Last month I attended an interesting and lively discussion at the City University about science journalism. On my way home I opened the book I was reading at the time and saw the the following:

In the world of financial reporting, the normal journalistic mandate to undertake critical investigations and objectively report findings to the readers appears not to apply. Instead the most successful rogue is applauded… and all remaining trust in journalists as a corps of professionals is being compromised.

The book was Stieg Larsson’s novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in which the leading character is an investigative financial journalist. It made me realise that the “journalism is failing” meme that I had just been hearing about is not specific to the science arena.
The event I attended was Science in the Media: Rude or Ailing Health? I read recently that when a headline ends with a question mark the answer is always no. That rule doesn’t quite work with this question, but I think the answer is probably “no” anyway ;-). The discussion took the form of brief presentations from four well-known figures followed by questions from the floor. The speakers were Fiona Fox (Science Media Centre), Andrew Jack (FT), Natasha Loder (Economist) and Ed Yong (CRUK and also a prolific blogger). The floor comprised a range of people from the media and blogging world(s), plus journalism students from the City University. You can view a video of the proceedings or read a succinct account by Helen Jacques. The event was a follow-up to and commentary on the recent (Jan 2010) Science and the Media Report ‘Securing the Future’ that was released by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The focus of discussion meandered a little and so led us into the old familiar journalism versus blogging argument.
Julius Weinberg, acting vice-chancellor of City University, introduced the event, stating that one purpose of a University was to facilitate open and courteous debate and allow difficult discussions to take place. Judging by the blog and Twitter responses to this event he can be happy that this certainly difficult discussion has been very open, though perhaps not 100% courteous.
Fiona Fox kicked things off, highlighting the large number of science stories in the press and the respect that specialist science journalists now command but also drawing attention to the economic pressures that newspapers face and the consequent quality issues. The report made several sensible recommendations – notably in the area of training for journalists.
The other speakers broadly welcomed the report, though Andrew Jack found its approach too ‘top-down’, and wanted the views of readers to be better represented. Natasha Loder suggested that journalism was about ‘truthtelling’ and said that she welcomed the arrival of bloggers and others into the game. She suggested that disintermediation is coming to journalism.
Ed Yong picked up the batonn from Natasha and criticised the narrow scope of the report, particularly its omission of ‘new media’ where so much was going on. He suggested the report describes the present rather than the future. Fiona Fox explained that this was a limitation imposed by BIS, as there was a separate group that had looked at new media.
Fiona then said that she agreed with Ed Yong, but in the same breath insisted that bloggers were not journalists. She has reiterated this view here. I can see that she is very determined to defend the professionalism of journalists but in doing so she oversimplifies. There are good and bad blog posts; there are good and bad pieces of journalism. There are bloggers who are commissioned to write for newspapers (e.g. Ed Yong); there are journalists who write blogs (e.g. Natasha Loder and Andrew Jack). There is no hard and fast line between the two. Many bloggers have responded to Fiona’s comments, including Ed Yong, Dr Aust and MJ Robbins, mostly saying the same thing, that she has committed a category error in conflating the carrier (blog or newspaper) with the content (journalism or opinion).
It is interesting to reflect that “journalist” is literally one who writes a journal, or diary, or logbook of your life. If you put that logbook onto the web it becomes a weblog … oh wait, that’s a blog. The two words have similar roots though they now carry different connotations. Blogs and print media are linked; writers and journalists are close relations.
I think one of the problems in this discussion is the difference between general news and science news. News is “something new that affects my life”. When we read news we want to be told the story and, often, to have some further explanation of the story. Science journalists usually have to do quite a bit of explaining, and sometimes even the explanation needs an explanation! Furthermore, sometimes the news element is rather low – the impact on my life is indirect or rather remote. Hence, science news stories often seem to be mainly explanation. I think this is the role that science bloggers have shown themselves very able to take on.

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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One Response to Truthtelling

  1. Lou Woodley says:

    Thanks for this Frank and for also for providing the useful links. It’s heartening to see such topics receiving proper attention and I can see why providing training for science journalists might be one approach to ensuring consistency in science reporting.
    However, as developments in new media have shown (especially around the upcoming general election), the way that any news or events are now reported and the attention that they may subsequently receive is no longer controlled solely by “institutions” (be that newspapers or other sources) or a set of trained/accredited individuals. I think some of the key issues from now on will be ensuring that the factually accurate voices online are heard and recognised as valid and that the inaccurate ones don’t become over-prominent. I’d be interested to know what the new media group that you mentioned found and decided as a result of their studies.

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