About Susan Kirk

Susan Kirk is a freelance science journalist, with a degree in journalism and qualifications in horticulture. She has written for many different publications but lately writes extensively for Fairfax media. She wrote a number of the Taste booklets (Global Food and Wine) which showcased Australian produce and producers and even did a stint as a restaurant critique. She loves growing, cooking and consuming food so over the years the interest in ornamental plants turned into an interest in food plants, especially herbs. She is a member of the Media Alliance, and is a member of and the Queensland web editor for the Australian Science Communicators.

Stunning science images the best for 2011

The international competition – awarded by the journal Science and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) – recognises the year’s best images, videos and interactive games that convey complex science ideas. Winning entries must not only capture attention, but help the viewer grasp scientific research, when words alone might fall short. Deadly cucumber skin and a two-dimensional compound feature in the best science photos of 2011.

The Guardian finds the conversation~woo hoo~and more re; scientists v journalists

I thought this was an interesting read. I didn’t, however, agree with the comment that articles on the Conversation are boring.  Anyway the thrust of this post is there appears to be an ongoing online debate about how science should be communicated by journalists and vice versa.  In many of these articles there are a few salient points that keep popping up.

Scientists have a valid point regarding the writing of science journalism that includes the he said/she said mentality.  Now this is not mainstream journalism.   It doesn’t happen that often in general news no matter how hard a journalist tries to convince you that it does.

Take this scenario.  Joe Blow comes to the journalist and says John Smith is misappropriating funds from a charity organisation.  Journalist knows nothing about Joe Blow and is certainly not going to invest his time in a story that may be untrue and is also likely to cost the publisher a defamation suit.  So he checks out Joe Blow and finds nothing to suggest he shouldn’t take Joe Blow seriously.  He does.  He does a more in depth interview and asks for other people who can corroborate the story.

The more the journalists speaks to Joe Blow the more he feels that Joe Blow may be telling porkie pies.  He just sounds like a bit of a loose canon. Parts of his story don’t add up and Joe Blow is totally pissed that he got the sack from the Big Wig charity a couple of months ago.   Joe Blow’s mates confirm that Joe is a sandwich short of a picnic.

At this point the journalist tells his editor.  The editor makes a call as to whether to investigate more time and money into the article and decides No, for whatever reasons and there will be many but the biggest will be risks of a possible defamation suit.

When do the opposing views of the story get published?  When and if an investigative reporter finds concrete evidence that John Smith has misappropriated funds from the Big Wig charity.  No editor in his right mind would print it before this.  If the evidence is found and the article is printed, then you will find the opposing arguments, he said/she said.

So what is the purpose of opposing arguments within the context of a science article?  I think it may come down to the fact that the journalist wants to be sure the scientist is telling the truth.  That the scientist hasn’t made it up.  But scientists don’t make things up do they?  So how can we better address this issue of truth?  The only way a scientist can tell a porkie is if they don’t set up an experiment properly or they don’t include biases or they are being paid to say something that’s not true.  So the first step a journalist can take is to make sure they understand the paper and decide if the science has merit.   That’s not easy for journalists that are not scientists, but they can do it.  Read the paper; especially read the references.  f you ask the scientists who else in the industry has worked on this kind of science and can corroborate it, they are more than happy to supply other experts.  Like I said you should be able to find others who have worked on this research just by reading the references in the paper.  That doesn’t mean finding a physics science to understand biochemistry (is that a good example?) or finding anyone who will oppose the idea.

So I’m really not sure how or why these opposing views keep cropping up in science articles.  Could it be because it makes ‘good’ journalism, which brings me to my next point for opposing viewpoints.

Taking a science press release and publishing it ad verbatim is a bad bad thing in journalism.  Its called churnalism and many other derogatory things.  You are considered a bad journalist if you just print this stuff that comes from flacks.  Even though it happens all the time.  After all how can you tell if its true?  So you go looking for that opposing viewpoint, because it makes for a good story.  But really there is nothing wrong with the media release as it is.  It’s been written by a flack and despite the antagonism between journalists and PR people.  Flacks know how to write.  They would have run the story by the scientist, he would be happy with it.  It’s written in journalistic style.  It’s not too long or too short. But it may be boring.  But you know what maybe it’s a plain piece, does everything have to be Eureka?  And the most important thing about  this piece is it’s probably truthful.  Isn’t  it?  You hope it is because it might come back and bite you on the bum.  “Today a top notch science journalist printed an article about life on Mars.”   Uh oh.  Bad bad journalist.   You didn’t get that opposing viewpoint; you trusted the flack.

Another area in science communication that could be improved and this is mentioned in the article is the word count.  When there is a word count you run the risk of compartmentalisation and losing a lot of context to boot.  What gets cut and what doesn’t.  What is important and what isn’t?  This is very important and I don’t think it should be left to the journalist to decide.

And this final comment on the article by, OlietheFolie:  It’s not that scientists don’t understand journalism, it’s that journalists don’t understand science.

Is ‘big pharma’ really evil

According to two investigative journalists, Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche withheld vital data about the effectiveness of its swine flu drug Tamiflu from scientists.

Read the full story here:


Social media reaches elusive demographic

Interesting article in terms of using social media to reach a demographic and how to reach that elusive age group.


Shafer says embargoes stifle journalism

Jack Shafer: Looking forward to taking a mallet to embargoes, not only the arts embargoes but the science, think tank, government, and academic embargoes. To hell with all of them.

See live chat here

Mistakes in scientific studies surge

Interesting ….. on the problem of article retractions. Offers watchdog site http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/

There’s more to science than ridiculing fools

An interesting article that raises the question, I think, of how well scientists understand media image or contextual analysis or cultural studies.

Pressure for positive results puts science under threat, study shows

Scientific research may be in decline across the globe because of growing pressures to report only positive results, new analysis suggests.

A study by the University of Edinburgh examined more than 4,600 scientific research papers published between 1990 and 2007 and found a steady decline in studies in which the findings contradicted scientific hypotheses.

Papers reporting null or negative findings are in principle as useful as positive ones, but they attract fewer readers and citations, so scientific journals tend to reject them.

It is acknowledged among scientists that this problem might be worsening, because competition in science is growing and jobs and grants are given to scientists who publish frequently in high-ranking journals. Many researchers, therefore, have speculated that scientists will increasingly pursue predictable outcomes and produce positive results through re-interpretation, selection or even manipulation of data.

The study examined research papers in which a hypothesis had been tested, in various scientific disciplines. Over the period studied, positive results grew from around 70 per cent in 1990 to 86 per cent in 2007. The growth was strongest in economics, business, clinical medicine, psychology, psychiatry, pharmacology and molecular biology.

The findings, published in Scientometrics, also show that papers reporting positive results are more frequent in the US than in Europe.

Dr Daniele Fanelli of the University’s Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation, who led the study, said: “Either journals are rejecting more negative results, or scientists are producing more positives. It is most likely a combination of both.

“Without negative evidence in the literature, scientists might misestimate the importance of phenomena and waste resources replicating failed studies. The higher frequency of US papers reporting positive findings may suggest that problems linked to competition are greater in the US than elsewhere.”

Science @ the Brisbane Writers Festival 2011

Discover a host of interesting internationals and exciting new Australian writers at the Brisbane Writers Festival 2011!

Panels of interest include:

  • The Ten Desires That Drive Us – Hugh Mackay
  • People are Animals Too – Andrew Westoll
  • Geeks, Freaks and Eggheads – Barry Brook
  • Green by Degrees- Polly Higgins
  • Why vs. Why: Nuclear Power – Ian Lowe

Take advantage of the BWF 3 for $39 ticket offer to catch a couple of your favourites in conversation, and use your third ticket to experience an intriguing, new writer in the Festival program.

What: Brisbane Writers Festival
When: Friday 9 – Saturday 10 Sep, 2011
Where: State Library of Queensland
To learn more: check out the BWF website.