How to tell a journo from a spin doctor: an ASC list discussion

Thank you to Jarrod Green for preparing this summary of the ASC list discussion. 

It is one of the most enduring debates in the field of communication: where do the boundaries lie between journalism, PR and other communication roles? The ASC is the latest to tackle this thorny demarcation problem through a discussion on the ASC email list and calls for further debate at the next ASC conference in February.

The recent ASC list discussion shows how differentiating between communication professions can become deeply entangled with questions of independence, ethics and bias.

Best practice journalism was distinguished early in the discussion by its critical and independent stance. Summarising a SciLogs post by Matt Shipman, ASC member Arwen Cross pointed out that sharing news from a single source is not journalism. Good journalists draw on multiple sources and independent experts.  This distinction was supported in the ASC discussion, though members also observed that mainstream journalism often fails to cover science with a critical voice, illustrating that independence doesn’t guarantee investigative reporting.

Pointing to articles by David Carr and Jack Shafer respectively, ASC members Bianca Nogrady and Sarah Keenihan highlighted the tension that can exist between journalism and activism, bringing into question the feasibility (or even the desirability) of totally impartial journalism. Nogrady argued that a pro-science outlook does not diminish the effectiveness of a journalist or their capacity to ask the hard questions.

However, the (im)partiality of journalists was only a minor theme in the ASC discussion compared to the question of bias in other communication professions. One of the most debated topics was whether institutional affiliation necessitates bias. Some ASC members argued that bias (especially spin) is the hallmark of PR and should never be a feature of good journalism or communication. ASC member Jo Finlay argued that science should always be reported honestly and accurately, irrespective of your employer.

Other members highlighted what they saw as the inevitability of bias, emphasising instead the importance of transparency and consistency with audience expectations.  ASC member Adam Barclay wondered whether “communicator” may just be a term used by PR practitioners to “spin” their own job description. Members like Barclay were not troubled by the possibility of biased elements in their work so long as the bias was consistent with their values and ethics. They would sooner leave a job than push a message that they don’t support.

However, for ASC member Niall Byrne, communication professions are distinguished in the first instance by the source of their paycheck and only secondarily by judgments of ethics or bias.

“[If] you’re funded by the subject of your writing (in the broadest sense) it’s not journalism,” he said.

So far discussion has been framed largely in terms of writing for the media, though as ASC Acting President Claire Harris illustrated in her post, science communication covers a broad range of engagement and knowledge brokering activities that include but are not limited to writing for the media. Beyond the question of demarcating journalism from communication and PR, Harris also asks what the word “science” really means at the head of each of these professions.

With the topic now flagged as a potential topic at the ASC 2014 conference, there will surely be some interesting discussion ahead.

Further links

ASC members highlighted various links in the course of discussion, including Kaz Janowski’s editorial at SciDev.Net, which was the impetus for the ASC list discussion (via ASC member Lynne Griffiths). Sarah Kennihan’s open letter to the ASC was a further catalyst for discussion (see also Keenihan’s profiles of journalists and communicators, her comparison of the two, her thoughts on the “death” of journalism, and Jacqui Hayes’ reflections on switching from journalism to PR). For summaries of a related discussion at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki this year, see these posts by Anne Sasso and Kai Kupferschmidt.