Black and White – About the reputation of journalism – by Viola Egikova

“He is a journalist, but he is a honest fellow!” Have you ever heard anything similar? No? Then I have to tell you an unpleasant thing: people do not like journalists. Just think what they say about our profession. Maybe the most innocent proverb on the topic of journalism is: “Lie. But so skillful that I believe it”. Why do we have such an odious reputation?

“No surprise, answered a scientist whom I asked. There are just a few journalists who will not distort what you say. You speak with him and explain your research, but he will write nonsense for sure, because he may sell it better: the public is pleased to read tales. Why should I like a person whose profession is to be a liar?”

This is an old antagonism among scientists and journalists. Maybe you heard another proverb: “If you speak with a journalist, you get a falsehood, but if you do not speak with a journalist, you lose your money”. Sure, we look as rather sordid persons in such a conception. But this is what scientists think of our profession doing an exception just for single journalists. Of course, this bad reputation is usually unjust, but it is based on precedents. And the precedents are sad, very sad. We have got one more fact.

The most popular Russian website www.antropogenez.ru dedicated to human evolution posted an open letter of a well known scientist Dr. Maria Mednikova from the Institute of Archeology which is part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. She wrote about a documentary film from the Russian TV Channel “Culture” – “A City of Giants” which was broadcasted on May 4. That film tells about four-meter-bones, which, as they say, were found in the hills of Armenia. The authors argue that these bones belonged to human beings – ancient giants who used to live in that place.

To prove the thesis the authors of that documentary interviewed the scientist. Dr. Maria Mednikova wrote in her open letter that the journalists manipulated the interview, cut it and changed the meaning of what she had said. According to her words, she insisted that no four-meter-giants could ever exist, it was against a scientific knowledge. But her words in that documentary were used as if she had proved the hypothesis.

Since it was not the first time that scientists complained about their words being twisted, we again discussed this topic in our community. One may hear different opinions. Somebody says: a scientist must take the journalist to court. But in my country it is a long, boring and very expensive business without a clear result. Journalists say: let us create a black list of those who are twisting the facts. But this is not realistic: there are plenty of journalists who lie permanently, but feel perfectly.

Scientists say: no interview any more. This also is not realistic; scientists need communication. Maybe better to show the text before publishing? I remember my discussion with a brilliant German science journalist who told me: he will never agree to show a text before publication. It is against the principles of journalism, he said. And let’s be honest with each other: journalists have to reduce and simplify to make science palatable for a large lay audience. Not every scientist would go along with this.

Does this all mean that we are always between two fires – good principles or bad reputation? Can we stay white if somebody makes our profession dirty? Black and/or white, I have no answer to that question – who tries a response?

The drawing is by Kaianders Sempler

About Viola Egikova

Viola Egikova - science journalist based in Moscow, president of Intellect, Vice-President of the European Union of Science Journalists' Associations, Programme Coordinator of All Russia Science Festival