I have to confess I always used to have a rather romanticised view of science journalism. I thought finding a good science story might involve leisurely chats with scientists over coffee or just popping in to the nearest lab to find out what’s going on. It turns out, for the most part, I was wrong.
So where do science stories come from? To find out, I looked at 108 science news stories published in October across nine major UK national newspapers and analysed their likely origins. I found that 90% of them almost certainly originated either from a press release or a Press Association article. The Press Association (PA) provides news content to UK media organisations; subscribers are free to use this content in a variety of ways including simply publishing an exact copy of a PA article in their newspaper.
Does it really matter that the majority of science stories come from either press releases or PA material? Most of the big scientific journals do send press releases to major news outlets so in theory scientists’ work should still be getting reported. However, an awful lot of research doesn’t get press released and with over a million peer reviewed papers published every year there must be loads of interesting discoveries that are slipping through the journalistic net. Another issue with relying on press releases as the main source of science news is one of viewpoint. A press release from a journal or research institution will naturally reflect the views of the original researchers and/or the journal or institution. By relying too heavily on press releases as the only source of our science news we miss out on other sides to the story – was the research conducted in a robust way? Are the conclusions of the researchers actually realistic?
Because of this I wanted to see if newspaper journalists were actually seeking out alternative viewpoints for their articles. I took a closer look at ten major science stories reported over a one week period. I found that only 18.5% of these stories contained a viewpoint other than that of the original researchers. I also found a staggering 50% of articles contained no new information over and above what could be found in the press release or PA article. Therefore in half of the stories I looked at it appeared that the journalist had just rehashed the information they had been given without adding anything new to it. This is known in the trade as ‘churnalism,’ where writers unquestioningly churn out stories from press releases and the PA.
So why don’t newspaper journalists bother to investigate what they are writing about? I suspect the answer is a lack of time and resources; modern news teams are getting smaller but the amount of content they are expected to produce is ever growing. In his excellent book Flat Earth News investigative journalist Nick Davies identifies this very problem. He found that between 1985 and 2005 the number of newspaper staff fell but the amount of editorial space that they were expected to fill had actually trebled. It is easy to see how good science journalism starts to become impossible under these conditions. Where is the time to get the alternative point of view or even to actually speak to the scientists that conducted the research?
Thankfully not all science reporting is suffering the same fate; the internet – free from most of the restraints newspapers face – does seem to offer a real opportunity to explore the hidden gems of scientific discovery. Biomedical Picture of the Day is a good example of how amazing science can be brought out into the public domain instead of gathering dust in a journal read by only a few specialists. BPoD publishes a daily image from the world of biomedical research along with a summary of the discovery or the science behind the image. This allows the public to see compelling research regardless of whether it ever actually makes it into a press release or not.
The internet also allows publication of science stories that may not always fit into a traditional print or television news agenda. For example Sci Dev Net focuses on reporting science news relevant to global development, a topic which usually gets very little mainstream media attention.
So maybe the internet also gives me some room for my romanticised view of science journalism, I just need to set up a blog called, ‘Chatting With Scientists Over Coffee.’Ellen Meek is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London. Image Credit: Graham Holliday (via Flickr)