Yvonne Carts-Powell

Add a Grain of Salt (or, deconstructing a science news story)

In Science, writing on October 24, 2011 at 12:19 pm

X ray images of hard drive by Jeff Kubina on Flickr

When is science journalism not science journalism? When it’s a reprinted press release.

For example, there’s this science/technology story with an obvious hook: adding salt during patterning boosts storage limits on hard drives. This isn’t earthshattering, but it is newsworthy. And lots of venues picked up the story.

(Read the entire story by clicking the title)
I first noticed it as a story in the International Science Grid of the Week newsletter. But the way it was written confused me, partly because a researcher was mentioned with only a last name, as though already introduced. (That was a bit of sloppy editing.)  I googled, and found half a zillion stories covering the news. Some of these are straight-forward, acknowledge that they are reprinting a press release and linking to it. I have no problem with that. (I do it here, plenty of times, when I want to link to a story but not report on it.)

On the other hand, at many websites,  editors (or worse, “content managers”) chop it to fit the copy hole, mangle — or improve or just rearrange — the prose to fit their readership, and don’t attribute it.  That can be done in 30 seconds or less.

Some did better than others — the Wired UK story found art for it: How Salt Could Multiply Hard Drive Space | Wired Science | Wired.com.

For reference, here’s the original press release in PDF format: Packing in six times more storage density with the help of table salt

It’s not a tragedy that websites are running press releases, but it’s not journalism, either.  Where are the stories in which someone talks about e-beam lithography or gets an outside source to comment?  Plenty of science writers can do this, but how do you convince a publisher to hire someone to write the story when you could publish it faster by just editing the press release? And how long until skillful manipulation of press releases result in mass misinformation? This is already happening with plenty of contentious topics in medicine, global warming, etc.

I’m glad that I have editors who value my abilities and my background knowledge in my field. I just wish it was easier to evaluate the source of information on the web.

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