Thursday, 8 April 2010

Investigative science journalism

One of the big, important topics covered in the Science Media Centre's
report on science journalism for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), was the plight of investigative science reporting. Here's an extract, below.

One concern that was raised repeatedly by commentators on science journalism including academics and even one journal editor was the domination of the news agenda by stories from the weekly science and medical journals. Curt Supplee45, a former science reporter in the US claims that 60-70% of the weekly quota of science stories comes straight from the pages of four or five big journals including Science,

Nature, the BMJ and the Lancet which he described as ‘a pretty dumb way to cover science from the public’s perspective’. Another commentator said that we need to ‘challenge the stranglehold of medical journals which are essentially setting the agenda of science with very little challenge’. Some linked this trend to the absence of any tradition of investigative journalism within science writing and others argued that science journalists tend to ‘go native’ and refrain from asking scientists the really tough questions.

You get the picture - and it ain't pretty. My favourite solution suggested by the report is a 'Before the headlines' service for time-strapped journalists feeding analysis, context and so on to them before the event that they churn out another story based on a press release. This idea came from the popular 'Behind the headlines' service from NHS Choices. Check it out for evidence-based blazing of media stories.

Other possible solutions are funding investigations or training with the non-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism and funding for month-long investigation fellowships. Also the report looked the the 64 million Dollar question: how else are we going to fund investigations into health, technology, the environment etc?

Putting questions to the pros

So, I was at the City University debate on whether science in the media was "In rude or ailing health?". Actually it turned into a bit of a spat about the (it seems) age-old blogger vs journalist argument. My favourite comment of all time was Ed Yong comparing the blogger/journalist debate with the film The Titanic - it is tedious and never ends up going anywhere (please forgive the paraphrasing, Ed). There are a couple of blogs that covered the City debate here at Chalk and Cheese by Charlotte King and here at A Life of Pi by Harriet Vickers. The hashtag was #scimedia for those that want to check out comments and links to more blogs on Twitter.

The other exciting thing was that Fiona Fox announced £77,000 to go towards training journalists in science, hoping to improve newsroom science literacy.

I thought that although the debate was very entertaining, it did seem to miss any sensible opinion on the future of funding investigative science journalism – not just critical analysis, which should be par for course. So I thought I'd straw poll the panelists on what kind of solutions they would favour for future funding.

Fiona Fox from the SMC said a lot of interesting things, as follows:

"In the States it’s all philanthropy and Pro Publica their model is brilliant – they take money from philanthropists but they also work jointly with papers on investigations [who pay them]."

The problem with this, as Fiona admitted to me, is that we haven't the same history with philanthropists digging into their pockets for journalism in this country. She is seeking to reverse this by lobbying science minister Lord Drayson to divert some science prize funds towards science journalism.

Two other solutions she's in favour of are gaining institution funding:

"I think as long as there are really strong protective walls between the funding and the journalism why not in The States the National Science Foundation funds all kinds of journalistic ventures but it doesn’t have editorial control".

And also research council funding:

"It’s not automatically corrupt. The BBC is funded by the government but I see no evidence that the government interfers in the day to day business of the BBC – why can’t we look at some of these models?"
Andrew Jack of the Financial Times said he was for encouraging investigative journalism within media organisations, but also for more "external stimuli", such as awards for science reporting. He also sees a future for: "institutions, whether academic or non-profitboth be funding directly in some form, either through their own resources or funding scholarships."

Ed Yong agrees that Pro Publica and also, which describes itself a a community-powered journalism, are possible funding models for the future. He cites the case of Lindsay Hoshaw's New York Times story on the garbage patch as a success story, funded by donors on the site on the basis of Lindsay's pitch. Here is how it worked, and see below to hear about it it Lindsay's words.

However, Ed highlights this is tentative: "if anyone knew the answer of how to fund... [investigative journalism], then I wouldn’t be sitting here being interviewed I’d be sitting at home getting massaged by Rupert Murdoch." Fair point.

The Economist's Natasha Loder is also tentative about the BIJ and as possible ways forward as she thinks there are possible costs incurred to organisations who might take on investigative work in terms of fact-checking and legal risks, but are a good idea on the whole to cure what she calls "inefficient" science journalism:
"If you could only get a handful a week of new and novel and original stories, funded by a different source, you can immediately diversify what’s being published."
However, Natasha says her favourite idea is for the ABSW to give month-long fellowships to reporters to produce investigative work. I wonder whether this will apply to freelancers too or only the small handfuls of science specialists already employed full-time by organisations? Hmmmm. When Natasha pointed out there were only 80-odd staff positions in the UK it made a lot of us MA science journalism and sci comms ponder and scratch our heads. Heigh-ho: here's to the future, here's to new funding models and entrepreneurialism.


  1. SUPER post.

    I love the idea of fellowships (been chatting about them at IC for a while) but scratch my head over how they'd actually end up working/ being funded.

    Obviously, UK Sci Com'n has the Wellcome Trust, and they are great. But they also skew things rather biomedically. Not everyone loves them either, I just happily find I tend to agree with a lot of what they say (the IC Sci Com'n mafia: great when you're on their side...)

    Personally, I'm not sure about the (USA?) model of philanthropic support of rich donors. It doesn't work for museums (I've JUST blogged on this issue, re a really interesting controversy at the Smithonian - I'll edited it to add a ref to this post). The gov funding model isn't necessarily all that better either. Well, IMO it should be, but you have to trust the government and the process by which you elect them, though Fox makes good points about the BBC... Maybe type models are the way to go, maybe not.

    Mmmmm, more head scratching I suppose.

  2. I also love the idea of fellowships - but one month? I have a friend who works at Sky and his investigations can take 3-6 months each. Wow the luxury.

  3. Great article!
    I thought maybe this could be of interest. Since February there now exists in Germany a very special opportunity to get money for science journalistic research projects – via the Initiative Wissenschaftsjournalismus.
    For the following projects so called ad-hoc-scholarships at a value up to a maximum amount of 10.000 € (sic!) each can be requested:
    „- Innovative approaches & conversions of complex science topics
    - Research stays in science institutes world-wide,
    - Searches on socio-politically relevant questions of the sciences,
    - investigative searches“
    Well I don’t know how many of such scholarships they can finance, but it sounds amazing.

  4. To be honest I don't see a problem with a lot of science news coming via a few of the big journals, it's probably a fair guide as to what is new and *may* be important. It's very possible that something more important is hidden away in a less high profile journal but working out what is going to be tricky.

    Where reporting falls down for me, particularly on medical stories is the context isn't supplied. So for example, there was a big fuss this week about 5-a-day reducing cancer incidence by a relatively small amount but failing almost completely to report other benefits for the 5-a-day message or where this original advice came from.

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