The site is essentially a collection of unmoderated press releases direct from the university communication departments, untouched by journalistic hands. But what some might say are obvious flaws aren’t actually as clear-cut as one might think. On the one hand, yes, the articles have agendas, their PR writers untroubled about the ethics of bias and balance, and there’s no journalistic moderating force between them and the public to provide a sceptical look at the evidence. But on the other, who’s to say that the pieces aren’t factually sound, given that they come from highly respected leading US universities, whilst also providing a voice to the science community. The alternative is to simply have less science out there in the public eye – not an attractive option.
Having a journalist write the article should, or at least used to, give some kind of guarantee of accuracy. As Jim Barnett on the Nieman Journalism Lab website has said, “Foremost among them [principles of journalism] is applying some standard of fairness — or as others might call it, skepticism.” That’s not to say that journalists would always be able to pick up errors, due to time and resource constraints, or might even be the ones to slip in mistakes themselves. But without that additional safeguard, it means Futurity should be taken with perhaps a touch more salt than usual.
But despite all this, I think the website is a good idea in as much as it makes the best of a bad science coverage situation. There’s no reason to believe that the articles, straight from research centres, would be wrong. And as Lerner points out, “Scientists are already responsible for disseminating that knowledge through journals and conferences, so why should they not speak directly to the public as well?”
So, will I be using it as a future source of science news? Well… yes and no. Like with any press release in an ideal world, a journalist should check the facts and ascertain its accuracy first. Futurity should be seen more as a starting point than an end product, a springboard of story ideas from which to then investigate and write about. It’s a welcome stand in the battle to keep science in the public eye, but one to still be handled with a little caution.