Who are the science journalists?

By Ed Yong | January 1, 2010 12:00 pm

At Science Online 2010, due to begin in a few weeks, I will be chairing a panel of veteran bloggers/journalists in a discussion on rebooting science journalism in the age of the web. Joining me will be Carl Zimmer, John Timmer and David Dobbs. We’ll be chatting about how science journalism and science journalists will survive in the new media ecosystem, which traits are adaptive in this environment, and which are not. Dave’s already got the ball rolling with some thought-provoking posts on the topic and over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be doing the same. This first post will go back to basics and try to understand who exactly these pesky science journalists are in the first place…

Science journalists: depending on who you ask, they are either the unsung heroes of science outreach, or the villains of the piece with blood on their hands. Much of this debate hinges on qualifying exactly who counts as a science journalist in the first place. This is a semantic argument but an important one – where you draw the line affects how you perceive the successes and the failures of those on either side of it.

In response to criticisms, I have noted many people in the field diverting responsibility to others. The distilled version of this defence is that science journalism is work that’s done by people who cover science beats for major news organisations. This excludes, for example, reporting about health (often regarded and billed as a separate speciality) or reporting that deals with scientific issues but is penned by interloping journalists from different beats.

Take the MMR debacle, which has become known as an exemplar of terrible science journalism. At the World Conference of Science Journalists, David Derbyshire from the Daily Mail said that the farrago was mainly the fault of political journalists who latched onto the story. Similarly, Alok Jha from the Guardian ascribes the poorest writing about MMR to lifestyle journalists. According to this viewpoint, science journalism is the oeuvre of those who are specifically assigned to write about science. But this seems like a slightly odd and antiquated definition, for several reasons:

  • Journalists often switch beats. While many are specialist reporters with the expertise and experience needed to critically analyse a given area, others are drafted in from different disciplines and increasingly so as jobs are lost. The same lifestyle and political journos who are viewed as today’s interlopers might be tomorrow’s science correspondents.
  • Science is culture. Stories don’t always fit nicely into the compartments that media organisations decide to place their news into. New technologies and discoveries will increasingly blur the boundaries between areas like politics and science, which is why columnists from other fields are increasingly being brought in to comment on matters of science.
  • It doesn’t matter to readers. The name and title on the byline hardly matters to readers or the general public perception of science. You could argue that a news outlet’s contribution to science journalism is everything within its pages with a scientific element, regardless of who writes it.
  • It’s very old media. The playing field has changed. Anyone can pick up a keyboard and communicate to the entire world about science. It’s not just the province of those who are specifically paid to do it and the amateurs are increasingly producing excellent examples of journalism (more on this later).

All this being said, I do understand why many science journalists demarcate their field in this way. It must be very galling for the high-quality ones (and there are plenty) to receive criticism intended for others who are lowering the average. It’s the same vitriol I feel when people describe bloggers as little more than tantrum-throwers given airtime.

If the mainstream media is guilty of overly narrowing the definition of a science journalist, then those outside it are perhaps equally guilty of being too taxonomically lax. Take the recent case of Matt Wedel, a palaeontologist who was mercilessly misquoted by documentary-makers for the programme Clash of the Dinosaurs. As correctly pointed out in one of the comments on Brian’s blog, TV production crews are distinct from journalists. Not everyone who writes or broadcasts about science inevitably becomes a science journalist.

But the answer is not to retreat behind arbitrary boundaries based on job title. The thing that people seem to have forgotten is that journalism is a set of ideals and methods rather than a loose collection of job descriptions.

Fiona Fox of the UK’s Science Media Centre has described it as “a common set of standards including selection, investigation, truth-telling, independence, editing, accuracy, balance, scrutiny, objectivity and so on.” The Elements of Journalism defines a similar list of truth-telling, loyalty to citizens, verification, independence, acting as a watchdog and providing a forum for criticism. It speaks of news as interesting, relevant, proportional and comprehensive.

Indeed, there is plenty of excellent science reporting out there, but equally a large amount that fulfils very few of these values. There is rampant churnalism, a dearth of fact-checking, misguided attempts at balance at the cost of accuracy. On the other hand, there is plenty of work from non-traditional sources that does espouse these values, including the writings of many freelance science writers and working scientists (and many of the so-called elements of journalism are elements of good scientific practice too).

If you play out this taxonomic game, you quickly see that many people who ostensibly work in science journalism produce work that is nothing of the sort. Likewise, amateurs who wouldn’t classify themselves as science journalists, actually ought to count.

The world of science journalism is becoming wider and arguably more prolific. In the online era, when the tools of production are cheap and available to all, the lines separating journalists from other communicators is getting increasingly blurry. I have argued before that the distinction between science bloggers and science journalists is an unhelpful one and I stand by that.

To me, science journalism will be increasingly defined by its values rather than by its practitioners. The journalistic value of a writer or a piece of writing will be determined on a more individual basis rather than because of their job title or where they work.

As Jay Rosen points out, “Journalism is not the media… We got into the habit of calling journalism the “news media,” and then just “the media.” Journalism and the system that carries it became equated.”



Comments (17)

  1. Just to point out that sections, e.g., World, Nation, Metro, Fashion, Art, Science, Sports, etc, make sense only in the context of a physical newspaper. If a Google search, or a link on a blog, takes me to an article in Guardian that has to do something with science, I have no idea (nor interest) in which artificial “section” it is. It is in the Guardian and that’s all that counts (for now). And that’s how I judge it. “But it’s in the Fashion section” is not a valid excuse any more.

  2. Many years ago, Douglas Adams wrote that the problem is not realizing that not everything online is trustworthy, but that for so many years so many people unquestioningly trusted what was in the media (print, radio, TV).
    The internal newsroom division into News and Editorial, which is so important to the people inside the business, is not recognized by most of the audience who are not even aware of the distinction. When the Web started exposing the untruths in the media, a frequent response was “but that is on the op-ed page!” to which people scratched their heads “What does that mean? What are you trying to say – that you print stuff that you don’t stand behind? Really? Seriously?” Further “section” subdivision are even more outdated and useless.
    For most of the people, media is media, supposed to tell the Truth. Thus, most people see no distinction between journalism and infotainment. Both appear on TV screens, right? They should both be trustworthy, right? Who still differentiates between network TV and cable TV anyway? Between what is supposed to be news and what is supposed to be entertainment?
    Once in a comment at Intersection (when it was still here at Sb) I told Mooney that he is not a science beat reporter but a science writer and that the distinction is important. He strongly disagreed. Journalists take pride in the title of “journalist” no matter how they (or we) define it.

  3. Two other thoughts that i expect will find a place during our discussion:
    Given the cutbacks in most media outlets, more and more coverage of stories with a science element will be done by nonspecialists. That will make the “it’s someone else’s failure” excuse for bad science coverage, which you highlight at top, ever more untenable. Excusing bad coverage because it was done by nonspecialists will eventually lead to us tolerating garbage for the vast majority of science news.
    The loss of people with science backgrounds in newsrooms will have a spillover affect on basic factual accuracy. So, for example, some time after CNN cut its entire science staff, it ran a fluff story on bats in which the author called them rodents. I’m pretty sure if CNN had anyone with any biology background available to them, they could have prevented that sort of basic error.

  4. Something wrong with part of the David Dobbs link, I think.

  5. Ed Yong

    Link fixed… thoughts on comments to follow.

  6. Well-encapsulated, Ed. I’m looking forward to the session.
    I have to echo Ed’s first point and John’s comment: newsroom cutbacks necessitate that reporters cover multiple beats. Even in our own science and technology-intensive area of the US, I believe we have a grand total of two dedicated science & health reporters across our papers, mags, and public radio stations. Even interns from the sci/med journalism grad program with which I am associated have to be prepared to cover hog races and car chases while also interviewing docs and scientists at Duke or UNC.
    However, I also view these cutbacks as endemic to our general demise of fact-based news coverage, especially in the US.
    I’ll also speak here for myself as a science blogger, above and beyond our shared goal to increase public understanding of science. I agree in part that the distinction between science bloggers and science journalists is not always helpful. However, I *need* real science journalists. Most of my content comes from my specialized commentary and insights on sci/med stories written by my favorite journalists. Very, very few of us can devote the time to enterprise reporting, intensive fact-checking, and synthesis that can folks like Zimmer, Timmer, Dobbs, and Yong because of the other stuff we call our day jobs that pays our bills. Sure, many of us will write about peer-reviewed papers in our areas of expertise but much of my writing is derivative (although insightful, I hope). Hence, bloggers like me have a vested interest in true science journalism being a viable career path.
    So, while I don’t expect us to join hands and sing Kumbaya at ScienceOnline2010, I doubt that fistfights will break out.

  7. Ed Yong

    Great points everyone and thanks for the comments.
    Bora – it’s worth pointing out that a lot of papers aren’t as demarcated as you say. Most of the UK ones have no specific science page – just science stories interspersed among the rest, just like they would appear to someone reaching a website through search. It makes the labelling of science journalism as stories written by science beat reporters even more false. Where I think we probably disagree is that I think people should take pride in the title of journalist – I merely think that only a certain proportion of people actually deserve the title.
    John – I agree that non-specialist errors will be even more detrimental as cutbacks continue. I’ve got a post coming up in this series that will hopefully deal with the issue of specialist knowledge in science journalism.
    Abel – I agree entirely that there is a need for “real science journalists” with the sorts of skill sets and abilities that you describe. The big question for me is whether the internet age will select for such individuals, or simply the sort of non-specialist, error-prone writing that John described. Again, more to come in future posts.

  8. Sarosh Motivala

    I work in an area of science that is particularly vulnerable to tricky media coverage. I study sleep, stress and physical health. I think that increased dialog between journalists and scientists is important in putting our work out there in ways that are “digestible” for the casual reader, but also nuanced enough to avoid trivial “take home messages”.

  9. Ablex

    Those people who blame the MMR issue on journalists are, in my view, lazy opportunists who are as guilty themselves of spreading misinformation (for money) as those they criticise.
    The MMR issue was founded on scientific fraud, the basis of which no journalist could have got at without the most extraordinary efforts.
    After a relatively painless search, I found one who appears to have devoted that effort.
    Is this bad science journalism, or in fact, did journalists (eventually) excel in this field?

  10. To agree (I think) with your conclusion I don’t find the question of who is or isn’t a science journalist to be useful. We no more need to debate who is or isn’t a science journalist to improve science writing than we need to debate who is or isn’t a musician to improve the standards of musicianship.

  11. Ed Yong

    Brian Deer is an exceptional investigative journalist and a key player (if not, the key player) in exposing the scientific fraud behind the MMR debacle. I’ve heard him speak – the man’s full of champion stuff. His is the sort of reporting that we need good science journalists for. But Deer’s excellence lies in stark contrast to a legion of other journalists who have repeatedly fanned the flames of the MMR debate, transforming it from a case of scientific fraud into one of the worst cock-ups of the last decade.
    I take your point though – MMRgate is actually a case study for the best and worst that science journalism has to offer.

  12. What do you think the future holds for science communication in general? I think traditional media (esp. Newspapers) have a limited life, eventually to be over-run by bloggers and online content. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but how are you supposed to make a career about communicating science when people are giving it away for free?
    Not that I’m against free content – power to the people for sure.

  13. Michael Kenward

    “I work in an area of science that is particularly vulnerable to tricky media coverage. I study sleep, stress and physical health.”

    It is also an area of science that is particularly vulnerable to manipulation by scientists in search of their next research grant. I have seen that happen many times.

    … traditional media (esp. Newspapers) have a limited life, eventually to be over-run by bloggers and online content.

    I have yet to read a blogger who reports on science rather than opinioneering. There is a difference.

    … how are you supposed to make a career about communicating science when people are giving it away for free?

    With difficulty. We live in an era of vested interests, untrammelled by an editor’s hand, either those of the bloggers or those of the people who, like Futurity, feed the web with free stuff. that is pure self promotion.

    Oh yes, another crime against humanity that bloggers perpetrate is crappy writing. The real loss in the decline of print media is decent editing. I will refrain from picking to pieces the examples that appear here and, sadly, in most print media, where subeditors are a thing of the past.

  14. I have yet to read a blogger who reports on science rather than opinioneering. There is a difference.

    You need to read more. Either that or explain what makes 99 percent of this blog (and many others) “opinioneering.”

    another crime against humanity that bloggers perpetrate is crappy writing

    Again, I suspect you’re not spending much time reading blogs, or you’re not seeking out the best the blogosphere has to offer. There are many well-written ones (again, such as this one). Yes, of course there are bad examples of writing in the blogosphere. You are under no obligation to read them.

  15. Michael Kenward

    “Stories don’t always fit nicely into the compartments that media organisations decide to place their news into.”

    Unravel that one!

    the general public perception of science

    A missing possessive, or at least a comma, in there somewhere. It took years for me to realise that you need sub-editors. I knew how to write.

    I am still prepared to learn. Indeed, that’s the best bit of the job. Every day you learn something new.

  16. Ed Yong

    Perhaps you could start by learning how to piece together a coherent argument in a comment. Hell, I’d even settle for having an argument in the first place. But perhaps that would take the fun out of acting as an inept provocateur.
    Apparently, the most important part of this debate is the punctuation. If that’s the case, it behooves me to point out that the final line of the third paragraph in comment 13 is missing a capital letter. This is known as Muphry’s Law. See? You do learn something new every day.

  17. João Costa

    Some interesting data on European science journalists: http://ciberjornalismo.com/pontomedia/Granado2008.pdf


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