Science Journalism: Cheerleaders and critics

Image Credit: David Bradley Science Writer – http://www.sciencebase.com

As a fledgling science journalist, I attended the UK Conference of Science Journalists in the hope of getting practical advice on how to start out in this intimidating field. Scribbling notes furiously in all the sessions, making sure I had quoted everyone accurately, and keeping up with the relentless stream of tweets made it a hectic day. However, one particular theme made me pause for thought.

Speaking in the session on uncovering scientific misconduct, Virginia Barbour from COPE advised science journalists to be “a critical friend… not just a critic”. This echoed the keynote speech in which Jay Rosen called for a “vigorous press”, as well as endorsing Peter Aldhous from New Scientist’s investigative approach. In Rosen’s words, “If you don’t have an independent press, you have nothing.” Connie St Louis, chair of the ABSW, also touched on this idea, saying that science journalists can no longer act as “mouthpieces” for scientists. But it made me wonder if independence and criticism must always go hand-in-hand, and whether it is possible for those taking their first steps in the field to be ‘critical friends’.

In a recent internship interview, I was told that science journalism relies heavily on good sources and contacts. So at a time when I’m still trying to build relationships with scientists, can I really afford to be a critical friend? After all, which of us actively keeps in touch with a friend who spends all their time criticising us?

Perhaps my reluctance to criticise stems from being trained more as a science communicator than as a science journalist. Connie St Louis distinguished between the two camps in the plenary session, where she claimed that science communicators often acted more like “cheerleaders”, and science journalists needed to occupy more of a “dignified space” by being investigative. This was in sharp contrast to Evan Davis, who claimed that journalists prize exposing over explaining. He argued that scepticism was highly valued because it allows the sceptic to feel self-important, resulting in “negativity about everything”, which may lead to a “bias against doing things”.

William Cullerne-Brown from Research Fortnight had a different view, describing science journalists as “good students” who dutifully carry “tablets of wisdom down to the masses”. In Cullerne-Brown’s eyes, more back story is needed, reinforcing Rosen’s earlier message that every writer “should tell you where he’s coming from before he tells you what he knows”. However, Rosen took a dislike to the “elites and masses” model he had seen used throughout the conference, claiming that certain journalistic rules exist solely to maintain traditional hierarchies in the newsroom. He agreed with Davis that journalists should not be primarily concerned with investigating misconduct: instead, the focus should be on promoting accountability.

The scientific misconduct session centred heavily around the idea of accountability, with Connie St Louis stating that there is “not enough journalism around it”. However, this may be a result of “more ignorance than evil”, with Barbour saying that journalists should help to “improve scientific conduct” rather than focusing on “uncovering scientific misconduct”.

It’s clear that there are many roles a science writer can fill, besides Aldhous’ investigative journalism and Davis’ explanatory reporting. Rosen suggested that important knowledge is “unevenly distributed around the world”, so perhaps journalism can be more about collating and curating. However, journalists must do more than just collecting opinions: Felicity Mellor warned about “false balance” in the BBC Trust Review session, emphasising the need for journalists to scrutinise science by assessing its limitations, uncertainties and funding sources.

So how should a budding journalist win friends and influence scientists? Evan Davis’ suggestion of explanation seems the most sensible option, perhaps with Mellor’s level of scrutiny. But Aldhous’ advice on improving scientific conduct seems the most appropriate: don’t be so trusting and ask the right questions.

***

Siobhan Chan is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London.


You can read more of her writing about the UKCSJ here: http://www.ukcsj.org/news/the-bbc-trust-review-one-year-on.html  and here: http://www.ukcsj.org/news/science-does-not-punch-its-weight-in-the-newsroom.html

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