Am I a Science Journalist?

By Chris Mooney | June 23, 2011 10:10 am

It’s quite the question these days, for all of us. And it’s the subject of a panel I have organized for the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, which begins in just a few days now:

Am I a Science Journalist?

In the evolving world of science communication, how do we define a science journalist? This panel will discuss whether the venerable word “journalist” can or should be applied to some, all, or none of the new generation of science bloggers and educators who are remaking the field.

Producer/moderator

Chris Mooney, Discover; Point of Inquiry (USA)

Panelists

Ed Yong, Not Exactly Rocket Science (UK)
Moheb Costandi, Neurophilosophy (UK)
Homayoun Kheyri, freelance; BBC World Service (Australia/Iran)
Cristine Russell, Council for the Advancement of Science Writing; Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (USA)

The panelists have to figure out the “answer” to the question more than I do, but it is certainly a conundrum, when almost nobody has a staff job at a publication any longer. Do all science bloggers count as science journalists? The thought gives me pause–I don’t think all of them practice the norms of journalism, though some clearly do.

I know and practice the norms, meanwhile, but many things that I do professionally–like science communication work and training–clearly aren’t journalism. Everybody is piecing it together in different ways. Maybe the problem is that the concept of “journalism” partly bears the stamp of an era that’s behind us.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Announcements, Media and Science

Comments (13)

  1. Johnny

    Chris, “journalism” in the 20th century context has became obsolete.

    The scarcity of communication resources defined information dissemination business models. These business models employed “journalists” as part of the supply chain of information.

    There is no longer any communication resource scarcity. Therefore there is no longer any need for a separate profession of “journalist”. Anyone can be a publisher, and can hire anyone as a journalist.

    In today’s marketplace of ideas, its the words that count, not the writer. Google doesn’t care if you are a Knight Science Journalism Fellow or a crackpot in a uni-bomber shack. Google only cares about what you write, not how important of a writer you are.

    You have the top text on this page, and I have the bottom. That makes me as much a journalist as you.

  2. Elmar Veerman

    Wrong,Johnny. I don’t trust you, but I do trust Chris. He has a last name and a reputation.

  3. Francisco Dasi

    I think the key question to answer is “are we talking about journalism?”.
    Of course, anyone can write and publish in a blog but that does not make you a journalist.

  4. I wrote a few times now —in my main language, French— that the main factor that is under-estimated in all those discussions about “journalists vs. bloggers”, is the paycheck. Because the paycheck is what guarantee that somebody will follow his or her issues on a regular and a long term basis, and will be able to take the time to build a story. While, actually, most of the bloggers have an other job, which has the huge disadvantage that they are blogging when they have the time.

    If all paid science journalists were somewhat replaced by unpaid science bloggers, would we not have lost something important? I think so.

    Of course, one could reply that one day, many scientists bloggers will be paid too, by medias. That’s what I think. And when that day will come, nothing will differentiate them from journalists.

  5. Chris Mooney

    @4 no the standards of conduct may still separate them from journalists. most bloggers don’t follow the same norms, I would say–indeed, even trained journalists follow different norms when blogging.

  6. Chris Mooney

    I’m sorry too Bora. yeah, that read seems essential

  7. @ Chris, well, those standards of conduct are variable since they are neither laws neither mandatory. So, some journalists are following them, some are not, and you will find trade magazines, regional weeklies and even right-wing television programs, where people are called journalists, even if they are following a “line” that would be considered unprofessional in other medias.

    A columnist is also very much like a blogger: different “norms”. And yet, nobody would deny that a journalist is still a journalist when he’s writing a column.

    I am not suggesting that any teenager blogger can be named “journalists”. On the other hand, I firmly believe that not any journalists in the “traditional” medias could be qualified as journalists, if there were stricter, mandatory, rules. That’s why I am not sure the right way of thinking is to try to talk about this by norms: since the media landscape is evolving, norms are evolving too. We just don’t know how for the moment.

  8. Chris Mooney

    Well….as I think more about this….

    we can define a journalist in several ways.

    1. we can define a journalist as a practitioner of certain norms–accuracy, balance, at least two sources before running a claim, etc. whether bloggers fit is questionable–they have norms (cf bora’s link) but they aren’t necessarily the same norms.

    2. we can define a journalist by paycheck–do you work for a clearly recognized journalistic organization? here, bloggers often don’t qualify, but sometimes they do.

    I *don’t* think having an opinion, vs trying to be objective, gets anywhere, due to the columnist/blogger comparison. I am often acting as an opinion journalist but I’ve never felt that makes me a non-journalist.

  9. Yes of course, for me too, journalist is all that you are saying in 1). But in the end, what is the use of those definitions that we see popping up here and there since years? Would you be in favour of some kind of a law that would give to journalists who would adhere to those norms some kind of legal status? (and bloggers could apply to) If so, who would give this status? I am sure you see what kind of huge problems would arise…

    Even if we were only using those norms for ourselves, let’s say with, in our journalist’s minds, the goal to help bloggers do a better job, in what way would that help? Would this change something in the behavior of scientists bloggers you and I already consider good ones?

    Which brings me back to the paycheck. I do not think this would define good or bad journalists, but only that it would help some bloggers to keep writing in the long term (and this is a fact that, I feel, has been systematically under-estimated in the last 10 years). I sense that one day, some mainstream medias will pay scientists bloggers just as they are paying today experts columnists.

    And that day, well, nothing will continue to separate journalists from bloggers. Because, as you say, even today, writing an opinion piece doesn’t transform the journalist in something else.

  10. I’m wondering whether the trickiness of determining who is/isn’t a science journalist is because what we recognise as science journalism has shifted.

    My guess is that journalists and scientists would say that what counts as journalism hasn’t changed. The process and the output is the same, regardless of the format it’s presented in.

    However it’d seem fair if the general public tend to disagree. We’ve been hit with a one-two punch; the blurring of the line between news and opinion in traditional media, plus the online flood of new media.

    Beyond infotainment, we are still wanting investigative journalism and knowledgable experts to help us seperate the facts from the fluff. It’s unclear who will get there first, established news organisations, or new media outlets?

  11. Question “what is an act of journalism” is more productive than the question “who is a journalist”. Journalist can be anyone at the moment he/she commits an act of journalism.

  12. Yes Bora, but even that distinction does not bring us very far. Anybody who want to call itself a journalist can do it, it has always been that way in the countries where there has no official press card (like US and Canada). The question is: why somebody want to call itself a journalist? Pride? Fine with me. To have some privileges? Like having access to some places? It’s to the organizer to decide. Or like having some privileges given by law? A lot of journalist associations have tried this one since decades, without much success.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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