Who are the science journalists?

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.”