The Huffington Post's Frankenjournalism

Last week, the Huffington Post unveiled a new science section. Science bloggers and science writers aren’t sure what to make of it. Some, such as Mark Hoofnagle, are cautiously hopeful. As he notes, the Huffington Post has up to now been notorious (at least in the science blogosphere) as a “clearinghouse” for “liberal crankery,” featuring things “like Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine crankery, or Bill Maher’s anti-pharma paranoia.” Can the site turn a new leaf? “Time will tell,” he says.

Carl Zimmer, using more restrained language, also noted the Huffington Post’s reputation for “checkered coverage” of science. But he is willing to give the new section (called HuffPo Science) a chance to prove itself:

I for one am ready to give the Huffington Post another look. If they can bring real science to their huge readership, that will be a great thing.

Orac, unsurprisingly, is not taking such a charitable view. He remains skeptical and asks “scientists and science-based bloggers to think a bit before joining up (or even after having joined up)” as writers for the new section. This is why, he argues:

The quackery is all still there. So is the antivaccine propaganda. It hasn’t gone away. It’s just (mostly) not in the medicine section, Apparently the editors tried to keep things science-based in the beginning, but it’s infiltrated the section since then. At least, the soft woo has, such as supplements, diet woo, and acupuncture. The hardcore stuff like homeopathy, antivaccine pseudoscience, and the like is posted elsewhere on HuffPo. It’s still there, though, and it still taints the reputation of the entire enterprise.

This latest evolution of the Huffington Post, with its hydra-headed model–an (unpaid) assemblage of amateur and professional voices, combined with appropriated and original journalism–is quite the mishmash. Not too long ago,  journalistic ethics watchdogs fretted about the wall crumbling between editorial and advertising.

The success of the Huffington Post makes those worries seem quaint. For it has blurred the lines between what is fact-based and what is half-baked, between what is original and what is purloined.

On this note, an interesting comment at Orac’s site related to HuffPo’s new science section could also apply, in a larger sense, to the entire website:

If I have a bucket of icecream in 1 hand and a bucket of poop in the other and just the tiniest spec of poop gets in the icecream, the whole bucket is ruined.

Yet no matter how much icecream you put in the bucket of poop, its still just a bucket of poop.

To put it more delicately, is the Huffington Post’s journalistic product tainted by some of its unsavory associations and practices? In this anxious age of media upheaval, that doesn’t appear to be a question that many in the profession (including the high priests) are much interested in. (Where’s Jay Rosen when you need him? Oh, wait, here he is, talking about how HuffPo could be an ideological innovator in journalism.) Well, I don’t know about you, but when I scroll around the HuffPo site, I see a jumble of indistinguishable content. It’s all thrown together on one canvass, separated only by news and subject categories.

Maybe the new science section, in pursuit of of some journalistic cred, will  keep the New Age bloggers and assorted cranks off its main page. That would constitute a small achievement of sorts.

Headlines like this are problematic, though:

In Vitro Meat: Will ‘Frankenfood’ Save the Planet or Just Gross out Consumers?

The story itself is a straightforward, well-written summary of a notable scientific development and its implications. But it is not served well by the headline’s unfortunate use of a politically charged, biased term (frankenfood).

It is too soon to judge the worthiness of the Huffington Post’s new science section, but based on the website’s ill-fitting and unsightly Frankenjournalism model, we have a pretty good idea of what it is going to end up looking like.

15 Responses to “The Huffington Post's Frankenjournalism”

  1. bigcitylib says:

    Oddly enough, the new Canadian version, when it comes to its coverage of climate science, is populated with industry/gov shills (Aly Velshi, and Kathryn Marshall, for example).

  2. Mary says:

    Every time someone in a discussion offers a link to HuffPo I won’t click it and give Arianna traffic, and I’m not sure I can overcome that now. It’s visceral.
    I’ve seen the damage this does to scientific discussion with the public. The number of times I’ve had to crush the “GMOs cause organ failure” post–even in the last month it’s happened on G+ multiple times–is a real problem. We bring the data, the responses from credible scientific agencies…..ZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz  The damage persists. And someone will resurrect that post 2 months from now and the cycle starts anew.
    I don’t know if I can forgive them for that. It’s irresponsible.

  3. Keith Kloor says:


    Funny you should say that (about not linking to them). I will, if the article is from one of their actual reporters or it’s from one of their smart bloggers.

    But when it comes to the AP articles they copy and paste (and chop down to half it’s size), or some other new story they’ve ripped off, I consciously refuse to link to them. Too many people on twitter automatically link to these kinds of stories. (I have to fight the urge, too, since it’s easier.)

    But honestly, Huffington Post cannot be ignored. It’s too big and influential to dismiss. Also, If Arianna Huffginton wants it be taken seriously as journalism, then the the whole package should be judged on its entirety by the journalism community.

  4. harrywr2 says:

    <i>But honestly, Huffington Post cannot be ignored. It’s too big and influential to dismiss</i>
    I subscribe just as means to see what nonsense is being fed to the masses. The public has been exposed to ‘tabloid journalism’ courtesy of the supermarket check out stand/cable TV for a long time.
    No offense to journalists who work hard to get their facts straight and  to present objective viewpoints, but what sells in the media is shoddy, politicized half baked reporting.
    I gave up watching Television News many years ago, it is banned in my living room but my wife watches the shoddiest so called news programs there are in ‘the other room’ because she finds them ‘entertaining’.
    She  predicted that Katie Couric’s transition from morning ‘pseudo news’ to evening ‘hard news’  would end badly.
    My wife can tell the difference between ‘entertaining news’ and ‘hard news’, she prefers ‘entertaining news’.

  5. Matt B says:

    is the Huffington Post’s journalistic product tainted by some of its unsavory associations and practices?

    The easy answer is of course “yes”, but people can argue about the extent etc and who really cares, let them ideologically spin their stories to their heart’s content just like Fox News. 

    The bigger issue for me is what gets generally gets reported as “science” in the broad media markets. My mother is a faithful reader of the NY Times, and being a rotten son I would always go out of my way to survey the Science section to see how many stories were either medical or environmental, there were usually 75% to 100% of the section. Very little chemistry, very little applied engineering, no materials, a smattering of physics when a new theory seems to make time travel possible, etc. The social sciences get way more press than the hard sciences & I seriously think many relatively well-educated, well-read people actually see these areas as constitutiing the bulk of “real” science. That makes meaningful discussion of many scientific issues pretty fruitless most of the time; more often than not issues need to be discussed starting at first principles and people don’t have the background or patience to have a full discussion.

    Ah well, back to the nerd mine……..

  6. Jarmo says:

    All propaganda has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach.

  7. James Evans says:

    I feel a little stupid. (Not for the first time.) I keep hearing of the Huffington Post. Is it really that big a deal? What’s the size of readership?

    P.S. harrywr2: “I gave up watching Television News many years ago, it is banned in my living room but my wife …”
    Humour assumed.

  8. EdG says:

    The value of HuffPo is revealed in the comments. Mostly profoundly ignorant regurgitations of spoon-fed Obamite talking points.

    I haven’t been there for a long time but the sheep herding and promotion of groupthink there there via all their cute little badges was beyond ridiculous.

    So they can post whatever they want there. Who cares what such lemmings and lemming herders say or think?

    Not me.

  9. Matt B says:

    @ #7 James E,

    you never heard about it because everyone who goes to that site is too busy talking to other smart people….smart being defined as someone who reads the Huffington Post……..

  10. Sashka says:

    @ 7

    What humor? I simply don’t have a TV in my living room – that the place for reading.

  11. hunter says:

    Hufpo is a site so boring and predictable and cynical as to not be worth the effort to click to.
    I have not visited there in several years and see no reason to do so now.

  12. Steven Sullivan says:

    Well, at least Orac’s site gets more publicity out of this.  That’s good.  

    As for Huffpo, if it and Drudge were to be consigned to a cage match in some deep corner of Hell where none of us would ever have to hear of or from them again , that’d be dandy.


  13. hunter says:

    Sorry but equalizing HuffPo and Drudge makes no sense. Drudge is the opposite of HuffPo: they agglomerate news from third party sources. HuffPo is an active political player. It is interesting that you would try to make them equivalents. Can you share why you would assert they are?

  14. Keith Kloor says:


    Equalizing did make sense when HuffPo first got off the ground. It was specifically intended to be a liberal counterpart to the right-leaning Drudge. It (Huffpo) has since become a different kind of animal. 

  15. @hunter: Whereas Drudge Report is not an ‘active political player’…because choosing articles to run, and choosing which to highlight on your front page, and writing headlines for them, can’t constitute political activism, or reflect a political viewpoint.  Gosh, what *could* I have been thinking?

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