The latest issue of Research*EU, the European Union’s research magazine, contains a special report on science journalism. In his editorial, Michel Claessens states that when it comes to reporting on science, the conditions are not present to encourage investigative journalism. Read his full editorial below and tell us: is investigative journalism underdeveloped in the field of science journalism? And if so, what could and/or should be done to encourage its development?
This issue opens with the first European Forum on Science Journalism, held in Barcelona (see special report p.6). Although scientists often speak of a “necessary” cooperation with journalists, essential to my mind is the “distance” between them. A distance that guarantees the independence and critical analysis of the media that the general public needs if they are to be able to form their own opinion. Investigation, the primary characteristic of a quality press, is also a democratic requirement in the field of science. All research is based on choices and brings implications that must be clearly stated and openly faced.
Yet the conditions are not present to encourage this investigative journalism. First, because researchers often regard journalists as spokespersons. Secondly, because the system does not encourage criticism of studies published by researchers: how can a journalist, even a “science” journalist, begin to call into question the operating mode and postulates validated by the leading scientific authorities?
The leading international journals and the press services of research organisations have become professional communication bodies that control a large proportion of information. Stamped with the scientific establishment’s seal of approval and disseminated under embargo, the press releases are often relayed as such by the media. How, given these conditions and the time available, is it possible to conduct an in-depth investigation into the hypotheses, options and choices of researchers? The vast scientific production, the hyper-fragmentation of research fields and the precarious status of science journalists – the highest level of freelancers in any section of the press – are all factors that limit investigation, encourage mere announcement and institutionalise information. What is more, the information increasingly often concerns a research project or component that is already completed. Information on research in progress and science that is not being commercially exploited remains vary patchy.