On Wednesday, I attended the London Public Understanding of Science seminar at the LSE. The speaker was Andy Williams of Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, presenting work from the ‘Mapping the Field‘ research project about science news journalism in the UK.
It’s interesting stuff. Do have a look if you haven’t already. It’s also paints a rather dismal picture of current and future science journalism. Williams interviewed UK science journalists and got back a story of increased demands for content, less staff, a steady stream of churn-able PR, pressure, bad management from newsdesks and simply not the time, space and resources to explore and prod science news stories with the degree of critical reflection we might hope for.
As many people at the seminar pointed out, we seemed to be presented with an image of a golden age of science journalism, and this is somewhat of a myth. The story was also one which blamed PR. Again, people at the seminar stressed that the role of a science press officer isn’t exactly one of Malcolm Tucker, and that there is a long history of a close relationship (even overlap of roles) between science writers and science PRs; just read Dorothy Nelkin
A story of too much PR is, one might argue, part of a mythologising of journalism by journalists, as is a story of nasty newsdesks and crappy subs. As analysts we need a critical approach to this. Although I’d argue that science journalists too often get an unfairly bad press, and it is right to acknowledge the constraints they work under, I also think media researchers should be able to take a larger view than simply beat/defend the journo. One empirically grounded way to do this might have been to extend the study to include a larger range of media actors; to get PR’s, bloggers, editors, scientists, etc to give some perspective on the journalists as well as the journalists self-testimony.
(It occurred to me that reference to ‘bad press’ above was a bad metaphor, but I don’t think it is necessarily, and the very fact I can use this term about them shows science journalists do not, alone, produce public science commentary).
Something that wasn’t mentioned at the seminar, but thinking back on it probably should have been, was the role of scientists mediating themselves. I wonder if the people at the seminar would have filed such work under PR. It doesn’t fit the Fourth Estate vision of press Williams largely applied. Still, I think there is a huge role for this, working in dialogue with their various audiences, and alongside independent journalists and other communicators. There are other issues with this though, not least providing decent support systems to allow scientists to do such work.
I also wondered if Williams was working from a slightly limited notion of science writer. He kept out freelancers and/or bloggers. The hopeful voices I know in science journalism are the young freelancers, many of whom blog. Or at least they are hopeful about quality, they are shitting themselves about a regular wage.
Williams made the point that is wasn’t nearly as bad as in the USA, and I heard worse from American academics at the Science Online conference in January. John Rennie suggested that we might have to deal with the idea that science journalism was like poetry: people would do it for the love of it, and earn a living from teaching or winning the odd prize. My response at the time was that there’s a lot of bad poetry, and I’m not sure how I feel about more ‘bad science’ (and that I didn’t like the idea that science writing might end up the preserve of those rich enough to do it). Still, he had a point. More productively, I also said that the very thing some people blame for the destruction of golden age science journalism – online communication – can help open up science writing, and in particular help open up support networks so science writers could help each other get work. Ed Yong’s set up a sort of virtual ‘tip jar’ (and owes me a few quid apparently). I made him a scarf in a similar gesture. It was amazing to watch the reaction to Ed Yong and Brian Switek announcing they were going freelance this week; so many people were quick to wish them luck and offer advice.
Ok, a few friendly words, a few quid and a scarf won’t pay the rent, but perhaps it’s a start? Maybe I’m kidding myself though, what do people think? Is there more hope in science journalism, if we just looked somewhere other than the spaces Williams’ research project had?