The Dark Side of Science Journalism?

Posted on February 7, 2010


The Dark Side of Science Journalism?

At the recent Science 2010 Online conference in North Carolina, I was co-presenting a paper and posing the somewhat contentious question “How does a journalist know which scientists to trust?” It was an attempt to outline some of the more difficult processes that the science journalist has to navigate with regard to peer-reviewed papers. During the questions afterwards the discussion moved to the question of science journalism versus science PR and communications. It became clear from the debate that ensued that science journalism has become confused with science PR and communications. They were described as having gone over to the “dark side” and with the increasing power and influence that they seem to wield in science it seems pertinent to take a moment and consider, what is science journalism? As director of the MA in science journalism at City University London I am often asked to just why do we need a MA in science journalism.

Will it teach graduate students about science? Or how to promote science? Or is it to explain complex scientific ideas and new findings? Or even to provide some form of scientific entertainment the so called “and finally” stories. My response is usually none of the above. Science journalism is simply what it says on the tin, journalism about science. As a result, much of the coverage that is called science journalism is science PR and communications masquerading as journalism. This is a dangerous moment for science journalism to be confused about its purpose.

The announcement of the charges being brought under the Theft Act of three MPs and one Lord over their expenses should be a cautionary. Whilst journalism has applauded itself on the “scoop” of the MPs scandal and celebrated the convergence of traditional and new media. The story was broken by investigative reporters who initially became suspicious after an extensive freedom of information campaign. The story was not exposed by the political ‘lobby’ journalists as it should have been, because they allowed their cosy relationships with the MPs to cloud their judgement and fail to expose the biggest political story in most recent years.

The recent ‘Climate Gate’ leaked emails story and the recent errors by the UN Climate Change Panel are in part examples of the failure of science journalism to thoroughly investigate these stories. Is it too busy trying to promote the science of climate change rather that scrutinise and rigorously question it? Journalistic robustness might leave very little room for the growing climate sceptics lobby. Science journalism needs a clear definition and vision of what it is about.“>