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Everyday science

Blogs, big physics and breaking news

07 Jul 2009 Matin Durrani
Last week science journalists flocked to London from all corners of the globe

By Matin Durrani

My colleague James Dacey has already blogged twice (here and here about last week’s World
Conference of Science Journalists in London, but I thought I’d give my take on the meeting.

I chaired a session entitled “Blogs, big physics and breaking news”, which examined the challenges that physics bloggers pose to journalists and looked at the merits and downsides of such blogs.

The session was inspired in part by the incident a couple of years ago, when Tommaso Dorigo — a member of the 600-strong CDF collaboration at Fermilab — discussed on his blog A Quantum Diaries Survivor possible sightings of the Higgs boson in the decay of a Z-boson to a pair of tau leptons.

Although Dorigo — and other bloggers who discussed the data at the time — emphasized the uncertainty inherent in their results, his blog entry was picked up by journalists, who reported the story around the world. (Physics World gave a full account shortly afterwards of what happenned, which you can read here ).

That all seems fine on the surface — journalists dug out a story on particle physics that might otherwise have not seen the light of day.

Even better for journalists was the fact that Fermilab was not exactly chuffed that the discussion was out in the open — new results in particle physics are usually only made public after being “blessed” by the collaboration and published in a scientific paper.

But Dorigo was unhappy at the way his analysis was reported, which he claimed did not underline the uncertainty in the data. What’s more, it raises the question of the whole point of science journalism: if someone is really interested in Dorigo’s analysis, why bother with possibly inaccurate science stories in the media? Why not go straight to the blogosphere instead for the “real” story?

Admirably, Dorigo agreed to speak in London, braving an audience of about 100 of the world’s science journalists in the Edwardian-style Methodist Central Hall. On the stage alongside him were former Physics World features editor (and particle physicist) Matthew Chalmers, and CERN communication chief (and particle physicist) James Gillies

What followed was an entertaining debate, which saw this issue — and others — aired in a friendly and open manner.

I’m not sure if we came to any conclusions. But to me it’s obvious why some journalists feel so threatened by physics blogs: it is simply that practising physicists are basically doing what they, the journalists, used to do unchallenged i.e. writing and reporting on physics.

Blogs could be a particular threat to niche magazines, which rely on subscriptions from small numbers of people who could be easily served by reading blogs.

I think, however, that a lot of physicists forget that many science journalists (like myself) are also editors — we pick and choose interesting topics (however you define interesting), and package it into a mix of carefully edited articles, with great graphics and images.

What’s more, journalists have to ensure that stories are balanced, accurate, and will appeal to a range of different readers with different levels of knowledge. Bloggers have it easy: they can just stick to their individual niches and not worry about balance: indeed, the more virulent their comments, the better.

But one particularly interesting point discussed in London was how exactly CERN will manage the announcement of new findings from the Large Hadron Collider. Will we be in for a repeat of the Dorigo case, with false sightings leaked out in blogs, duly reported in the press?

The danger then is that the public will be so bored of the story that when the Higgs really has been discovered no-one will care. Or will the drip-drip of stories in fact generate excitement and drum home the real purpose of the LHC in the public’s eye?

I’m not quite sure how things will pan out, but — apologies if this sounds a bit like fence-sitting — both bloggers and journalists will play a role in revealing the LHC’s new findings.

And as if to underline my point that science journalists and bloggers have a lot in common, Dorigo himself has written a blog post about the London debate, which you can read here

I’ll let you decide whose article you prefer.

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