Are you a science journalist or a science communicator?
For people outside the science communication sphere, this question might seem like an exercise in splitting hairs, but for those of us whose day-to-day lives are embedded in this arena, it’s actually quite important.
However it can be difficult to find clear, unassailable points of distinction that distinguish science journalists from science communicators. Is it who’s paying? Is it the determination of an underlying message? These seem like obvious answers but the often strong underlying agendas of publishing companies make things less clear-cut.
And so it was that we (being the Australian Science Communicators NSW branch) recently assembled a crack team of science journalists and science communicators to help find the answer. Our panel event featured ABC Science editor and journalist Dr Anna Salleh, Regional Executive Editor at Nature Publishing Group Stephen Pincock, media/communications manager for the UNSW Faculty of Science Deborah Smith, and former Sydney Morning Herald science editor Nicky Phillips, now at Nature.
It turns out that the intersection between science journalism and science communication is complex and messy and –particularly in this new era of online media –more important to debate than ever.
The reason is that science journalism – being defined as the kind of ‘objective’, critical reporting and analysis that our panel is most experienced in – is on the decline, at least in the mainstream media. There are fewer dedicated science journalists and editors, and instead the job of writing about science and scientific discoveries is often given to general reporters.
This is not to say these people don’t do a good job, but it means there’s a greater risk that a science story will be a rehashed press release, will be sensationalised, will be click-bait, because the reporter doesn’t have the experience to know that a study in ten people is not the final word, that a cancer cure in mice does not translate to a breakthrough in humans, or that a fifty per cent increase in relative risk does not mean everyone has a one in two chance of getting the disease.
What we are seeing instead is a lot more good quality, well-written science communication going on. Defining exactly how this differs from science journalism is tricky, but science communication covers everything from the Neil Degrasse Tysons and Derek Mullers of this world to the I F**king Love Science website to science blogs to podcasts like Science Vs.
We’re also seeing research organisations investing more time and money into producing high-quality communications about their science. It may be a glossy, self-produced magazine produced by a custom publishing company, written by journalists, illustrated with professional photographs. Even mainstream publishing companies such as Nature Publishing Group are providing that service independent of their traditional publishing arm.
This rise in ‘native content’ – advertising content designed to match its publishing surroundings – does create some dilemmas both for publishers and journalists. If the content is not clearly marked as being paid for, it risks diluting the publisher’s brand, which means publishers like Nature take a very ‘church and state’ approach to their traditional and custom publishing arms. For journalists, particularly freelances, it can lead to conflicts of interest if one is asked to write a critical news piece about a research organisation that one also writes content for.
More than ever before, there is a wealth and diversity of great science communication happening, mostly online but also in print, audio and on TV, by experienced science communicators who present the science in context and in proportion.
From the perspective of a more science-literate community – something I wholeheartedly support – this is an overall positive development. As a freelance writer, it is also the source of a good chunk of my income, as research organisations look to science journalists to help develop this content to appeal to a general audience.
The downside to this transition away from science journalism to science communication is that we are likely to see less of the critical, independent reporting and analysis that science – as with any other human endeavour – should be subject to. It still happens in science magazines such as Science, Nature, New Scientist, Scientific American and Cosmos (long may they survive and thrive). But here again, the internet is delivering new approaches that don’t rely on the traditional publishing model, such as the Retraction Watch website.
I’ve been asked a few times lately if science journalism is dying in Australia. The short answer is ‘no’. The long answer is that it’s not dying, but it is undergoing a metamorphosis. What will emerge on the other side of this process is anyone’s guess. Most likely we will see a far a greater diversity of science communication choices available for the general public, but like all things internet, the challenge will be sifting the gold from the dross.
If you want to see the video of our science journalism vs science communication panel, watch it here.