Archive for the ‘Science and the Media’ Category

Cheerleader or watchdog? The purpose of science journalism

Friday, July 6th, 2012

Too many science journalists are credulous acolytes, merely translating the pronouncements of researchers for the lay reader instead of holding scientists to account. This charge, levelled at journalists during the final session of the UK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ) in London last week, might come as a surprise to many researchers. After all, isn’t it the media’s job to educate the public about science? Well, no, it isn’t. At least, not in the way many scientists think it is.

When I tell scientists this, their faces often drop, as if I’ve just confirmed their worst fears about journalists being feckless science-manglers and hype-mongers. Hang on, though. Of course science journalists want their readers to learn something from the articles they write. But there are two main reasons why they don’t see themselves as science educators, and understanding these reasons can help researchers avoid some of the tension that often exists between scientists and journalists.

The first reason is one of approach. Science journalists have busy, distracted readers/listeners/viewers whose attention they have to earn and hold. Our job is to inform our audiences about science stories that are of interest to them, not educate them about things that are of interest to the scientist whose work we are reporting.

The second reason is that journalists should not be mere mouthpieces for scientists: we are not PR agents. A journalist’s job is to evaluate information objectively and put it into context for their audience. So as well as talking to a scientist about his or her new research paper, a journalist will usually also consult experts in that field of science, to get their opinions on the paper, its impact on that area of research and what it all means for the journalist’s audience.

Some journalists go further: they seek to uncover scientific misconduct and fraud. Thanks to their efforts, several  high-profile cases of falsified data or unethical behaviour have been exposed. This is investigative science journalism, and it aims to hold researchers, companies and institutions to account.

The debate at the UKCSJ centred on the fact that there seems to be far more “explanatory” science journalism in the media than investigative work. Is this because many science journalists are former scientists and hence too close to the subject? Or are newspapers, magazines and broadcasters unwilling to invest the considerable amounts of time and money needed? Is the UK’s restrictive libel law partly to blame?

This matters, because investigative science journalism defends the public interest when science’s own quality-control mechanisms–peer review and replication–fall short. If scientists feel uncomfortable about journalists doing this kind of work, it’s worth remembering that it also serves the interests of science, by acting as another, independent check on researchers’ activities and raising important questions about how science is done.

Claire Ainsworth