How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Journalism vs. Research

For decades, research has been a supplicant to the media — dependent on media for wider exposure. And research has complained incessantly about the distortions media make to its work and messages — all while contorting itself to be ever more attractive to the media and its currency of headlines for communication.

Here’s the news: all that is yesterday’s problem.

A list member sent me this tweet by Jacquelyn Gill, associate professor at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute and co-host of the climate change-themed podcast Our Warm Regards:

In the long back-and-forth afterwards, the discussion (egged on by Gill) centered on whether Big Think is funded by the Charles Koch Foundation (some of Big Think’s content is) and therefore the underlying piece (on the climate impact of data centers) was part of a big money conspiracy to distract us from climate action.

There is a distraction here. But it isn’t from climate and big money. It’s from the ever-growing role of journalism as an interpreter of our understanding of research — and how that usurpation endangers public understanding of the state of research and science.

Journalists as ersatz research-thought leaders, if you will.

First, let’s shoot down the easy target. Although Gill’s hot take got lots of applause and piling on on Twitter, it is dumb. Google “Guardian data center greenhouse gas climate change” and you’ll find at least four stories on the first SERP that The Guardian has published in recent years about the growing climate threat of data centers. Here’s another one from Mother Jones in 2015, based on information spoon-fed the magazine from Greenpeace. This story has been being pushed by the left for a long time. Blaming the right now for using it as a distraction is silly — not to mention damaging for the credibility of a researcher, I would say. LMGTFY.

Second, the problem isn’t just that “your Netflix binge-watching makes climate change worse,” but that increasing numbers of journalists who cover research don’t know how or don’t care to check on the state of research on any given question. That’s because they’re being rewarded for packaging up research that buttresses their pitch angle and writing as if the science on the question is settled. This tactic has been deployed for years in the science coverage in Big Think, Mother Jones, The Guardian, and dozens of other major outlets that feed social media. This is happening all over journalism now. Because we want red meat pseudo-information clickbait that confirms our biases and amps up our blood pressure. Journalism is providing it, slathered in the AI sauce of cherry-picked science.

Many researchers still complain incessantly about journalists who misquote them or don’t even quote them after talking to them for an hour.

The much more worrisome trend is journalism that doesn’t feel the need to talk to you — that simply takes research and writes its own research-based authority content.

That’s where the public model of research communications is morphing. And research isn’t responding by creating its own resource content, its own assets that everyone can turn to and learn with the true state of research on a given subject is.

We’re still on Twitter, complaining that media got it wrong, hoping that other media will notice.

Hey, research: time to make your own media.