The media, journalists, editors and reporters, are also the guardians or watchmen of science. Not only do they report news and events, but they also keep politicians or spheres of power in check by questioning their actions and reasoning. Such is the power of the media in Britain that is can (almost) topple politicians and governments.
The same media also cover scientific discoveries and events, but there is a catch. Unlike politicians and government officials, scientists are not subject to critical questioning by the media. Whereas politicians acquire their positions through elections, scientists are assumed get to where they are through expertise and merit.
Any form of expertise may separate one field or profession from another. Take chamber music for example. It takes a typical violinist many years to reach a level of expertise required to perform in a chamber ensemble or symphony orchestra. In addition to other than the extracurricular training they receive as children, their university degrees and auditions, musicians are always open to scrutiny and also in their performances by the media. Newspapers dedicate columns to either praise or rubbish performances. Medical doctors and dentists are also open to scrutiny. Malpractice is often exposed first in a newspaper before it is reported elsewhere. The media also seem to find space to criticize new alternative medicines, the forms of chemicals used in chemotherapy, which diet is best, which isn’t and so on. This aside, scientists appear to be all but immune from critical scrutiny any from of questioning by journalists.
One reason maybe that much scientific expertise differs from other forms in that it does not seem to directly affect our day-to-day lives. While many people have a favorite recording of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, their own opinions on dieting and whether smoking or drinking too much is harmful. However, the average person’s opinion on evolutionary biology for example, is often no more than received wisdom, given little personal reflection. In fact the science press, that is the popular media who report on science, struggle to correctly interpret the scientists message and to attract the attention of the average reader. The recent debate in Framing Science (Nesbit & Mooney, 2007) addresses how scientists and the media can work together to express a scientific idea or discovery in such a way that it informs the public in a clear and engaging manner. The article draws much needed attention to the still burning question: who watches the watchmen?
Recently the popular press reported the discovery of a new fossil 'amphibian' nicknamed the 'frogamander' (Gerobatrachus hottoni). The article went on to state:
"The discovery of a "frogamander," a 290 million-year-old fossil that links modern frogs and salamanders, may resolve a longstanding debate about amphibian ancestry … Modern amphibians -- frogs, salamanders and earthworm-like caecilians -- have been a bit slippery about divulging their evolutionary ancestry. Gaps in the fossil record showing the transformation of one form into another have led to a lot of scientific debate." (Reuters)The press, keen to promote science, clearly do not question what they are being told. In this case the "showing the transformation of one form into another" is impossible without the aid of a time machine. The media did not concoct the story, they simply translated what the scientists said:
"It's a missing link that falls right between where the fossil record of the extinct form and the fossil record for the modern form begins,' said Jason Anderson of the University of Calgary, who led the study" (Reuters).This is not a problem of framing, but that of the media blindly accepting a "story".
The science media rarely question the scientist. The level of expertise that separates the scientist and the reporter is the same between that of the violin soloist, general practitioner, attorney general, civil service account and engineer. If a politician clearly fabricates a story in order to win favor with voters prior to an election or, a police commissioner justifying the arrest of a member of a suspects family under dubious terrorism charges, the media wouldn't think twice of questioning their reasoning. If a geneticist however states that the platypus is "...the semi-aquatic animal is a genetic potpourri - part bird, part reptile and part lactating mammal" (ABC News), no one questions their poor reasoning or understanding. Clearly the platypus is a mammal (along with the fish-like dolphin and bird-like bat). This distinction was made in the 19th century and every school child would be able to pick this out at once (except perhaps science journalists).
The problem is not one of not understanding the technical nature of science or the way scientist "frame" their arguments. Scientists can be just as uninformed as the rest of us. The media do question the expertise of professionals from other fields excepting that of science. What is needed is investigative science journalism, not glossy parroting. By investigative science journalism, I do not mean exposing practices outside of mainstream science such as anti-science (e.g., creationism), pseudo-science (e.g., homeopathy) or malpractice (e.g., evangelical healing). Neither do I mean exposing scientific fraud (e.g., cloning) or moral issues (e.g., stem cell research) (see Knight Fellowships). Investigative scientific journal would be far more effective in keeping science in check if it uncovers its inner workings, including the politics behind certain ideas and the funding supporting one method or theory over another as well as simple misinterpretations or downright untruths that scientists make which enter the mainstream media as "facts". Through exposing the malpractice of scientists, investigative science journalism can inform the public where their money goes and how it is at times misused. So far there is no such caliber of journalism in science has not been equal to the challenge. Presently, many biologists, geologists, geneticists and astronomers have no representation in the media and no voice. To let them suffer in silence seems unjust when experts in most other fields enjoy the guardianship of investigative journalism and the attention of the public.
Nesbit, M.C. & Mooney, C. 2007. Framing Science. Science 316: 56.