The future of Science Journalism

It was one of the big issues at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists: where is science journalism heading? At the first day of the conference, Ben Hammersley of Wired Magazine expressed the controversial opinion that there are simply too many science journalists. According to him, there will be a process of natural selection in the next few years, which only a few of the best science journalists will survive. Other participants were more optimistic, pointing out that even though journalism in general is in crisis, science journalism is still extremely important. Some, like Google News founderKrishna Bharat saw lots of possibilities for science journalism on the internet. Bharat talked about the revenues to be gained by media working together instead of competing, for instance by linking to each other’s stories. More detailed reports on the WCSJ sessions can be found on www.wcsjnews.org (see news -> session reviews).

But the topic ‘the future of science journalism’ wasn’t just a point of debate at the WCSJ conference. Some leading scientific journals also joined in. A month before the conference, the journal Nature Biotechnology reported on a workshop on the future of science communication & journalism, which was attended by leading science communicators from the US, UK, Canada, Germany and Australia. And in the week before to the conference, Nature magazine itself published a special issue which was partially focused on science journalism.

After briefly discussing some of the main problems of science communication and science journalism today, the article in Nature Biotechnology lists eight recommendations. But these are mainly meant for scientist and science communicators. The only two recommendations that concern science journalism are the call for journalism schools to teach students about science policy making, and the call for alternative funding (e.g. by foundations, universities or governments) to ensure quality science journalism in a perishing media environment. The authors also see possibilities for science journalism in the form of web portals offering both professionally produced content and user generated content, thereby stimulating public participation.

The special issue of Nature, dated June 25th, carries an editorial, news feature, three opinion pieces and a Q&A on science journalism. All these can be found via www.tinyurl.com/sciencejournalism. This web page hosts both articles from the special issue and some articles on science journalism from Nature’s archive.

In its editorial on science journalism, Nature calls out for scientist and scientific institutions to help proper science journalism survive. For example through learning how to best talk to journalists; by helping them gain access to information; and by helping them find the right people to comment on the subject they’re reporting on. The news feature ‘Breaking the convention?’, even though it carries the label ‘science journalism’, isn’t truly focused on journalism. It is more about the way scientists open up what happens on meetings and conferences than on the benefits and drawbacks of this newfound openness for science journalists. More interesting things, that do directly concern science journalism, are written in the opinion section.

Here, Toby Murcott, former science correspondent for the BBC, argues that science journalists today can be compared to priests. For the most part they just take information from a source of authority and communicate it to the congregation. To best serve our audiences, we as science journalists should also provide depth, context and criticism. But this isn’t easy when you are working under constant time pressure. Murcott thinks one way in which this priesthood model of science journalism can be toppled without too much effort is to report more on the process through which science is produced and reviewed. Also, Murcott asks for press officers at universities and research journals to help journalists by providing them with more background information and context on new findings they do at the moment.

Probably having witnessed some of the changes himself, Boyce Rensberger, who has been a science reporter for 32 years, writes about the way science journalists changed from cheerleaders to watchdogs during the past century. In the first half of the 20th century science journalists hailed everything scientists did. When in the ‘70’s and ‘80s it became clear that science and technology also sometimes have adverse effects and can be controversial, science reporting became increasingly critical. At the moment, so says Rensberger, we are again facing changes in the role of science journalism. These are mostly due to digitalisation. It is for instance hard for the public to see which of the numerous online sources are reliable and which aren’t. So if science journalists are to regain relevance to society, they should learn how to master new media.

At the WCSJ conference, some criticism could be heard that the focus was too much on science journalism in the Western – and especially Anglo-Saxon – part of the world. But the special issue of Nature also hosts an opinion article by Nadia El-Awady, the newly elected president of the WFSJ, who writes about science journalism in Arabic countries. The Arab world has in the past few decades seen a vast growth in the amount of scientific research being done and also in the interest in science by the audience. Science journalists have gained a fairly stable position in Arab countries. But El-Awady also sees some challenges. Quantity is not necessarily the same as quality. Science journalists are not always able to provide critical coverage of claims made by the institutions that pay them. Also, science journalists in the Arab world often have deep reverence for scientists or are working as a part-time scientist themselves. This can make it hard for them to maintain a critical perspective in their journalistic work. El-Awady argues that we should pay attention to these weaknesses; or the rise of science journalism in the Arab world may be the harbinger of its downfall.