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Press: Different disciplines, same journalistic flaws

14 April 2023

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FORGIVE me, but I have been brooding on journalistic ethics. One trigger was a note by the American journalist Jesse Singal in his Substack column: “There just aren’t that many really good science journalists, and I think the last couple decades have not treated them well. You can’t do good science journalism under crunch conditions, because it requires really careful, critical work. If you’re going to write about a paper, ideally you’ll read the paper closely more than once, talk to the author(s), talk to at least one other expert without a direct connection to the authors who can provide you an honest assessment of the paper’s quality, and so on. And that’s just to cover one paper well! It hardly ever happens.”

I’ve worked alongside really good science journalists. What Singal writes is entirely true, and applying more widely all the time. This is partly because there is now a whole industry of science “communicators” — which is to say, former journalists who write the press releases before the papers are read by the journalists who might publish them. Their interests are not those of the public: their employers need publicity because that translates into “impact”, and so into funding. Then there is the factor of readers’ lack of interest, boiled down into the formula for writing a Daily Mail science story, increasingly copied by the other British papers. This answers the only three questions of scientific interest: Does this discovery cure cancer? Does it cause cancer? Will it improve your sex life?

 

IT IS worth bearing this in mind when tempted to despair by the quality of religious coverage. Everything else is covered just as badly for an audience that wants — reasonably enough — to know what’s in it for them.

The difference that the internet has made is that it has provided publishers with an exquisitely sensitive means of knowing what their readers really like — and so of increasing their appetite for it. There was a nice example of this in The Guardian’s American coverage of the impact of the chatbot ChatGPT on religion. They talked to representatives of three faiths: Judaism (a rabbi who had got it to generate a sermon), Islam, and Buddhism — no Christians, of course, because, in the contemporary United States, Christianity seems a uniquely sinister faith to the metropolitan Left. The readers do not want to hear from people so distant from their own lives or experiences.

With that said, the piece was well worth reading. The rabbi thought that the sermon that he had prompted on vulnerability “wasn’t the greatest but it was passable. And that was his point. The irony of the AI-written speech about vulnerability and human connection was that it lacked exactly what it preached: human vulnerability and emotion.”

 

IN THIS country, the readers of the broadsheet papers are now largely lapsed Christians, nicely represented by Camilla Cavendish in the FT: “I will be going to church this Sunday, despite not believing in the resurrection. I’ll be there to accompany an elderly relative, but also for a dose of rhythm and ritual, to sing with strangers, and to be able to quietly reflect on things outside of myself. It occurs to me that I seek similar benefits from yoga and mindfulness, both of which have their roots in eastern faiths. The much-vaunted decline of ‘religion’ is perhaps not quite what it seems.”

Cavendish continues: “We avidly read self-help books telling us we will be happier if we express gratitude, but have lost the rituals which enabled us to do that. We mourn the loss of community but are unsure how to reconstruct it. I envy my Jewish and Muslim friends, whose communities often show a commitment to their old people and their fellow worshippers, which lapsed Christians lack. That doesn’t mean I want to spend hours being preached at, nor accept testaments with which I disagree. But it does seem unfortunate to have reached a position of either having to embrace every aspect of a faith or else denigrate it.”

I may be insulting my own readership here, but I don’t know anyone who embraces every aspect of Christianity, whatever that might mean. You don’t learn a religion from its scriptures any more than you learn a language from its grammar. You learn it — and its meanings, or some of them — the same way as you learn a language: by using it to understand the world, to change it, and sometimes to help you to endure it.

This, I suppose, is something of what Evangelicals mean by a conversion experience. It is a pity that their expression should be so rebarbative to outsiders. Only when the stories and the rituals enter into your own life as you experience it have you begun to understand a religion. Quite probably, the more you understand it, the less you can articulate it. The difficulty becomes analogous to the way in which a properly bilingual person struggles with translation far more than a traveller armed with a dictionary that gives answers as apparently authoritative as ChatGPT’s.

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