Why science journalism is a vale of tears

Next Tuesday, some of the world’s finest minds will descend on the Royal Institution in London to contemplate this question.

Here is my take on the matter, as someone who has done a lot of science journalism but has not been terribly active in the area of late.

There are the ten things you have to know about science journalism. Digest these and you will be a leading expert and potential commentator on the matter.

One. This subject has been chewed over at massive length. Space precludes my listing all the reports, committees and so on that have looked at UK science journalism, let alone at science journalism elsewhere. For example, the BBC Trust had Steve Jones (splendid man from the Wirral and a Reith lecturer) produce a lengthy analysis of its science coverage. It has not done the same for its coverage of ballet or banking. There has even been talk of the Leveson inquiry having a look at science journalism.

Two. The main drivers of this obsessive interest are scientists.

Business executives, sports people, politicians etc etc all realise that the media exists in its own right and does its own things for its own reasons. The late Enoch Powell (younger or non-UK readers may not recall this controversial figure) said that a politician complaining about the media was like a fish complaining about the sea.

Scientists are for the most part unable to grasp this truth. They think that media are there to transmit their findings to a waiting public. While some of them have realised their mistake here, more have not.

Three. Governments are also pretty unhelpful. They are convinced that science is a key to economic growth, nice new jobs and other good things. They are right about this. But in Europe, Japan and elsewhere, they tend to support initiatives to increase science reporting that views science in a positive light and which, ideally, encourages people to become scientists. In fact. people who know more about science may decide that it is a bad thing and that society ought to do less of it.

Four. Science journalists are complicit in this error.

Immense efforts have been made to make the profession of science journalism a real and respected one, right the way back to the founding of the National Association of Science Writers (1934), the Association of British Science Writers (1947) and the World Federation of Science Journalists (2002). In common with the progress path for other professions, there are now many degrees in science journalism, mostly at Master’s level.

Despite this, many science journalists persist in regarding themselves as adjuncts to and promoters of science. Many, including me, have scientific qualifications and have been scientists at some point. It is common to see them mention their PhD on business cards or email signatures. This is not a qualification in journalism. It’s a bit like a Michelin-star chef telling us that he or she has GCSE biology. Until we get more assertive about science journalism as a serious profession, why would anyone else take us seriously?

Five. There is in fact lots of science journalism around. In the UK, the longest-running TV programme apart from the News is about science. There is a major newsstand weekly magazine on the subject, plus many others on everything from astronomy to archaeology. True, science has suffered from the reduced paginations of national newspapers, as has everything else from sport to TV. But there is still plenty left. (One of my favourite bits is in the FT weekly magazine.) There is a vast wealth of good science on British TV and radio, and science has, as one might expect, become a prominent user of new media. If nothing else, why has The Times launched Eureka at a time of generally shrinking newspapers? Crisis, what crisis?

Six. This does not happen by accident. This coverage is there because it brings in readers, viewers and listeners. Space weather, the Higgs Boson, climate change: these are all news, and news editors know that people want to know about them. On that theme, it is wrong to suggest that people want to read about science that affects their lives in some material way. Dinosaurs and cosmology are more attractive news stories than new materials or electric cars.

Seven. Scientists have a strong interest in accuracy and worry that the reporting of their life’s work will be inaccurate. This fear is drivel, as a Texas University study by Brad Schaeffer has shown for astronomy coverage. (Must be true, it was in Sky and Telescope.)

Eight. “Scientists” and “the public” are not distinct groups. A study of New York Times coverage shows that papers with more media mentions get cited more (don’t worry, it has proper experimental method). Except in their specialist area, scientists find out about things by the same channels as the rest of us. Even within them, they understandably like newspaper articles as well as journal articles. (Must be true, it was in the NEJM.)

Nine. Despite their fears, scientists who deal with the media find it an enjoyable part of their working lives as well as a useful one. (Must be true, it was in Science.)

Ten. This stuff matters. Science journalism is the most important job on Earth apart from the one held by Kenny Dalglish. Science is astonishingly important for the understanding it gives us of the world,and for the way it changes the world. People who don’t get the beautiful and satisfying picture it reveals cannot engage with new technology, climate change, population growth and other key issues. They are cannon fodder for homoeopathy, creationism and astrology. And they miss out on one of the highest achievements of this astounding species we all belong to. Along with teachers, science journalists are the clearest channel for bringing this fulfilling and enabling knowledge to the human race.

OK, any questions?

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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