Monday, 17 August 2009

In a land far, far away: the future of science journalism

So far I’ve discussed some of the problems facing science and health journalism. Here is one more that I’ve touched on but not gone into depth on, and it’s pretty crucial.

Alok Jha says: “Unfortunately science is basically the direct opposite of news, which is short, sharp, to the point, and science is incredibly the opposite of that, if you invert all those values. Now, which one is correct? Which one is wrong? Well, neither are. But to be honest, when you’re trying to shoehorn science into the news, it’s not the happiest of fits.”

According to Nick Davies, the particular problems faced by science journalism are that science is complicated and subtle, and the ‘news factory’ likes simple and clear stories. So, it struggles to get in the news, especially versus popular sports and celeb stories. Stories can get ‘distorted’ in the process of making them simple and sexing them up with an angle for the readers.

So science and news aren’t a match made in heaven. That’s a given. But, always liking to leave things on a positive note, I asked myself, and a whole host of very busy journalists, what possible solutions to the challenges faces by science journalism are?

Nick Davies pinged over: “In principle, it would help to have more specialist science writers, who would have a better grip on the underlying material and, therefore, be better placed to convert it into journalism. The trouble is that that costs money, which is precisely what is missing in newsrooms at the moment...” That’s why people such as myself are forking out a truckload of cash to get the training off our own backs.

Anyway, sounds pretty depressing. Not into feeling depressed, so here are some rays of light:

Critics, we like you

Criticism of science journalism is very healthy at the moment, which can maybe keep journalists and editors on their toes. For example, I do think for the most part coverage of swine flu has been pretty responsible. Of course there have been disagreements over that, but it’s just my general impression.

Blogging and tweeting

Jha says that some science blogs are brilliant, such as Ed Yong’s, who was poached to write for the Guardian’s science blog: “He’s just very measured, and his blog is great. He’s good at critical analyses. He complains now and then [about media coverage of science] but I don’t think he feels particularly superior to anyone.”

Jha says that one crucial difference between journalism and blogging is that bloggers tell the story they want to tell and journalists write with the audience in mind, and tell other people’s stories.  “Neither approach is necessarily better than the other,” he says. “They're just different. We're going to need both.” An example of the two can work in synthesis is how blogs informing journalism by putting their very specific and specialist knowledge out there, rather than just commenting on reporter’s groundwork – although criticism is sometimes vital, too, as I mentioned above.

As well as the internet, social media is finding a place in the dissemination of science journalism. Rowan Hooper, news editor of, says that New Scientist uses Twitter (@newscientist) to alert over 28,000 followers of stories on the website, and also as a “news gathering-tool… being able to see, real-time, what’s going on in the world.”

How can you get followed by @newscientist? Probably by being a scientist. Hooper would like to see more scientists tweeting, and says: “It would get really interesting because if scientists can talk directly to people they don’t go through journalists or even journals in the way that they used to – and then the game really changes. You’re not going to get much data out there in 140 characters, but they can make assertions, for sure. We’d check those out like we would any statement from scientists. I think it’s all healthy and interesting and a good way of getting information out there”.


Pondering on our chat about the future of not just science journalism but journalism as a whole, Jha tells me that he thinks that the role of the journalist will be streamlined as a reaction to bloggers and citizen journalists. “We'll be a leaner industry, probably more specialised and perhaps more professional. When you have a million sources of information online, how d’you know which to trust? Perhaps journalists will be the trusted guides, weighing things up, checking sources, guiding us to the most valuable information.” 

I can see his point. With the proliferation of all kinds of information sources it is tricky to sift the nourishing stuff from the useless, baseless, beige stuff - this is why good journalism in any form will become even more important in the future. However, ideally, journalists should already be doing this job, in my opinion, but I can see how that doesn’t reflect reality. I wonder how this specialisation will come to pass while journalists continue to churn and all the other multitude of journalistic sins? And where will the money come from? 

Or perhaps it is just a case of the cream rises to the top of the bloodbath, with the best journalists naturally being the best journalists because they specialise - and they're the ones that have work and so have a voice. 

Non-profit agencies

In Flat Earth News, Nick Davies talks about a non-profit investigative news service in the US that is successful. I don’t remember its name right now but here is a list. But, surely this model could be replicated for other specialist, time-consuming and butt-kicking work such as a specialist science agency?

Specialist sources

We’ve been talking mainly about the science journalism in the mainstream media. Hooper reckons that: “The way newspapers work it's often not the science journalists, who set the tone of a story so much as the subeditors and news editors who take a story and put their own spin on it. It makes a strong case for relying on specialist outlets such as New Scientist!” Good plug. But I do love the New Scientist, so I’ll let it go.

Another option, less to do with journalism, but more a kind of raising of science consciousness among the masses, is this:

A science literate society

Journalism cannot be held solely to blame for people’s misinformation. Jha says that journalism’s purpose is not only to educate, but to be interesting and entertaining and relevant, so people should rely other sources. For example, their education, and state information such as the swine flu website (when it’s not busy crashing). The pressured state of our newsrooms also shifts some responsibility for learning critical analysis onto the audience. Good luck with that, everybody.

Jha says that on that fundamental basis he agrees with Goldacre: ‘He [Goldacre] rails on journalists because they are a soft target, I think, when really what he wants is a more science-literate society.’

*** Next blog on how we achieve a more science literate society!


  1. Alok’s point about journalists talking to audiences and bloggers writing what they want to write is interesting. I’d argue that, should they have a mind to do so, bloggers are in a much stronger position for tailoring their content to the needs of their audiences. These wee comment boxes provide direct access to bespoke feedback on your writing; they’re great for trying to understand if you’ve been clear, what message people have taken away from your words, and so on.

    Of course, all this is predicated on the assumption that the journalist/blogger distinction actually exists. And as I, and you, and many others are showing, that’s increasingly becoming a false dichotomy.

    Nice posts btw.

  2. Also, you might find some of the stuff here interesting:

  3. Thanks for your support Ed! It's really interesting that the dichotomy between bloggers and journalists is rapidly falling away. And I will have a proper read of your science journ blogposts this week.


  4. Here via Twitter (SmallCasserole)

    Not sure I'd make a distinction between blogging and journalism either. Are journalists bloggers who've convinced someone in advance that their writings are worth money? Not meaning to sound rude there!

    As a scientist a lot of conventional reporting is frustrating because so much data is missing. For example, apparently 1800 jobs are to go from Network Rail but since it wasn't reported how many worked for Network Rail in the first place I don't know if this is disaster or not. Similarly, someone may announce that quantity X is now higher than in year Y and may be the highest it's ever been. Cause for concern perhaps, but often not because if you go and look on the web for underlying data you find quantity X fluctuations enormously with no rhyme or reason, or the data has only been collected at two time points, or the collection method has changed utterly.

    Maybe what we really need is more scientific thinking in all journalism.

    (This, by the way, is a dynastic rant - I'm fairly sure my dad wrote a similar letter to the Telegraph some 30 or so years ago.)

  5. Good luck with your MA, it's nice to see such eagerness to network with scientists, and clearly you've been doing a lot of thoughtful pre-MA introspection on your understanding of the issues in science reporting. Hopefully useful information can flow both ways.