'Too weird to live, too rare to die,'
Hunter Stockton Thompson (1937-2005)
On Saturday I welcomed in the New Year by going to watch the film 'Gonzo: The life and works of Dr Hunter S. Thompson'. This new documentary by Academy Award and Emmy winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, is a humorous and thought-provoking ride into the mind of one the most iconic journalists and writers of the 20th century.
Concentrating mainly on his most productive and, arguably, most influencial early career throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, it follows his development from a bit-part, freelance writer riding round California with Outlaw motorcycle gangs, through into becoming the most notorious journalist of his era (probably any era), punching, tearing, and slicing chunks off any authoritarian figure who dared stand in his way. One of my favorite parts of the documentary was Thompson's reply to a TV interviewer asking about the comments made in his 1972 Rolling Stone article that Senator Edmund Muskie was hooked on the obscure drug Ibogaine:
'I said there was a rumour going round Milwaukee, and I should know. I started it!'
Given my most recent post (Social detritus) on journalists stretching the truth, it may appear somewhat contradictory to now be applauding Thompson for driving a wrecking ball through someone's campaign just because he didn't like him. However, this is where I think there is a big distinction between Social Journalism and Science Journalism.
In the former, facts and figure are considerably hazier, being largely governed by one's own social and economic view point. So, when covering events such as political campaigns and policies, it is important for all the different view points to get aired because what is good for one social group will invariably be bad for another. In this manner, having journalists who are willing to take a stand against things they don't believe in (such as Thompson did against the Vietnam War) are an important way of balancing the status quo, otherwise the politicians (who represent a very small portion of the overall social demographic) would have far too an easy time of it, and we would likely see policies favorably cantered toward their peers.
With the latter, facts and figures are considerably less hazy. Indeed, one could quite easily argue the opposite, that, in fact, there is too much information out there at the moment as the number of peer reviewed journal swell in ranks, each demanding larger wads of money from increasingly cash-strapped academic libraries. The main problem with this area of journalism is that the increasing trend towards sensationalism has lead to several radical theories that do not represent the consensus of scientific opinion (e.g., The Day After Tomorrow) getting blown completely out of proportion, and/or articles completely misunderstanding the fundamental science (e.g., LHC).
However, I think that, given the times in which we live, it is unfair to point the finger solely at journalists saying that they should use one approach for one type of article, and a completely different approach for another. That bold articles standing proudly in the face of authority should be confined to only certain subjects. A good proportion of the blame for the public misunderstanding of science is the poor communication skills of most scientists. Lets face it, we are terrible at explaining what the hell we do all day - even to each other!