The Difference Between Good Science Reporters and Most Political Reports Is…

…most good science reporters like science. Most political reporters don’t like governance.

One of the important things about going to scientific conferences for scientists is ‘catching up.’ While part of that is genuine social interaction with friends (when else are you going to see friends from graduate school who now have jobs on the opposite coast?), there’s also a lot of gossipy-type information exchange: who has a new job, what jobs are coming open, difficulties in getting tenure or funding, and so on. Sometimes, there’s even juicy gossip that is utterly personal (not that one should gossip about such things…). Like it or not, the enterprise known as science is a human undertaking with all of its bumps, quirks, and foibles; we, like other humans, talk about these things.
But these topics are not science. In other words, they are not public communication of science, training people in science, research, or the translation to basic science into technology. Those things are what science is. I recently finished ScienceBlogling Chris Mooney‘s newest book, Storm World, which gives a detailed popular account of both the science and all of the ancillary other things surrounding science. In reading the book, I get the strong impression that he likes science–he finds the science of climatology interesting. In fact, I would argue most competent professional science writes think the science, as well as the ‘other stuff’ is interesting.
So onto political reporting. There’s a fascinating article in Vanity Fair by Evgina Peretz about the coverage of Al Gore during the 2000 campaign. Here’s one excerpt that I think sums up most political reporters views of politics:

And Gore just kept going on about issues. Alluding to five speeches he made in two months on education, crime, the economy, faith-based organizations, and cancer research, Seelye wrote, “Mr. Gore becomes almost indignant when asked if his avalanche of positions might overwhelm voters.” The Washington Post’s David Broder later found Gore too focused in his convention speech on what he’d do as president. “But, my, how he went on about what he wants to do as president,” wrote Broder. “I almost nodded off.” As for the environment, while Gore was persuaded by his consultants not to talk about it as much as he would have liked, whenever he did, many in the media ignored it or treated it as comedy. Dowd wrote in one column that “Al Gore is so feminized and diversified and ecologically correct, he’s practically lactating.” In another, referring to his consideration of putting a Webcam in the Oval Office, she wrote, “I have zero desire to see President Gore round the clock, putting comely interns to sleep with charts and lectures on gaseous reduction.”

Governance–what the politician would actually do–bores them. Never mind that is why we have a government. You would think, after reading most political reporting, that government exists to give reporters something to gossip about. I understand why political reporters would rather circulate gossip than analyze policy–gossip is a lot more fun. But, just as with science, the actual job should focus of the governance, not the ‘other things.’
Reading many articles, it is not only difficult to figure out what the consequences of a piece of legislation might be, but you also don’t get a sense for how that legislation came about in the first place. I’m involved with a particular proposed bill right now, and how the bill came to be would be a fascinating story which I might tell someday. Good investigative reporting would let readers know how legislation arose–which sections were crafted by which interest groups*, and so forth. It would also characterize how conflicts were resolved (or not resolved). You almost never read any of that, and those are the things that matter.
Give me science reporters any day.
*Based on my experience, the initial drafts (and often revised drafts) of legislative language and summary statements are often written, not by legislative staff, but by lobbyists and special interest groups (of all kinds). I have been told to send staffers draft legislative language to insert into a bill–not a summary of points, but the actual language. This is no way to run an empire.

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4 Responses to The Difference Between Good Science Reporters and Most Political Reports Is…

  1. Mark P says:

    I’m not sure I agree. I think you’re probably right about science reporters, since why else would they choose to cover science if they didn’t like it. But I think the problem with political reporters, and especially political opinion writers, is not that they don’t like government or governance. I think it’s that they believe they could do a better job. They believe that they know the answers for every problem, and the idiots in government don’t. That’s one reason so many ill-informed editorial and op-ed writers are so pissed off at climate scientists about global warming. The scientists got together and came to a consensus and never bothered to ask the editorial writers what they thought.

  2. bigTom says:

    Could it be that reporters are focusing on personalities instead of issues because they think thats what the public is interested in? So yes we have a problem with journalism spending far too much of our time on frivolous issues, while ommiting to cover policy issues in a substantive way. But our public has been so conditioned by the entertainment industry to expect entertaining stories, that they mostly lack the attention span for weighty matters.

  3. Could such an obviously intelligent man have been so megalomaniacal and self-deluded to have actually said such things? Well, that’s what the news media told us, anyway. And on top of his supposed pomposity and elitism

  4. very good

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