Editor’s Note: When we said we wanted Science of Blogging to pick the brains of the best and brightest in the online science world, we weren’t kidding! Today, I’m excited to share a wonderful post by fellow Canadian, Colin Shultz. Colin is a science journalist, who regularly discusses fascinating topics on his blog and is uber-active on Twitter. In fact, Twitter, is how Colin and I connected. Today, Colin discusses the notion that science blogs may be a key supplement to traditional media in reporting science to the public.

So you know that old, sorry debate about science journalism versus science blogging? The one where the mainstream media are the legitimate suppliers of news about the world, and bloggers are resigned to being snarky commentators?

Or how about the one where blogging creates an echo chamber, where the diversity of sources withers, leaving people in a pool of ideology-reinforcing consistency.

Well have I got some news for you!

These arguments may not only be patently illogical, but rather, the opposite might be true.

In a recent study in the journal Journalism Studies, Gina Walejko and Thomas Ksiazek, both PhD students at Northwestern University, compared the sources that traditional journalists, political bloggers, and science bloggers each turn to when producing their posts.

They found that science bloggers, unlike the other two camps, rely on a higher diversity of sources, particularly primary literature or other academic work. Science bloggers are also much less self-referential; they don’t talk about themselves as much.

The researchers analyzed all of the links, as well as unlinked sources, from 600 select blog posts written between 2004 and 2007 on two politically charged topics -climate change and intelligent design – in an attempt to answer two questions:

1: Do the linking practices of science bloggers differ from those reported in previous sourcing studies and, if so, how?

2: Do the linking practices of science bloggers differ from those of popular political bloggers and, if so, how?

Ksiazek and Waleijko sampled from the most visited science and politics blogs that had written about climate change or intelligent design at least ten times during the study period, including such favourites as: Adventures in Ethics and Science, Bad Astronomy, A Blog Around the Clock, The Intersection, Loom, Pharyngula, and The Frontal Cortex.

The political blogs included Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo,  Outside The Beltway,  and Instapundit among others. The politics blogs were controlled to have equal representation from left- and right-leaning sites.

So how’d it all shake down?

Well for climate change, science bloggers referenced traditional news sources 15% of the time, half as much as political bloggers. They also dropped 18% of their links on academic sources and 11% on government sources. Political blogs gave these 4% and 5% respectively.

The gap only widens for hyper-ideological intelligent design. Apparently the best place for answers to the question ‘where did we come from?’ is traditional media outlets… at least if you’re a political blogger – they sourced back to the press 37% of the time. Science blogs, however, gave 9%.

Then, put this in the context of prior analyses of mainstream media coverage, where up to 80% of the sources in a story are affiliated with the government.

According to Ksiazek and Waleijko, “these patterns indicate that science bloggers expand the diversity of voices heard in traditional journalism by linking to academic institutions and non-profit entities, and these sources may help to increase the quality of science news reporting.”

For the times science bloggers do link to the mainstream press, however, the motivation seems to differ from why a political blog might link to them.

“While science bloggers sometimes link to traditional news media to express agreement, they are more likely to link out of frustration with mass media reports on global warming,” said the authors.

“To rectify these frustrations, science bloggers link to academic sources that provide more in-depth explanation of scientific processes and studies.”

So much for the closed-off echo chamber; science bloggers are actually increasing the diversity of voices.

As for the journalism versus blogging debate? Ksiazek and Walejko leave us with this little tid-bit.

“Because many writers lack the skills necessary to make critical judgments on the accuracy of scientific trials and experiments, science writers may be misled… Could science bloggers, often individuals with advanced scientific training and connections to multiple scientific sources, change traditional science journalism sourcing practices for the better?”

Colin Schultz is a Canadian journalist who happens to blog about science and science communication theory in his spare time. He is also active on twitter. The above post originally appeared on Colin’s blog on August 11, 2010.

Walejko, G., & Ksiazek, T. (2010). BLOGGING FROM THE NICHES Journalism Studies, 11 (3), 412-427 DOI: 10.1080/14616700903407429