My PLoS Blogs guest post: The effects of churnalism on health news & the public

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Brian Mossop, Community Manager at The Public Library of Science (PLoS), urged me to submit a guest blog post on the terrific collection of PLoS Blogs.

What I gave him recaptured the guts of a journal article submission summarizing the first five years’ work on – a submission that was rejected by the journal editors despite glowingly positive comments from peer reviewers. The editors thought the term “churnalism” felt like media bashing. I react strongly against any accusation of media bashing. This is a clear and committed attempt for constructive outreach to improve health journalism and the flow of balanced, unbiased information to health care consumers. I might ask what any journal has done to promote those goals more than this project has.

Perhaps these journal editors are unaware of the frequent and open discussions about churnalism within journalism itself. For example, a recent column in London’s The Guardian quoted Connie St Louis, professor of science journalism at City University of London, described as an “award-winning broadcaster, journalist, writer and scientist.” She said:

“I think part of what we’re seeing is the old churnalism thing where journalists, particularly science journalists, don’t have time to do what I would call reporting anymore, they don’t have the time to get out and spend time thinking about features and investigations or anything like that.”

Columnist Martin Robbins wrote:

“Churnalism is a real problem in science reporting, to the extent that it feels a bit boring to keep going on about it, but the wider issue is this lack of actual, well, journalism. As I said in that piece; if journalists aren’t contributing original reporting, or providing context, or challenging statements made by university press officers, or even just adding informed opinion, then they’re not really doing journalism.”

In their rejection letter, the journal editors also said they didn’t think the examples I cited of poor journalism “were all that bad.”

My mother always taught me to be careful what I put in writing. These journal editors could have learned from my mother.

If the examples I cited “weren’t all that bad” in the eyes of these journal editors, it should give one cause for concern about the quality standards employed at that journal. If an old hack journalist like me sets higher standards for public communication about research than do editors of a medical journal, you have a new glimpse of why we get some of what we get in flawed publication of research.

Here’s how PLoS Blogs posted my piece.

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bev M.D.

July 11, 2011 at 6:05 pm

You tell ’em. Submit it to the NEJM – hope it wasn’t them who rejected it! It would make a good ‘perspectives’ piece.