It’s not my job to sit down and read peer-reviewed papers, because I simply do not have the time; I don’t have the expertise … I am an interpreter of interpretations. (Delingpole 2011)
I will argue against the assertion that science journalism is not a unique journalistic specialism. Prominent UK journalist Jack Delingpole uttered the above words in January of this year during a television interview on BBC2’s Horizon programme and is the embodiment of the need for scientific literacy amongst those reporting science in the media.
This journalist, who extensively covered the incident of leaked emails from the Climatic Research Unit – referred to in the media as Climategate – accused the researchers involved of fudging the numbers and claimed that “scientists fall too easily into a consensus and fail to be critical enough of the data” (Delingpole 2011) while admitting later in the interview that he himself, as a journalist covering science for the Telegraph newspaper, didn’t read the scientific journals that would have laid out all the relevant data for him.
Delingpole is an example of a journalist covering science as opposed to a trained science journalist. Simply put, bad science journalism is not a unique journalistic specialism but competent science writing that can popularise without distortion cannot come from the traditional stream of journalism; it stands alone.
Unfortunately Delingpole’s attitude – finding the story while avoiding the science – is far from unique. In fact Hansen (1994) seems to think that this attitude is not just present but is representative of the average science reporter.
Journalism that just happens to be about science?
Hansen’s focus group of 31 UK science journalists in the mid-nineties includes select quotations from respondents uttering such maxims as “in the first place we’re journalists, in the second place we are technology correspondents and science correspondents” while a science editor of a “quality daily paper” says that for him/her science journalism doesn’t exist. It is journalism that “happens to be about science, just as there is journalism which happens to be about football or golf or whatever”(1994, p.114).
There are two major caveats to Hansen’s depiction of modern science journalism and his assertion that it does not exist as a specialism.
The first is that he pays too little heed to his analysis of the 31 journalists and their backgrounds. He notes that the youngest science journalists interviewed (average age 34) were more likely to have a degree or doctorate in science while those with an average age of 45 were trained as traditional journalists and those with an arts/social science education were on average aged 41.
This tells us that there is a growing trend towards specialism within science journalism as those newer to journalism are clearly bringing science qualifications with them. Hansen mentions all of this quickly in one short paragraph and disposes of it for the rest of the article.
Since this paper was published 17 years have passed and the field of science journalism has changed beyond recognition for several reasons including the fact that the online space, including blogging and social media, has changed the journalistic landscape across the board. Specifically those qualified in the field of science are increasingly contributing to specialist websites such as Ars Technica or blogging for themselves (Brumfiel 2009).
Larry Moran, biochemistry professor at the University of Toronto, Canada, is cited by Brumfiel as saying that “most of what passes of science journalism is so bad we will be better of [sic] without it,” (2009, p.276); a strong opinion but one that shows the need for less of this journalism that “happens to be about science” and more of a fusing of the two cultures as described by John Timmer, science editor at Ars Technica.
The second caveat within Hansen’s depiction of science journalism in the British press is that his definition of science journalist includes journalists in the areas of computers/technology. I think that this assumption that computers and technology falls under the same category of science is flawed.
A random sample of technology articles in mainstream Irish and UK media will show that the majority of these articles are either in the business section or increasingly within the lifestyle portion.
The technology section of the Irish Times, for example, is housed in the business section of the paper both in print and online while looking through the technology section of the Guardian website shows the same business slant on most stories.
Hansen used feedback from these technology journalists to bolster his theory that science journalism is no different than any other area reported in the media; he could just as well have contaminated this focus group with the opinion of business or political journalists.
In a league of its own
The idea of science journalism as a specialism is recognised implicitly by Reed (2001) who notes that the traditional tension or conflict seen to exist between journalists and scientists is “less marked between specialist science writers/journalists and scientists” (2001, pp.280) because the science journalist understands the nuances of the scientific community and tends to work closer with the scientist.
I would argue that all one has to do is look at the interaction between scientists and science journalists to see that this unique ecosystem is evidence of a specialised form of journalism. De Semir (1996) asserts that “good practise in scientific and medical journalism has consisted of relying on reference journals as sources of information … since the practise of rigorous peer review is thought to guarantee reliable information” (1996, p.1165).
I am reluctant to go back and bash Hansen and his focus group on the head yet again but it is clear that journalism that just happens to be about “whatever” or journalism that includes practitioners like Jack Delingpole is a world apart from the domain of the specialised science journalist that has a unique relationship with the scientist and a respect towards that source material while providing appropriate simplification instead of distortion (Hilgartner 1990).
Hilgartner talks about the general consensus in the science community that popularisation could be construed as pollution to pure science but that it does in fact serve scientists in public discourse and “feeds back into the research process” (1990, p.522) – a unique relationship that could not arise from other journalistic fields such as sports or finance that do not have the same need for a translator or middleman as it were.
Such is the specialisation of science journalism that many of those in the mainstream media have science backgrounds, an example being Ben Goldacre, Guardian columnist and medical doctor. Most of his writing is focused on pointing out bad science reportage and a recent article pointed out another hallmark of good science journalism: clearly referencing primary sources.
While Goldacre (2011) concedes that this is a practise that could extend beyond science writing all of his examples of where major distortion has occurred in the absence of a link to the journal or press release, is in the field of science.
In a separate article Goldacre describes what he sees to be the attitude of bad science journalism. Again, this is the far end of the spectrum whereby science is distorted beyond all recognition due to being processed in the traditional journalistic process.
Science is done by scientists, who write it up. Then a press release is written by a non-scientist, who runs it by their non-scientist boss, who then sends it to journalists without a science education who try to convey difficult new ideas to an audience of either lay people, or more likely – since they’ll be the ones interested in reading the stuff – people who know their way around a t-test a lot better than any of these intermediaries. Finally, it’s edited by a whole team of people who don’t understand it. You can be sure that at least one person in any given ‘science communication’ chain is just juggling words about on a page, without having the first clue what they mean, pretending they’ve got a proper job, their pens all lined up neatly on the desk. (Goldacre 2005)
MSM, the blogosphere and the curators
For those who fear that the role of the modern science journalist is that of a time-pressed automaton shovelling reheated press releases onto websites and print pages, there is the new hope in the form of the blogosphere.
Often these blogs host material more complex than that found in traditional print media, something that Brumfiel says will “provide people already interested in science with greater insight into how research works” (2009, pp.274) but there are other outlets that mix the combination of journalism and blogging to great effect.
Brumfiel (2009) asks if science blogging is replacing science journalism while pointing out the shifting sands of the mainstream media (MSM) and the growth of specialist blogging, often written by scientists and researchers.
There is the fear that the rise of scientists’ blogs and increasingly polished press releases could stamp out the need for the science journalist but I think more than anything this shows the evolution of science journalism where the new gold standard will embrace all of these changes.
Wired, as Brumfiel points out, mixes the two disciplines and this serves to reach a niche online audience or the Long Tail as Chris Anderson (2004) describes it. Anderson explains that the future of catering towards audiences is to be found in tailoring content to their needs and realising that mainstream is not where the audience go if there is plenty of choice elsewhere.
With the advent of the internet, the explosion in digital content and the ubiquity of broadband there is more choice than ever before and I think this can preserve the quality of science journalism.
Brumfiel mentions a Nature survey where more than 100 scientists offered their opinions on the future of science journalism and one said that “commercial pressures” were polluting the field, adding that “mainstream media had pitifully low standards of science journalism where the herd mentality prevails” (2009, pp.277).
I think that this is the catalyst for the evolution of science journalism in the online space and it will help more clearly define the high standards by which it should be judged lest it suffer from ordinary journalistic treatment.
There is no doubt that the changing face of science journalism gives rise to worry about its future as it “undergoes great, digital metamorphosis” (Brainard 2008) but it does point to new, more clearly defined roles for the MSM editor or writer when faced with masses of online news sources.
Brainard asks if the future science journalist might play the role of “navigators, aggregators, explainers”, essentially becoming sifters and curators of knowledge and making sense of the vast volume of raw data and otherwise at their fingertips.
Mindy McAdams, lecturer in online journalism, writes about the effects of technology on communication and write about the newly emerging concept of the journalist as curator back in 2008. Curation, she says, is more than filtering or gatekeeping; it provides context and is carried out with expertise and consideration like the role of a museum curator.
Seat-of-the-pants reporting can be fast, and errors can be corrected as we go. Curation indicates a more careful process, with research and fact-checking and solid sourcing underneath it. (McAdams 2008)
It’s science… more or less
Jon Franklin, cited by Bauer and Bucchi (2007) talks about the scientist and writer C.P. Snow who, as a physicist and novelist, occupied that rare but enlightened middle ground between the arts and the sciences. He recounts Snow’s observation that most official functions he attended in sixties America aiming to mix the disciplines inevitably saw scientist and humanist seek similar company rather than step over the threshold: “Our culture was separating into two parts, scientists and everyone else,” he noted, adding that it was a trend he predicted would continue.
I think Franklin is both right and wrong and that within this lies the reason why there is a need for the specialised science writer. Franklin is wrong about the cultures separating even further because scientists are becoming more media savvy and research institutes are regularly reaching out to the media with their own press releases and packaged findings (Brumfiel 2009).
There is, however, truth to this statement because as science progresses and specialises it is becoming increasingly complex and there is a need for journalists to carry out the task of “appropriate simplification” (Hilgartner 1990) in order to bridge this gap between scientists and everyone else but one could never argue that a non-specialist journalist would be up to this challenge.
Franklin bemoans a new paradigm with a horrible dichotomy: as science becomes more pervasive in mainstream media it is being written less and less by science writers or reporters and “much of it, as a result, is grossly inaccurate if not in fact then in tone, play, and context” (Bauer and Bucchi 2007, pp.151).
I think it is quite literally tragic to see such a good science writer question the concept of his profession. He says that he was no more a science writer than Ernest Hemingway could be called a war writer but I think this is profoundly untrue.
He speaks sadly of the oil and water nature of scientists versus the rest of the us as described by C.P. Snow but he must realise that the good science journalism endeavours to create an emulsion without clouding our vision.
Science journalists must write about the human condition because science is part of what makes civilisation and humanity what it is but science journalism is also the art of fusing two cultures, of being on the outside while wearing two caps. It is about having the same respect for data as the scientist while delivering the news intact to all those whose appetite and wonder for new discoveries drive them towards the science pages of the newspaper or science websites.
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