Science Friday: Things I’ve Learned about Science Journalism this Month
This month, I’ve done a lot of reflection on science communication and the future of science journalism.
It started with a Future of Media graduate course at LSU (for which, you might have noticed, I’ve been writing weekly blog posts on new media topics), and an assignment from EMBO Reports to write a ‘Future of Science Journalism’ piece.
In the midst of all my reflections on where science communication and journalism is going, and could go, in the future, my writing apparently caught the eye of the Science in the Wild radio show. Hosts Gary Riccio and Nathan Roman had me on the show twice this month, to talk about scientists using the media to forward their research and moving the field of science journalism toward more participatory models.
In one of those interviews, for example, I spoke with Gary Riccio about the fact that in the world of science writing today, lines are blurred between journalists, bloggers, scientists and audiences. The focus of science journalism has increasingly become the quality of the content itself, and not necessarily the mode, format or process in which it is published. Science journalists today are less often full-time employed staff than entrepreneurs who tell stories about science across the web, from a New York Times article to their personal blog, from the lab to the digital news site, from social media to university research communications. In this world of science communication, the savvy audience member focuses more on the credibility of the individual journalist or blogger (Carl Zimmer, Phil Plait, Deborah Blum, Andy Revkin, so many more) than on the credibility of the traditional news site. In this world, the average audience member may have more access to science content than ever before online, but science journalism and blogging platforms (not to mention local newspapers!) struggle to pay for the content, especially in-depth, critical and investigative science journalism.
But many of the ideas I talked about in those interviews weren't my own. For a potential ‘Future of Science Journalism’ piece in EMBO Reports, I’ve interviewed Mariette DiChristina at Scientific American, Carl Zimmer at NYTimes, Bobbie Johnson at Matter, Evan Hansen – currently at Medium.com and previous editor at Wired.com, Mike Spear of Genome Alberta and Science Borealis, Dan Fagin at NYU and others.
One of the themes that kept popping up in these interviews was the value of the traditional journalist’s toolkit, if not the outdated ways that we go about publishing science news. For example, Scientific American is in many ways leading the way in trans-platform science storytelling, focusing on sharing science through as many digital tools has possible. But the magazine has always combined stories and content from scientists as well as professional science writers and science journalists, and will continue to do so.
“We find a blend is really great,” DiChristina said. “Because while it’s terrific to be trained in a particular science discipline – let’s say you have a PhD in biology – that doesn't make you capable of covering astrophysics. What makes you capable is you have a reporter’s toolkit. You know how to ask the right questions, and you know how to weave the content together into a coherent narrative. You can tell a great story, and not just in text, [but] in video or audio. The core mission is learning something and sharing that something that you learned.”
I learned from DiChristina and others that science journalism isn't dead – far from it – but traditional ways of paying for it, publishing it and ‘selling it’ may well be. I’m not sure that today, a science journalist can get away with ignoring audience input in chasing the “important” stories in science; but at the same time, popularity contests for ‘most clicks’ and page-views on science blogs aren't cutting it either. The real science journalism innovators, people like Bobbie Johnson at Matter and Mark Henderson at Mosaic, are looking to shed legacy media news production constraints while maintaining the fact-checking rigor of responsible science journalism, involve audiences in the science storytelling process, create new business models for long-form online journalism, and to create a participatory culture around the translation of science research into story.
“To me, where some of the bigger dangers lie for science journalism is in the number of blogs out there that are not necessarily good,” Mike Spear said. “Some of them are just plain bad science, some of them are science with a point of view, and if you’re the average member of the public, how do you sort that out?”
So what have I learned about the future of science journalism this month? First of all, it’s NOT dying. Second, the content and the byline have become king. Third, to keep up with the times, we have to throw out outdated production and distribution constraints in favor of quick and easy digital, mobile and social publishing for science news content that is open and participatory. Fourth, if we want to maintain the high standards of quality we’ve always sought in our science news content, we have to create communities of science writers, whether journalists or bloggers, who keep each other accountable. We have to maintain a culture around science news writing that rewards context and relevance over popularity and instant-success headlines.
But most of all, we have to acknowledge the scores upon scores of AMAZING science bloggers and scientists who are getting paid next to nothing, if that, to write passionately about science and scientific issues. We applaud you! You’ve created online environments that provide unprecedented amounts of science-related content. Now let’s get together to make sure that content is accessible, reliable, fact-checked, and generally sci-AWESOME.
“To have Upworthy and Buzzfeed and all these things actually report the truth? What a crazy concept? That’s a world we’re all frightened to even dream of, and I think that’s why we ghettoize ourselves in these blogs. We’re so terrified, because we don’t know how we’d ever get there,” says science writer Kadijah Britton.
Let’s start with a little collaboration and openness. Let’s bring both our readers and our sources into the ongoing critical conversation that is science journalism at its best.
Add your contact info or Twitter handle in the comment section below if you'd like me to send you my 'Future of Science Journalism' piece once it's published (cross-fingers)!