Sharing News Is Not the Same Thing as Journalism
Inspiration doesn’t always strike when it’s convenient. I often get ideas for blog posts while swimming laps, doing the dishes or am otherwise prevented from writing down an outline of the idea while it is fresh in my mind. As a result, my pockets are often filled with crumpled pieces of paper on which I’ve scribbled whatever (occasionally mysterious) fragments I can remember of what I thought was a good idea.
I recently ran across a weathered post-it note on which I’d written “Am I a news source?” I have no idea what spurred me to write that down, but I decided to explore the question. The answer, I think, is both yes and no.
Am I a news source? Yes. I am a science writer at a university, and I write about new research findings. It’s my job to push out information about recent or forthcoming journal articles, in hopes that other people will find them interesting or useful. So, assuming that some of the people who read what I write weren’t already familiar with the relevant journal article, I am providing them with science news.
I often do the same thing in my capacity as a blogger*, writing about new (or not so new) research findings or events that are relevant to the science communication community. The act of sharing information (occasionally even timely information), makes me a news source. That seems fairly straightforward, right?
But am I a news source? No.
If you are equating news with journalism, I don’t fit the bill. I’m not a journalist. Much of what I write for this blog consists of my opinions, and opinions do not equal journalism (in my opinion). As a SciLogs blogger, I’m more like a columnist (which I also do not equate with journalism).
And when I’m at my day job, wearing my PIO hat, I am definitely not a journalist. I do my best to be honest in everything I write, but I only tell one side of the story. I may read a journal article and interview its authors before writing a news release or university blog post, but I don’t contact other experts in the field at other universities. I write about research being done at my university because I am paid by the university to promote that research. For a journalist, that would be an unacceptable conflict of interest. For a PIO, that’s the job description.
I know a lot of reporters. Some of them like me and trust me. That’s great. None of them would ever accept what I tell them about new research at face value. They need to do some homework. Talk to sources. They need to figure out for themselves what the research might mean. That’s what makes them good reporters.
There are certain subjects that crop up repeatedly in scicomm circles. One that drives me nuts is whether we “need” science reporters any more, implying that the news content produced by research institutions can stand on its own. Forgive the coarse language, but I think that’s bullshit.
I’ve written about this before (and at greater length), but one perk of writing this blog is that it allows me to harp on things I think are important. Journalists sort through all of the announcements, releases and journal articles that come out every day in order to help us identify (and amplify) what’s important. And given the dizzying amount of information most of us receive on a daily basis, we need good journalists now more than ever.
*Note: I want to make sure there is no confusion on this – I am not making a distinction between bloggers and journalists. There are bloggers who are clearly journalists, such as Carl Zimmer or Ed Yong. I am simply saying that, in my role as a blogger, I would not call myself a journalist.