Science Friday: Things I’ve Learned about Science Journalism this Month


Shutterstock: http://tinyurl.com/lmqphtg.

Shutterstock: http://tinyurl.com/lmqphtg.

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.

Flickr, by jensjeppe.

Flickr, by jensjeppe.

“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)! 


3 Responses to “Science Friday: Things I’ve Learned about Science Journalism this Month”

  1. Gary_Riccio Reply | Permalink

    First, I admit my bias (smile). Thank you, Paige, for sharing such thoughts on our show and elaborating on them so clearly in this post as you always do.

    "Let’s bring both our readers and our sources into the ongoing critical conversation that is science journalism at its best."

    I believe this leads to a radical proposition: a broader definition of scientific community--that includes people who aren't scientists but are stakeholders in scientific inquiry--suggesting that at least some outsiders (readers) are necessary in a similarly broader conception of peer review and the attendant assurance of scientific quality.

    If we are ever going to figure out how to utilize such a diverse community of science, at large, I believe intermediaries such as third-party science communicators will be necessary. I also believe scientific communication will have to change what it reports about, especially to the extent that it seeks to include.

    To date, science in the public eye almost exclusively focuses on outcomes, that is, results that audiences typically interpret as claims about immutable facts and either accept blindly or react to with more firmly entrenched nonscientific opinions. We need to share momentary outcomes of scientific inquiry but we should be mindful that mere outcomes generally divide and alienate unnecessarily.

    We will need to communicate about scientific inquiry itself. Science communicators will have to capture the life of science so that some outsiders can enjoy both the opportunity for influence on the inquiry and a feeling of responsible for it, or at least its relevance. Now that would be a story.

    • Paige Brown Jarreau Reply | Permalink

      Gary, thanks for the feedback!

      I love your final proposition:

      "We will need to communicate about scientific inquiry itself. Science communicators will have to capture the life of science so that some outsiders can enjoy both the opportunity for influence on the inquiry and a feeling of responsibility for it, or at least its relevance. Now that would be a story."

      I think that is precisely what some newer outlets for long-form science journalism are trying to do, and what science bloggers have been fantastic at - writing about the PROCESS of science and getting readers involved in that process. I think we really need to invest ourselves in this idea, and the idea of involving readers not just in the process of science, but in the process of science storytelling.

  2. Gary_Riccio Reply | Permalink

    An interesting but imperfect step might be to convince funding agencies (e.g., NIH, NSF) to provide incentives to Principle Investigators who include somewhat independent science communicators, in funded positions, on their team.

    The problem, of course, would be conflict of interest but I think that could be managed through some sort of disclosure about the scope of the relationship with the investigative team and the broader context for it, perhaps something like what is done in endnotes of articles in some medical journals.

    Or, perhaps even more of a reach, would be for science communicators to work directly for the funding agencies. It seems that this could have a big bang for the buck given the infinitesimal slice of the grant budget it would require.

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