Science journalists on science journalism

Scientists often blame science journalists for being superficial and being sensationalists. But how do science journalists themselves look at their jobs, and at science journalism in general? Is it true that the main thing they want is to score with their stories? Or do they prefer balanced, in-depth reporting, that can arguably be more boring for the general public? And what’s the judgement of science information officers, who’s job it is to try and make sure information about their university or institution reaches the media as much as possible?

This was the theme of a joint meeting of the Dutch societies for science journalism and science information officers last September. In preparation of this meeting an online survey was held amongst the members of both societies to see where individual members stood within this theme of scoring versus in-depth reporting. The response of the questionnaire was quite high: eighty out of the approximately four hundred members responded, half of them journalists, half public information officers, with an even spread amongst different age groups. The survey consisted of 25 statements; respondents could indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with each of them.

The first somewhat surprising outcome of the survey was that half of the science journalists thought science journalism in The Netherlands is often too superficial. As much as eighty percent said they are often annoyed by the way general journalists report on science. Fellow science journalists also don’t get away that easily: little over half of the journalists claimed they are also often annoyed by the work of their colleagues.

Differently from what you might expect, Dutch science information officers are more positive about science journalism in The Netherlands. They judge the reporting of both general journalists and science journalists more positively. Also, they are friendlier towards their colleagues: while a majority of the science journalists think that science information officers don’t report critical enough on the organisations they work for, and that they too often only pick the easy subjects for their press releases, science information officers themselves tend to disagree with these claims.

Another surprising outcome was that quite a few of the Dutch science journalists admitted that they don’t always practice balanced reporting. Almost a quarter of the respondents who work as journalists said they don’t always report on the different sides of a story, or call other scientists to ask what they think about a certain subject. Eight percent of the journalists always check whether news they report really is newsworthy, with another almost twenty percent responding ‘neutral’ to this question. And even though most science journalists said that they do point out possible flaws in the research they report on to their audience, half the journalists also admitted that they sometimes omit information that could weaken the central message they are communicating.

A possible explanation for the fact that not all science journalists practice balanced reporting is that a lot of the respondents indicate they’re often working under too much time pressure. And it seems this feeling of too much pressure increases with age: this was the only question in the survey where there was a clear distinction in response between different age groups. Of the youngest science journalists (as well as science information officers), little over forty percent indicated that they often can’t do their job as well as they want to because of time pressure. This number increases to more than sixty percent for those older than 45.