What Is News: Science Certainly Is

June 6th, 2012 by Potato

The CBC recently ran an editorial titled “Cool science, but is it news?

I was prepared to rant and rave and dump all over it for pages and pages, but I suspect that it’s meant to manufacture controversy.

So instead I’ll just make a few rebuttal points. The big question underlying the question in the headline is what is news? I think scientific progress definitely fits most any definition of news: it can have big (or small) impacts on society, health, and business, in addition to the esoteric impact on our understanding of the universe around us. Sports on the other hand, doesn’t: locked in a continual, meaningless struggle that will be repeated anew next monday/year/whatever. I am continually baffled by professional sports in general, but at least have some inkling of the entertainment value of watching it. Reading about it the next day seems like abnormal behaviour that should maybe get looked at by a specialist — if it weren’t for the fact that so many people do it.

On the CBC’s news website, they have one screen with a varying selection of top stories, then towards the bottom 10 boxes with different categories (business, world, Canada, politics, etc). Two of those categories are different boxes for sports. Two are ostensibly science-related: technology & health, but both tend to have much less scientific stories than what is being discussed in the editorial (the latest happenings on twitter, scandals of minors doing things that may hurt them, or the tech specs of the flashiest gadget are hardly cool science). On the mobile site, fully one third of the screen space is dedicated to sports, and even then sports stories crawl into the other two panels in the default view. Science is nowhere to be found.

Science certainly isn’t being treated as news, though in my opinion it most certainly is.

Moving past that quibble, the article goes on to lament the way science stories are reported. And I have plenty of things to gripe about there. On the first day of J-school it must be drilled into journalists’ heads that they must — must! — attempt to relate science stories to some every-day impact. “This will (eventually) lead to a cure for cancer…” “Can warp drive be far behind?” “Climate doom awaits us all!” “Bacteria found in space rocks: Can invasion be far behind?” On top of that, stories have to be written for a very lay audience: often below the high-school level. So the stories don’t get to convey much, and waste a lot of column-inches on trying to catch the reader up on basic background information. Some of that should be changed, if for no other reason than Wikipedia exists. Hyperlink the big words, and accept that a certain portion of the readership will either tune out (they probably are anyway), or, after reading enough, will have managed to refresh their memories of grade 11 and caught up to a slightly higher scientific reading level.

After all, that’s the way the other sections work. The business stories just plow on through terminology like basis points, index, or leverage, and don’t even attempt to define acronyms like CEO or EBITDA. Everyone would think the sports section dull and boring if in the midst of describing something they had to break and ensure the entire audience understood, and had to lead off with a slow insertion from some random generality:

Every year thousands of Canadian youth enrol in hockey programs to get fit, make friends, and lose teeth. These programs are supported by billions of taxpayer dollars in the form of subsidies for arenas, tax credits for kids’ programs, and direct funding of government salaried referees. It may not look like an activity that would lead to preparing our kids to become productive members of society, but these kids are in it for a different reason: to gain one of the coveted spots as a ‘professional’ hockey player.

One such professional team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, played a second team composed of paid players from Ottawa, known colloquially as the “Senators” (though there is no relation to the Senate). Vladimir passed the puck — a hard black rubber disc that is the focus of the players in hockey — to Jacques, another member of the Toronto Maple Leafs team (though peculiarly enough, neither one is actually from Toronto). Jacques then skated, which is like running but on the icy surface of the hockey rink, towards the net that was defended by the goalie from the Senators. However, before he could attempt to score a goal, an unforseen result was found in the data: the referee determined that he was offside with a confidence of 95%, 19 times out of 20.

“Offside” is a state of being that makes no sense in our conventional world, but hockey experts assure us that the implications could be far-reaching, including the beginning of a whole new hockey “trial” from the face-off area. Despite this two-steps-forward, one-step-back outcome, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs is excited about the work done so far. “I’m really pleased with the progress we’ve made on moving the black, rubber object across the slippery surface; or as we call it, ice. This really speaks to the dedication of the team, and the value our work has for society as a whole. It’s really just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s like that corner piece that really helps orient your worldview and re-define the problem. Now instead of trying to put the puck in the net, we’ll be working to make sure the Senators don’t get the puck out of the little circle.”

Opinions are conflicted as to the real-world benefits of last night’s hockey game, but there’s a sliver of hope that if this pattern continues in further games, there could be an increase in the supply of donor teeth to the local gummy homeless population.

And I’ll conclude by linking to a very good article that I didn’t find until after I had already finished my little rant. It tears apart the science journalism tropes even better: The Unwritten Rules of Journalism

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