Science journalism through the looking glass


A recent journalism conference highlighted the changing landscape of science reporting and the need for scientists to engage proactively with the media.

Professor Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, is photographed at a press conference last week following the announcement of the particle’s probable discovery. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian


On 25 June the Royal Society hosted the second UK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ), a provocative meeting that addressed a wide range of issues. As scientists attending the event, three questions struck us as especially important.

First, should science journalists focus on explaining science or on exposing misconduct? Second, should the Leveson inquiry leave journalism to regulate itself or has the press already failed that crucial test? And finally, could a kitemark provide a trust meter to help readers distinguish quality science reporting from churnalism and fiction?

Are science journalists the ‘revealers of the rotten’?

In the technical manual Ten Ways to Enrage a Science Journalist, step one advises: “Label him/her as a science ‘communicator’. To incur extra wrath, recommend cheerleading.” 

Alas such a guide doesn’t exist (yet), but in a lively session, Connie St Louis, Evan Davis, William Cullerne Bown, Jay Rosen, and Alok Jha considered whether it is OK for journalists be “explainers” of science who illuminate new discoveries, or whether real journalists are always “exposers” who challenge scientists and uncover wrongdoing. As Rosen put it, should science journalists be the “revealers of the rotten” in pursuit of heroic takedowns, or should they embrace steadier virtues? Are “explainers” second-class journalists?

As scientists we were puzzled by the implication that explaining and exposing are incompatible activities. Journalism as a whole must surely achieve both, just as science should expose flaws in existing theories while also explaining new data to peers, students, and the public.

We can already see how individual science journalists combine explaining and exposing. Science writer Ed Yong, who won a prestigious award at UKCSJ, is well known for publishing explanatory pieces alongside investigative exposés. St Louis, however, lamented the lack of investigative journalism to root out scientific fraud. Given the complexities of such frauds, unmasking them poses an ominous challenge for journalists, though it is clearly not impossible.

Written By: Chris Chambers and Petroc Sumner
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  1. I’m afraid I am deeply pessimistic about this matter.  The only way that science journalism can really work is if the readers have at least some understanding of science and how science works.  That is very far from the situation.  Science and journalism will always be in conflict because journalism is about finding a story, and the stories in science are rarely simple and almost always incomplete.  Also, journalists often look at the wrong story.  For example, when there is disagreement between supporters of the fact of global climate change and climate change deniers, journalists tend to see this as a story about scientific disagreement, whereas the real story is about motivations, about reasons for belief.

    Science can be reported on, but it’s best reported on by scientists who know how to communicate, not by journalists.

  2. One thing I’d like to see is far fewer scientists making the news when they actually have little more than an hypothesis.

  3. I also hate the “I have no idea what I have just read out” followed by the beam of pride from the news anchor when they read the news about a scientific story. Yet we will belittle them no end if they get a sports players name wrong…

  4. It seems simple enough to describe your goals, methods, tools and motivators in layman’s terms, that is, to write an abstract for various categories of dummies*. Scope and context are important. If your work is one among thousands of similar efforts, that is worth mentioning. Stating whether your work may reinforce or refute other similar efforts would also be important**. As the commenters for the Guardian article mentioned, a ‘This Means’ segment and ‘This DOES NOT mean’ segment would also be helpful. There is probably a pertinent XKCD cartoon. Use it.

    For the science journalists, the penalty for prevaricating and bloviating ought to be a session as proofreader of a gazillion charts and tables.
    * A dummy like myself, for example, is fascinated by the technology, but alas the spec’s for the state-of-the-art science machine never seem to be forthcoming.

    **The editor wants it sexed up? Nothing better than a staged duel.

  5. Journalists reporting on science should take a refresher on the scientific method…. maybe even learn it for the first time. It might also help to read Ben Goldacre’s excellent Bad Science.

  6. Journalism and science make a poor fit because, as Steve Zara points out, journalists need a hot story while the scientist is just working along in a continuum of experimentation that works or doesn’t work. Discoveries tend to be incremental, and continuously subject to amendment.
    But the public is genuinely curious about what is going on, I think, but is not up to grappling with scientific language. That is why people like Niels deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox are such stars. They manage to combine good science with flashy presentation and the public really appreciates them.

    The same can be said for Richard Dawkins, of course, though he is less flashy and more burdened by being associated with atheism rather than evolutionary biology. It’s a damned shame, too, because I really learned about evolution from him, and I wish more people would shut off their prejudice a bit and pick up The Greatest Show on Earth. One of the best Popular Science books on the market. 

    So I guess my point is, forget journalists. We need at least one scintillating communicator in each branch of science. Perhaps one might suggest Science Star as a career path or major in the universities.

  7. I agree with Steve Zara; “Science can be reported on, but it’s best reported on by scientists who know how to communicate, not by journalists.”

    The obvious question to ask is: What value do Journalists add?

    The Guardian’s column mistakes modern newspaper journalists’ search for sensationalism with integrity.  Science does not need sensationalism – even when fraud is being exposed – as this is simply too much of a diversion from the natural operations of scientists and will, if allowed to grow unchecked, become an inhibitor on scientists wishing to propose new hypotheses.

    As for journalism’s integrity … the Leveson Inquiry has, if nothing else, confirmed what many of us have suspected for some considerable time: Modern newspaper journalistic integrity is a rare accident.  No doubt the few remaining professional journalists – some of whom undoubtedly work for The Guardian – will be insulted by this characterisation.  Sort it out then.

    In addition: Science does not need journalists to uncover errors or frauds.  The scientific method finds out these things without journalists as a natural part of how scientists proceed.  Piltdown Man is one obvious example of a scientific fraud discovered and exposed by scientists – no journalist required.

    Finally: The Net.  Dis-intermediation is marching on in many areas of human endeavour.  Journalists, above all others, need to question the value they add by putting themselves between the press release, or published and peer-reviewed paper, and the Reader.

    I booked my last holiday with three providers – no Agent.  I am currently selling a property – no Agent required.  Whatever agency previously existed in journalism … assuming that it was there in the first place … is a vanishingly small, and shrinking, entity.


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