With that, I’m wrapping up my work here. But I’m not wrapping up. I look forward to seeing all of you on the circuit.

 -Paul Raeburn

14 Replies to “A farewell post: Three reasons why good science writing is worth defending.”

  1. Earle Holland

    Paul’s statement, “journalists’ allegiance should be exclusively to their readers,” is infinitely true and too often forgotten. His comments on good writing/reporting will truly be missed, as will the Tracker.

  2. Dr.K.SParthasarathy

    I am sorry that the Tracker project iss over. For me reading the Tracker was a regular habit for the past few years. I wish as Ms Patricia did that “some version of the Tracker will be resurrected”; I hope it happens soon

  3. Patricia Thomas

    I mourn the loss of the Tracker as a teaching tool for my graduate students. At least Gary is back in business…and I hope some version of the Tracker will be resurrected as well.

  4. Jenny Morber

    One may think that blogs like these operate in an echo chamber, but I have found the Tracker to be an excellent resource for questions from friends on dubious or ill-reported popular science issues. Just last week I pointed someone to Tracker coverage on the (imaginary) link between a popular herbicide and autism. It was clear that the Tracker had no motive besides honest journalism, and she found it convincing. The Tracker has also been a wonderful teacher for me. I will miss it.

  5. Peter Calamai

    Belatedly adding my dismay at the loss of Tracker which was a valuable self-correction prod and a very effective teaching/training tool for would-be science communicators here in Canada. A northern salute to the good ship and all who sailed in her.

  6. Brain Molecule Marketing

    Huh? The loyalty is to the facts. Most readers believe in ghosts, alien visitations and all sorts of magical junk. Albeit, there is no money to be made selling facts and massive amounts to be made lying, Fox, books about heaven, etc.

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