Helen Jaques: Measuring the health of science journalism

Helen JaquesLast week I attended an event on the state of science journalism called “Science in the media: rude or ailing health?”  Rather than a discussion on how science is being reported in the media, the debate thrashed out the role of mainstream science journalism compared with blogs and other forms of science communication.

The aim was to discuss a report by the Science Media Centre: Science and the Media: Securing the Future. Encouragingly, the working group “found more reason to champion specialist science reporting in the UK than to despair” and “judged science in the media to be in rude health.” Nevertheless, the report makes recommendations for improving areas such as scientific training, science broadcasting, openness and transparency, and future science journalism.

The report didn’ t involve a full public consultation so last week’ s debate was a chance for other interested parties to comment. On the panel were Natasha Loder, science and technology correspondent for the Economist,
Andrew Jack, pharmaceuticals correspondent for the Financial Times, Ed Yong, author of the blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, and Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre and author of the report.

Fiona Fox started off the event by outlining the findings of the report – overall, the state of science journalism is good. The public has a huge appetite for stories on science, and plenty of good journalism is around to feed it. Also, editors now often defer to science reporters on specialist stories. However, science journalism is being affected by changes in the wider world of media: “Journalism is in crisis and the business model is collapsing.”

The debate then moved to the panel, with Andrew Jack starting. He thought that science journalism is in good health, and echoed the sentiment that there is a crisis structurally in the media, not just in science coverage.

Natasha Loder agreed and then raised the issue of whether “direct to the public” outreach, such as that conducted by charities or bloggers, constitutes journalism. She thought that journalists and groups that communicate directly to the public all take part in “truth telling,” so there’ s no point getting fixated on the title “journalist.”

Not surprisingly, blogger Ed Yong also thought that journalism alone wasn’ t the media, mainstream media was just a channel, one of many available now. In fact, as far as he was concerned we’ re going through a “Cambrian explosion” of science journalism, with lots of new “species – means of communication – coming out of the woodwork.

Yong’ s comments sparked a lengthy debate on whether blogging and other forms of science communication outside of the mass media counted as journalism. The report itself deliberately omitted “the explosion of direct to the public science communication by way of websites, blogging, tweeting, etc” in favour of “science communicated through journalism in mainstream media settings,” suggesting that the experts who contributed to the report, most of whom are entrenched in the traditional media, think not.

Fiona Fox conceded that there is a “new ecosystem,” but resolutely does not believe that blogs should be considered journalism. She thought that journalists were needed to help public sort the wheat from chaff of information – that the role of the journalist was to provide objective standards. The more “noise” there is on the web, the more we need objective journalists to navigate and filter the material. Andrew Jack agreed and pointed out that journalists are trained to be objective, whereas blogs grew out of opinion writing.

Ed Yong countered that blogs had been stereotyped as being opinion not journalism. Natasha Loder made another point against traditional media: no-one can be objective. As a journalist at the Economist, for example, she was subject to the political leanings, editorial decisions, and other social stances of her organisation.

The difference between journalism and blogging seems to be objectivity, but then the issue of credibility was brought up. Yong suggested that traditional media sources aren’ t as reliable or accountable as those online: bloggers link to their sources whereas journalists don’ t.

People’ s agendas were pretty transparent during this “blogs versus broadsheets” debate. Those who had made their careers in the mainstream media tried to defend the exalted position of journalists in the new science media ecosystem, whereas those who worked online argued that other approaches should also be considered journalism.

One of the more open minded voices from the traditional media was that of the Guardian’ s science and environment correspondent Alok Jha. He cited Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger‘ s  Hugh Cudlipp lecture, in which Rusbridger talked about “mutualisation” of the media.

The mainstream media could be communicating with the audience on social media such as Twitter. Journalists would still be needed as “gatekeepers,” guiding audiences to interesting arguments and writing. In science communication, the mass media can direct people who aren’ t into science towards science blogs, as vice versa.

As far as I’ m concerned, whether blogs “count” as science journalism is a bit of a moot point. Anyone interested in science and science communication should just care about getting information out in a clear and accurate way; the medium on which they do so isn’ t so important.

So, is science in the media in ailing or rude health? Science in mainstream media is suffering thanks not to shortcomings of professional journalists and reporting but as a result of wider changes in the media. Other forms of science coverage, mostly online, are thriving. Overall, science in the media seems fine and science communication seems to be growing exponentially thanks to the internet.

You can follow comment from a wide range of attendees at the event by looking up the hashtag #scimedia on Twitter.

Helen Jaques is a technical editor for the BMJ.