What hope for science journalism?

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?

10 thoughts on “What hope for science journalism?

  1. Martin Austwick

    Interesting; this issue comes at the overlap of two big issues for scientists: the age-old issue of how science is communicated, and the more recent and much wider issue of the net’s democritization/amateurization of content.

    Print journalism as a whole (along with music, film and many other forms) is in crisis, faced with the combination of non-professional content creators and the propensity of people to want stuff for free. This shift is not unproblematic, but I’m inclined to think that new quality-filtering mechanisms will be created to replace the pre-filters that previously meant only a few journalists working for a few publications had significant reach. Or perhaps this something members of the science community should create themselves? Perhaps reviewing/filtering science communication should become a key component of academic life, in the same way as peer review (should be)?

    1. alice Post author

      the amateurization thing was my analysis, and may not be something everyone agrees with. Even I wouldn’t say it’s the *main* issue, just part of it.

      Re filters – one of the things Andy’s research noted was journalists talking about their role as shit filters.

      I think the Fourth Estate aspect of the press (independence from science) is important. I’m not sure leaving it to academia is good for society (much as the expertise of academics should be utalised)

  2. Jonathan

    There are places where this happens already, Martin – a good example is Bang Goes the Theory, for which a panel of academics from the Open University provide oversight at script stage. Further behind-the-scenes there were, until recently, 250 Beacons-linked academics working away on the Ask Yan part of the website, and occasionally contributing to other parts of the web and broadcast output.

    There are two problems. Firstly: oversight costs money, which is hard enough to come by for scicomms without adding a layer of editors or exec producers. So the BBC can afford to do it for their flagship family science show, but even then the facilitator of the web forum (disclosure: that was me) was paid by the Beacons, and the academics’ time was contributed (ie. unfunded).

    Secondly: most academics know as much about audiences as those audiences do about the science. Prof A might be a leading expert on the solar neutrino problem, but that doesn’t necessarily help her criticise a project introducing those ideas to seven year-olds. Hence ‘peer review’ isn’t easily achieved. With the Beacons/Ask Yan stuff we called what we did ‘peer review,’ but really it was facilitated discussion. A key – and crucial – difference.

    I’d love to see the forum we built for Ask Yan opened up as a brains trust for other scicomms projects, only with a better name than ‘brains trust’. There are lots of subtleties about this that should probably be the subject of another blog post elsewhere, but the key question is:

    Whose problem is it to pay for this stuff?

    I’d love to see less crap science from science communicators, journalists, and film-makers, and less crap communication from scientists and engineers. We can bring these communities together, and they can find grounds for mutual respect. It’s not even that hard to do. But it’s not a small project, it costs money, and it’s not at all clear that those with the means and authority to make it happen will take responsibility for doing so.


    1. Martin Austwick

      A couple if thoughts here; if you can train journalists to understand science, why not scientists to communicate with 7 year olds? Should science communicators exist to plug a gap which scientists could fill themselves.

      Secondly, are the dangers of scientists providing critical comment on their own community as dire as Alice suggests? Not to suggest there should be no oversight, but should scientists be encouraged to be more publicly critical of science media?

      1. alice Post author

        I wasn’t saying they shouldn’t. I’d like scientists to be publicly critical of science. Many already are. I’m just saying we can’t LEAVE it to the scientists alone. See the original post.

        I also think scientists should and could have more training (and time) to do sci com (it is my job to do this…) but I also think there is a place for professionals too (and a place for scientists who don’t want to do public communications work).

        None of this is black and white. It’s about maintaining a diversity of voices and skills.

  3. alice Post author

    I’m very amused by lack of response despite fair number of hits and posts on twitter. Does this mean there is no hope?

    (or are we all a bit bored of this debate and prefer to simply get on with our work…?)

  4. Andy Williams

    Hi Alice – ta for the write-up. Nice post.
    I agree with you that the project could have been broadenend to look at newer and emerging forms of science journalism, and I hope to do more on this in future (if the EU agrees, and okays a big collaboratve project I’ve just applied for). I also admire the work you’re talking about, of course. But like you also said, it’s hugely under-resourced on the whole, which is the problem. As lovely as an original Bell-designed scarf would be, it ain’t gonna feed the kids. Wouldn’t it be nice if some of the (itself inadequate) funding for often pretty homogenous beat science writing could be used to encourage this kind of thing more?
    On a few specific points:
    1. “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.”
    This is not just about what the journalists say – the growing resource and power imbalances that exist between PR and journalism are just there for all to see. And while much PR in science is produced by organisations with a commitment to increasing public understanding, education, and ethical communication, a lot of it isn’t. And even the stuff which is is also devoted to securing reputational benefit, which can lead to self-interest trumping the public interest at times.
    2. “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”
    There was quite a bit of blaming PR in the discourse of the journalists… but I don’t “blame” PR, myself (if I think anyone’s to blame it’s media orgs for not ploughing once substantial profits back into the newsrooms, instead of squeezing every last drop of profit out of newspapers while simultaneously cutting staff and upping workloads). I think that PRs exploit a weakness in journalism, and also that the close relationship you mention can lead to an erosion of the independence of journalism, and to journalists working too closely with PRs. Nelkin saw that hapenning too, I think. On the Malcom Tucker thing – no, much sci PR is far from this. But a lot isn’t so different.

    1. alice Post author

      Thanks for commenting.

      – sorry, didn’t mean to imply you blamed PR’s, but it did sound as if that was the message you’d got from the interviewees. And yes, there is bad sci PR as well as ok. It is probably as silly to generalise about sci PR as it is to generalise about ‘science’ (and maybe research PR/ comms is better term anyway?).

      – didn’t mean to suggest that the PR story was only coming from journalists, just that they may find it appealing! (ditto blaming subs or newsdesks – both of which I think *are* real problems – maybe ‘mythologising’ is the wrong word)

      – on the not ploughing profits back into newsrooms and independence of journalism: this is important and interesting I think, and why I asked about publicly funded science writing in the seminar (though I’m worried this will happen whilst also allowing journalists independence from science or politicians – one might argue uni research com’s is publicly funded science writing…). This was also why I mention projects where writers help each other in the post (scarf symbolic, as perhaps is Ed’s tip jar project, but maybe the latter has space to grow…).

  5. CM Doran

    I am new to science writing in the non-academic setting. I am hopeful, but cautious as big news venues like CNN are decreasing # of science writers (I think I heard this somewhere), other media have suspect people reporting on science-related events.

    Somehow I feel that improving science literacy, starting with kids, will help the increase the value of it in the general public…..but with certain Govenors cutting funding for education–it will be tough. It will be up to the interested parties, including us, to spread the joy of science. Perhaps a way to reach the young is to use cross-training (writing creatively in science, art and science, music and science, math with art….etc). There are so many talented people that I have been learning about in the past few months or so.

    Thanks for writing, and caring.

  6. Pingback: Society, Ethics And Science Weekly blogs round-up - 27/28 March 2011 - blog by Gurdur - Blogs on the Heathen Hub

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