Are Science Journalists Tough Enough?

May 1, 2009

By JAN KNIGHT

 Survey results published in July 2008 show that scientistjournalist interactions "are more frequent and smooth than previously thought," according to the survey authors.

But in a more extensive interpretation published in December, the authors suggested that the results also indicate that "science journalism is too tame, that is, that it is easily exploited by scientific sources." Most science news reports, they continued, serve science rather than "the investigative orientation that is a major journalistic quality criterion."

This may be linked to changes within the scientific community itself, the researchers explained. Scientists have become increasingly comfortable working with journalists as a way to publicize their work. In turn, scientists may be more adept at controlling science news, underscoring the need for "strong science journalism — strong in terms of resources, professionalism, and selfconfidence — in order to counterbalance the increasingly strategic orientation in scientific self-presentation" and conducted in a way that is "analytically critical, investigative, and prepared to look behind the scenes ... Beyond doubt, such science journalism exists, but it is the exception — not the norm — in many countries."

Scientists' anticipation of news coverage holds another potential drawback: It might influence decisions about their own research, including framing their research results so that they appeal to the general public, which "may mislead the public about the true character of science," the study authors stated, adding that their own survey showed this to be true.

The survey, which focused on tension between scientists and journalists, was distributed by mail in 2005 and 2006 to 1,354 biomedical scientists in France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States and garnered a 43 percent response rate.

Majorities of respondents in all countries agreed with all positive statements about their encounters with reporters and disagreed with all negative statements, a strong reversal of the common perception of scientists as strong critics of journalists. Positive statements included "Got message out to the public" and "My research was well-explained." Negative statements included "My statements were distorted," "Biased or unfair questions" and "Information was inaccurately used."

The scientists also indicated that "their own interactions with journalists [were] okay and beneficial for them," the study authors wrote, despite different expectations and other challenges inherent to communication between scientists and journalists.

Changes in science journalism — including increased training for science journalists — as well as changes in the scientific research community, including accepting communicating with the public as a "necessity and a duty," may have contributed to the respondents' positive views, according to the authors.

For more information, see two studies:

Hans Peter Peters, Dominique Brossard, Suzanne de Cheveigné, Sharon Dunwoody, Monika Kallfass, Steve Miller and Shoji Tsuchida, "Science-Media Interface: It's Time to Reconsider" in Science Communication, Volume 30, No. 2 (December 2008), pp. 266 – 276.

Hans Peter Peters, Dominique Brossard, Suzanne de Cheveigné, Sharon Dunwoody, Monika Kallfass, Steve Miller and Shoji Tsuchida, "Interactions with the Mass Media" in Science, Volume 321, Issue 5886 (July 11, 2008), pp.204-205.


Jan Knight, a former magazine editor and daily newspaper reporter, is a former assistant professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, where she continues to teach online courses in writing and environmentalcommunication.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter, SEJournal Spring, 2009 issue..

 

By JAN KNIGHT