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.