As a scientist and educator, I had never planned on being a citizen journalist. That role was approached with caution step by step, on mental tiptoe, first with submitting letters to the editor, progressing inexorably towards Op-Eds and Blogs, propelled by a joy of writing and the desire to explain the importance of science in our daily lives.
Everyone seems to have access to the megaphone of the press previously available only to a cloistered club of journalists. My goal was not to add an idiosyncratic opinion or to criticize -- of which there is no shortage -- but to add fresh insights and new information to the ongoing public discussion about science and technology. If not done well, the danger is one of "lost in translation" since scientists and journalists deal with not only vastly different lexicons but different writing styles. Scientific and medical literature is written in the passive voice, posing questions and presenting and interpreting data. It's the difference of writing "It was found..." versus "I discovered!" This creates a distance between reader and writer, a neutral voice devoid of emotion.
How can one communicate the relevance of science without sacrificing a glimpse of the sheer joy of discovery? Blogs and newspaper websites offer a forum for doing this because they welcome a casual, conversational tone.
Why bother? Because I believe that most in my profession are far more focused on making the next discovery rather than explaining to the public the value of what they do. I found it curious that those covering science in the media are journalists with an interest in the topic, but typically aren't practicing scientists. I found rather quickly that sharing my joy of science with the public has challenges beyond communication -- the writer is a vulnerable, easy target in the rapid fire world of bloggers and anonymous commenters. Tina Brown, Editor-in-Chief of the "Daily Beast" aptly described her news and opinion website in a recent NPR interview as "a feral animal, that you can't possibly beat its fast and furious rhythms." What scientist in their right mind would willingly expose themselves to the unpredictable behavior of this web-beast? Without the skills of a seasoned reporter or journalist, could I possibly satisfy it or are the risks of attack too great?
My life as a citizen journalist has been rewarding on the whole. But the relationship between writer and readers tied to the 24 hour news cycle has proven to be a volatile one. In one of my articles on the FCC's National Broadband Plan, I grappled with the question "Is universal internet access a basic service, a moral and social imperative?" One reader posted:
"Why don't we just give everyone everything they want, for free? This whole argument is bogus, Marxist tripe."
In researching for this piece, I had not considered how Karl Marx would have dealt with the challenge of the "digital divide". It is doubtful that a society with haves and have-nots would have bothered him.
Invited to write a piece on the challenges of discovering new drugs, I participated in the launch of The Huffington Post's Health webpage. Given the intricacies and lack of appreciation of the complexities of drug discovery technology, I took great care in my choice of metaphors for clarity. Some readers' responses were dripping with venom from their keyboards. The HuffPost Health webpage was described by one anonymous (typical!) commenter as a:
"Wretched hive of scum and quackery... has decided that it's starting a "real" health section."
Another reader complained of the simplicity of my explanation:
Articles like this one...suffer from being written for a general audience with a preference for just using familiar metaphors like searching for a needle in a haystack instead of trying to clearly explain the scientific results being reported.
In another posting, I was described as "simple minded and naive, just like a scientist." That may be true, but I took on the role of citizen journalist to make some meaningful contributions to the vast, often deafening din of non-stop news reporting. The web is bloated with information and scattered data but is starving for knowledge and a little wisdom. In the end, I hope to add a bit of wisdom even if there is a risk of getting bit.
Follow Dr. Jeffrey H. Toney on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jefftoney