Do science journalists work too hard?

Thank God for the invention of blogging! Its arrival on the science reporting scene means that there was something to say at last night’s Royal Institution debate on science and science journalism that would not have been possible in the 1990s.

Despite this welcome innovation, talked up by such expert bloggers as Ed Yong, most of the debate was about such antique topics as whether science journalists should read more journal papers. This position was put with emphasis by a scientist from Oxford. I wonder what her area of knowledge is? Imagine she is a a particle physicist. How comfortable will she be with a paper on the effects of climate change on leaf fall from the forests of the Taiga? Obviously there will be times when a journalist looks at the paper. But it’s bound to be a specific and rare event.

Another big theme was the work pressure to which science reporters are subject. If the people making this point were to read some of the newspapers they criticise, they would see that the UK is in an economic mess and that its newspapers are suffering from falling circulations and ad revenues. So the idea that the people who work there can ease off is a little improbable.

Also out in force were the fantasists who want reporters to become feature writers, penning a small number of long articles in which the full beauty of their findings can be laid before a waiting world. Let’s say it again. Journalism exists for the readers, not for the people being written about. It also has to fit into the newspaper, programme, web site etc of which it forms part. You cannot have 900-word pieces on science when everything else is 300 words long.

More to the point as ever were the thoughts of Fiona Fox from the Science Media Centre, who rightly points out that the amount and quality of science journalism in the UK has grown in recent years. Oh, and she spoke sensibly about the idiotic demonisation of

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the Daily Mail that tends to kick in at events like this one.

We were also reminded that whatever the merits of blogging, old media retain the prestige. One scientist blogger went out of his way to tell us that he had been interviewed by BBC icon John Humphries.

And another thing. The Royal Institution has put Michael Faraday’s desk (used to be on the UK £20 note) into storage, and brings it out only on special occasions. Instead the historic lecture theatre last night had a lectern that must have cost £50 at Staples and which would have looked tatty in a Premier Inn conference room.

Finally, big applause to the Guardian for supporting this fun evening and to Alok Jha for curating it.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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