End of the line for science journalism?

Although I say it myself, there are some really stimulating, readable and fascinating articles in Nature this week (25 June issue) about science, journalism and communication with the lay public. Most of this post is taken from a Nature Network forum post: you're welcome to join in the discussion there.

Many researchers see science journalists as a public-relations service or as an ally in spreading the news about their work, asserts a Nature Editorial this week (459, 1033; 2009 – free to read online). The Editorial points out that there is a deeper value of journalism: to cast a fair but sceptical eye over everything in the public sphere — science included. This kind of scrutiny is easy for researchers to applaud when a news report questions dodgy statistics or dubious claims about uncertainties in evolution. It is not so easy when the story takes a critical look at animal-research practices, overblown claims about climate change or scientists’ conflicts of interest. But such examinations are to the benefit of society, which needs to see science scrutinized as well as regurgitated, and journalists are an essential part of that process.
This week’s Nature special issue, of which the Editorial is a part, shines a spotlight on the profession in changing, troubled times, and is published to mark the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists from 30 June to 2 July 2009 in London.
Scientists can do little to stem the current bloodletting, in which readers and advertisers are deserting publications that are downsizing or folding at fast pace. But, argues the Editorial, they can make worthwhile attempts to ensure that questioning and informed science journalism persists in whatever new forms might emerge from the carnage. If the future of the media truly is a dire landscape of top-100 lists, shouting heads and minimal attention span, then such efforts might at least defer the grim end. A good start would be to have a look at the advice for academics speaking to journalists provided by Brad Delong and Susan Rasky. And from the other side of the coin, the Washington Post‘s national environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin and its executive editor Marcus Brauchli discuss the future of science coverage in their newspaper in a Nature Books&Arts Q&A.
But do newspapers even matter? Blogs and microblogging services like Twitter are opening up conferences to those not actually there – how is this direct to web exposure affecting science journalism, and indeed scientists themselves and their options for peer-review and publication of their research? A range of angles on these questions are covered in a Nature News feature, including the story of a recent ’blogostorm’ about a Cold Spring Harbor meeting in which scientists seemed free to report what journalists could not.
In other articles in this week’s Nature, Toby Murcott in Toppling the priesthood argues that the process of science needs to be opened up to journalists; Boyce Rensberger (Too close for comfort) tracks the progression of scientific correspondent from cheerleader to watchdog; and Nadia El-Awady in The Arab boom suggests much room for improvement in local journalism in Arab countries. The bottom line? To what extent should scientists help — or care?
(All the Nature articles mentioned and linked here are part of the science journalism special in the issue of 25 June 2009. The three Essays and the Books&Arts article are free to read online for 2 weeks from the publication date.)

6 thoughts on “End of the line for science journalism?

  1. Golly…where to start. With a whinge perhaps. What journalism school did the people who wrote the advice for academics article visit I wonder? Because this statement “Journalists are trained to believe that the cost of knee surgery for pets is as interesting and as important as the long-run cost of the Medicare Drug Benefit” is utter nonsense in my experience (I trained as a cadet journalist although didn’t stay in the field, admittedly it was 20 years ago but I’m pretty confident it hasn’t changed that much).
    But on the broader issues raised by this excellent post and the many links (not all of which I’ve read yet) we live in troubling times I suppose – although I suspect all the revolutions of the past have felt like the end of the world at some point and, as yet, none of them have quite resulted in quite so dire a consequence. I think terms like ‘new media’ and ‘social media’ are unfortunate because they have us comparing these things to traditional media and they’re not really fulfilling the functions that traditional media has played in our lives for so long. And despite all the predictions I think traditional journalism is still going strong from sources like the BBC and the ABC here in Australia – the in-depth investigative stuff done by those organisations on a vast array of subjects including science is still first rate and seem to be increasing its sphere of influence by utilisting the new technologies and making themselves available to a wider audience. I know neither of those two examples are commercial models but the entrepreneurs will work out business models eventually. One of the things that has struck me about the whole twitter/Iran elections subject is that although word first spread via twitter most people still looked to the known broadcasters like the BBC and CNN to get their facts – sure they wanted it faster than those outlets could deliver but few people relied on twitter for anything concrete.
    In my professional field of expertise, technology, there is a lot of focus on new media as a delivery mechanism but the trusted names for providing information are either online versions of traditional media outlets or properly trained journalists who’ve made the jump to blogs/podcasts etc but who still have the skills they developed as journos. Maybe I’m being a bit head-in-the-sand but I’m not yet convinced that the function of journalism is dead, even if the way we access what journalists produce is changing.

  2. Thanks for your (as always) perceptive comments, Bernadette.
    On the advice to academics bit – I too thought some of that advice is a bit odd, eg “anecdote is the plural of data” as I actually believe the opposite to be true, and have written so more than once. However, if you think of it as a scientist explaining a concept, and using an anecdote to do it, I guess it works. In the example of the knee surgery you give, I guess that this might allude to the fact (particularly true for science jouranlists) that they are having to “pitch” their stories to the paper’s editor, along with everyone else on the paper, and science stories traditionally don’t get a look-in (sometimes hived off to their own sections, or ghettos, along with technology ;-), books, women ;-), etc, but now specialist sections are being cut (eg science and books) unless there is advertising (frocks and gadgets).) Science journalists may find that pitching a “human interest” story is more likely to succeed in getting space than an important but boring one. I don’t know, though, this is just my guess. And of course the article is American and they have their own arcane jouranlism rules and culture compared with the rest of the world I have noticed 😉
    I do agree about the “quality” argument. Well, I certainly hope it is right as I work for a scientific publication of high quality and we think that our content is “must read”…..and try to keep it that way. However, even quality publications and organisations are suffering massive problems, especially in the US.

  3. I posted my comment before I saw your second one, Bernadette. To the contrary, I always thoroughly enjoy your comments and posts, wherever they are, and they are most welcome on this blog. I very much appreciate you taking the time to read the post and visit some of the links, and to think about it. Thank you!

  4. Journalism is a vital social need which can undergo radical change but can not actually die. Inevitably something would fill the void, thus serving the public need. As you point out, one of the particularly promising things about the direction in which journalism is heading is that it allows for scientists themselves to play more of a role actually AS citizen journalists. This should be encouraged. Researchers should also attempt to be technologically and socially savvy enough to present their own work to the public in a way the public can understand and perhaps even join in public debate/discussion with other researchers concerning their work. I think journalism in general is entering something like a jack-of-all-trades period where there is less of a line between various professions. This ultimately should make the world of journalism much richer. There are some great interviews with top journalists about the future of journalism at http://www.ourblook.com/component/option,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,8/view,category/#catid69 which I have found useful.

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