Tag Archives: ScienceBlogs

Exploring ethics, standards in science blogging

As a follow up to ScienceOnline 2011, independent journalist Maryn McKenna writes about bringing the standards of journalism to blogging.

Maryn McKenna

Maryn McKenna

At the annual meeting that brings together scientists, journalists, bloggers and others interested in communicating about science, McKenna took part in a discussion about ethics and credibility.

Regular readers of Covering Health will remember last year’s ScienceBlogs controversy as well as health journalist Mary Knudson’s decision to not blog for U.S. News & World Report when she noticed her first post had been studded with sponsored hyperlinks.

McKenna, who is a member of AHCJ’s board of directors, outlines how she has brought her own “best practices” to blogging and outlines them. She also highlights several points from AHCJ’s statement of principles that specifically deal with issues medical and science writers face.

Of course, as some people at the meeting noted, not everyone who blogs is – or wants to be – a journalist. But many of them do see the need for standards and transparency, as science writer Ed Yong points out. Science journalist Dave Mosher, of Wired.com, also explores the topic.

Blogger quits U.S. News, citing sponsored links

Critical questions about online sponsored content, and the relationship between editorial control and hyperlinking, continue to be raised. The firewall between advertising and editorial has been eroding in some publications, and former Baltimore Sun health reporter Mary Knudson (bio) is the latest in a long line of bloggers who have drawn their own lines in the sand.

Knudson was invited to blog about heart health for U.S. News on the heels of her most recent book, “Living Well With Heart Failure, the Misnamed, Misunderstood Condition.” She quit before her first post was published. Now, she explains why.

On the PLoS Speakeasy Science blog, the veteran author and Johns Hopkins medical writing professor shares how her initial enthusiasm quickly waned when she noticed that her first post had been studded with sponsored hyperlinks.

She says the magazine informed her the sponsorships were not negotiable. The rabbit hole goes deeper (see Knudson’s post for more) but the end result was both unfortunate and predictable:

So, I said no to U.S. News & World Report because I could not accept the conditions they would force upon me as a blogger. I am a journalist. I will not fall in line and become a U.S. News Stepford wife.

I am currently setting up an independent blog HeartSense that will seek to find the truth as best I can about issues involving the heart and patient involvement and I will only create links to places I think will bring more information to readers about the topic I’m writing about. No ads will pop up at my readers.

The magazine chalks it up to experimentation.

“Like all internet publishers we are continually experimenting with different kinds of content and advertising,” U.S. News editor Brian Kelly said via e-mail. “Some work and some don’t. Healthline Navigator is a new feature that we are evaluating.”

Healthline Navigator is, of course, the product which autolinked Knudson’s post.

Where will it end? Knudson, for her part, calls for an independent national network. She has approached AHCJ about creating a national network for health bloggers.

AHCJ board member Ivan Oransky says AHCJ has been studying the possibility.

“We’ve watched with interest the proliferation of science blogging networks, and we appreciate Mary’s suggestion, which was on the minds of some at AHCJ,” Oransky says. “These networks are adding and amplifying important voices. We’d love comments from members, and others, with experience creating blogging networks, or contributing to one, as we work to figure out if this is something it makes sense for the association to take on.”

Rules for journalists reporting on genetics

It appears that University of Minnesota biologist and blogger PZ Myers has finally seen a few too many “x gene linked to y condition” stories. He snapped, writing that “I just get so annoyed at this tendency for the media to focus on simplistic discrete causes that are split into a black & white nature or nurture false dichotomy.” He also felt compelled to write a few rules for journalists, as scientist-bloggers so often do.

Two of the four rules cover subjects which should be old hat for most AHCJ members, namely “understand science and causality” and “put news and numbers in context,” and it’s not until he focuses specifically on genetics that the list really shines.

For the first rule, he uses a story headlined “Male infertility gene discovered” as a teaching example. The emphasis is mine.

Do not describe genes by the disease they cause when broken. This is a gene that contributes to male fertility. There is no infertility gene. If a man has a missing, damaged, or mutant form of this fertility gene, he may have problems conceiving children.

And, for the final rule, he builds on the basic, well-trod ideas of causality and context to provide a framework for interpreting gene discovery stories.

Learn this simple principle: genes affect how your body responds to environmental factors. Finding an allele associated with a particular physiological state does not mean you have described a cause. We also need to know how that gene acts, what triggers a particular pattern of expression, and what the gene changes in the cell. There are forms of genes that only have deleterious (or advantageous) effects given certain conditions; that effect must be described as a consequence of both the gene and a certain background or environment.

Scienceblogs, and when bloggers attack

The Next Web’s Simon Owens tries to put the recent ScienceBlogs / PepsiCo quagmire into the larger context of the long, proud history bloggers have of biting the hand that feeds. He looks into the uneasy relationship bloggers have always had with those who advertise in their space, as well as the risks bloggers face in giving up control over ad placement by joining larger networks like ScienceBlogs. In the end, he implies, it’s really just another installment in the ongoing horse race between editorial independence and financial viability.

It has always been the accepted practice that there should be an unassailable wall between the editorial side of a publication and the advertising side, lest reporters be accused of bias for financial reasons. But the idea of bloggers attacking or commenting on their own advertising can also create an aura of independence. After all, what better way to prove you’re not beholden to the hand that feeds you than opening your mouth wide and clamping your incisors down on it. Whether that same hand will continue to feed you afterward is another issue entirely.

ScienceBlogs reverses course, evicts Pepsi blog

PZ Myers of the Pharyngula blog on ScienceBlogs reports that Seed CEO and editor-in-chief Adam Bly has sent a letter to its bloggers saying that the PepsiCo blog that caused a number of high-profile bloggers to flee the site has been removed.

Myers quotes from the e-mail:

We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way.

Bly continues, asking questions about how to better include industry-funded scientists in social media and the ongoing public health discussions that take place in the online community.


PepsiCo sparks controversy on ScienceBlogs