Critical Juncture for HuffPo Science

With new section, David Freeman has an opportunity to raise the bar

The Huffington Post’s announcement last week that it had launched a new section intended to be a “one-stop shop for the latest scientific news and opinion” incited a flurry of circumspect commentary about whether or not the site was turning over “a new leaf” in science coverage.

Over the years, The Huffington Post has drawn widespread criticism for publishing misleading columns about health and medicine in particular, which have alleged spurious connections between vaccines and autism, antibiotics and cancer, and enemas and flu protection. A variety of doctors, scientists, and journalists have gone as far as accusing the site of waging a “war on science.”

Nonetheless, one of The Huffington Post’s fiercest critics, freelance journalist and author Seth Mnookin, wondered whether the site had “closed the door on pseudoscientific quackery” with the creation of its new section. On launch day, it even published a column from Mnookin expounding on “the need for responsible science journalism.”

Mnookin told The Atlantic Wire that David Freeman—who left a job as managing editor of the health section at to become The Huffington Post’s new science editor—persuaded him to contribute, adding that Freeman’s professional track record is reassuring.

“From the first time we talked he’s always struck me as someone who’s incredibly smart and also very responsible,” Mnookin said. “Again, my most optimistic reading its that Arianna wouldn’t have hired someone like him if she wasn’t interested in doing this the right way.”

Freeman, though, says he doesn’t consider the new section to be a critical juncture in The Huffington Post’s treatment of science. Asked about past criticisms, Freeman said in an interview:

I don’t see this as a before-and-after. It’s a continuum and I think that launching the science vertical is an expression of The Huffington Post’s desire to cover evidence-based science. We will be controversial. Science is by nature about putting information out there and having it criticized. That’s the way journals work, of course.

The point is, we’re all about putting forth science information, and one of the things that The Huffington Post is famous for is reaching out to large numbers of people and fostering civil discussion with lots of viewpoints. I will say, however, that these viewpoints are going to make it onto the page only if they’re from people who really have the scientific credentials and we do have a vetting process to make sure these people have the cred to participate.

It’s understandable that Freeman wouldn’t want to speak ill of his new employer. Most of The Huffington Post’s shoddy science coverage has come from health writers, who published in the Living section until October 2010, when the site launched a Health section, which became the Healthy Living section in May 2011. (There is also a Green section, launched in May 2008, which has done mostly admirable work, publishing some good series on topics like global water issues and sharp reporting by journalists like Dan Froomkin.)

One hopes, though, that Freeman does, in fact, recognize that the science section is an opportunity to make an important break from the past. A “continuum” is not what the public needs. Indeed, in a column introducing the new science section, Arianna Huffington, the site’s founder and editor in chief, denounced abuses and misrepresentations of science:

There’s no better time than now to launch a venue that explores these questions, given the explosion of truly medieval thinking in our world — and not just on the fringes. It’s a world in which we have senators and presidential candidates who don’t believe in evolution and who think that global warming is a myth. A world in which politicians don’t just have their own set of ideas but their own set of facts.

Freeman was reluctant to say that watchdogging political distortions of science would be a priority, but the section has already run good columns by Peter Gleick, Chris Mooney, Shawn Lawrence Otto, and Jamil Zaki criticizing Republicans for taking “anti-science” positions.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much original reporting since last week’s launch. Critics such as the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit and Paul Raeburn have pointed out that, true to Huffington form, most of the section’s content has been syndicated content from other outlets, synopses of other outlets’ content, and essays from well known voices in the worlds of science, policy, and industry.

Many of the essays—including pieces about creativity and success by Lisa Randall, about the infinite universe by Seth Shostak, and about what it means to be human by Joseph LeDoux (all scientists)—are fluid, fascinating reads. But they aren’t a substitute for pieces built around original reporting and investigation. Moreover, Freeman doesn’t assign or edit the essays. A separate team at The Huffington Post is responsible for vetting and managing all the site’s bloggers, including those who write about science.

The few instances of original science reporting so far have been a mixed bag. An article about biomimicry by Lynne Peeples and one about a “quest to reform the Gregorian calendar” by Tom Zeller Jr. (both writers work for the Green section) were interesting, but not terribly new or incisive. On the other hand, there was a great piece by science journalist Wray Herbert, which challenged conventional wisdom about the amygdala’s role as the “fear center” of the brain.

Aggregation and synopses of other outlets’ work would remain the site’s “stock and trade,” according to Freeman, and while he’d like to do more original reporting, he isn’t striving for any particular balance between the two.

“As far as whether or not we’ll have more science journalists, I’m interested in having all different voices as long as they’re responsible scientists or science journalists,” he said. “The whole idea behind this is to have an ongoing conversation, and I think the more smart, responsible, scientifically-minded voices we can add to the mix here, the more interesting the science vertical will be to our readership.”

In his own introductory column about the new section, Freeman wrote that in addition to covering “cutting-edge” research and discoveries, “HuffPost isn’t above a cheeky look at the scientific underpinnings of everyday life. Like what explains the weird mating rituals of the hyena? And why do women find guys with deep voices so hunky?”

The first weeks’ content has tilted heavily toward such gee-whiz reporting (including a lot of slideshows). Freeman said it was too early to tell what the balance between light and heavy material would be.

At the moment, the science team consists of Freeman, senior correspondent Cara Santa Maria, associate editor Travis Korte, and assistant editor Rebecca Searles. (The Green team has four people, and the Healthy Living section has eleven in addition to an eight-person Medical Review Board.)

Perhaps the most original and intriguing thing that the science section has going for it is Santa Maria’s catchy Talk Nerdy to Me video series, which delivers detailed and nuanced reports with snappy editing and writing. The series launched in October 2011 and installments used to run in the Education section, where Santa Maria focused on topics like mental illness and sexuality. More recent episodes have looked at in-vitro meat, animal research, and the neurological underpinnings of prejudice.

The Huffington Post’s decision to launch a science section is heartening in and of itself, given that the site gets more traffic than any of the websites of country’s top newspapers. But how the section evolves matters.

“I for one am ready to give the Huffington Post another look,” science journalist and author Carl Zimmer wrote on his Discover blog, The Loom. “If they can bring real science to their huge readership, that will be a great thing.”

Freeman asked that readers evaluate the new section based on its work. “We’ll establish a track record that anyone can look at,” he said.

But it may not be that easy.

Neither Freeman nor Mario Ruiz, Huffington Post’s media officer, were willing to acknowledge past mistakes at the site (“As long as the Health section has existed, we’ve always valued and put a premium on science and evidence and have never sought in any way to undermine that,” Ruiz insisted). And they don’t seem to recognize that even if the science section produces high-quality content, more shoddy work in the Healthy Living section would detract from that effort.

“The quackery is still there,” the pseudonymous blogger Orac argued in a post explaining why he remains skeptical. “[A]nd it still taints the reputation of the entire enterprise.”

If Huffington Post science is to become an important source of information and debate in the world of science journalism, it will have to address such critics head on. It can do that by ensuring that the highest standards of scientific accuracy apply to the entire site, not just one section; by hiring more science journalists; and by prioritizing incisive, original reporting over quirky slideshows and big-name essays.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , ,