Who needs science journalists anyway?

Thank you to Bianca Nogrady for this piece!

According to this report from Undark magazine, the National Association of Science Writers in the US is experiencing an all-too-familiar existential crisis; who exactly are they?

Unlike the ASC – which accepts executive and council members from across the broad church that is science communication and science journalism – positions on NASW’s board are limited to professional journalists.

But that looks set to change with the recommendation from an ad-hoc committee that the executive be opened up to science writers and ‘public information officers’ (who we call science communicators).

Many science journalists within NASW appear to oppose the move, while the majority of science communicators and PIOs are in favour.

This tension exists within the ASC as well. The organisation was founded by a mixed group of science journalists and science communication professionals, and we share a common passion for the communication of, and about, science.

But, as has been discussed a lot lately [see this video of last year’s ASC NSW event on this very topic] , science journalists and science communicators are different creatures, with different and sometimes competing agendas. If we try to play down these differences or pretend they don’t exist, we risk making the ASC irrelevant to one or another of those groups.

There’s no doubt science journalism is on the back foot in Australia, if not the world. We have very few dedicated science reporters in the mainstream media and most of the science journalism is being done by freelance journalists who also derive income as science writers and communicators. It’s worth pointing out that not many of these in-house or freelance journalists are ASC members; something we’re working to change. Cosmos magazine is fighting the good fight to keep long-form science journalism alive in print, but as we heard at the recent ASC conference in Brisbane, it’s a tough battle.

So why should the majority of ASC members, who define themselves as science communicators, care about the fate of science journalists, either within the ASC or outside it?

Because now, more than ever, we need to support, encourage and nurture science journalism in Australia. Who else would be in a position to uncover our own government’s censorship of international reports on the state of the Great Barrier Reef [http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/29/australia-covered-up-un-climate-change-fears-for-tasmania-forests-and-kakadu], report on scientific fraud, or get the general public caring about gravitational waves? Science journalists bring science – warts and all – to the general public.

The rift within the NASW is raising the prospect that science journalists will desert that body en masse and form their own organisation. The fact that they have the numbers to even contemplate this is probably only a factor of the sheer population size of the US. In Australia, such an organisation would be dwarfed by the Flat Earth Society or Trump Supporters For Climate Change.

Some might argue that journalists have the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance –the union and peak body for journalists  – so why don’t science journalists stick with that?

Speaking personally; I’d say because it’s boring. At ASC meetings, and get-togethers with fellow science journos/writers/communicators, I have the kind of conversations that leave my brain buzzing for days. As a science journalist, I have so much more in common with someone who works as a PIO for a research organisation than I do with a journalist who works in-house for a metropolitan daily covering the court round.

Science journalists, like science communicators, do what they do because they are drawn to science. Whether they see themselves as a cheer squad, critic or impartial witness, it’s about science.

The Australian Science Communicators was named as such to make it as inclusive as possible. I hope we can keep it that way.

More from Bianca (Freelance science journalist and author):


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