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18/04/2014

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Science and the media

Fiona Fox has some news

My working group decided at the outset that this was not going to be yet another report focussed on the quality of science in the media.  We set out to use our very  limited time and resources to look to the future and  asses how science reporting could be  protected from the wider crisis in journalism, while exploiting the plethora of new and exciting opportunities emerging from that very same crisis.

Voracious appetite for science

Almost the first thing we did as a group was to commission some new research to provide a stronger evidence base for our work.  Conducted by the brilliant team at Cardiff University School of Journalism, the research published alongside our report is easily as significant as the report itself.  The research challenges popular assumptions about a decline in science journalism in the UK and provides a striking picture of more science journalists than ever meeting an ever more voracious appetite for science stories.

It shows that the catastrophic decimation of science journalism that we’ve witnessed in the United States is not replicated in the UK. But it also shows that science reporting is not immune from the general crises in journalism. It points to the fact that the numbers of science reporters has stabilized just as demand for stories has dramatically increased – with the consequences for original reporting and fact checking that Nick Davies observed in his seminal book Flat Earth News.2

The four issues the group decided to focus on were training, science programming, the future of science journalism and transparency.  I really hope you get chance to read the full report because it’s bursting with analysis, argument and over 20 recommendations. However, I will just summarize our findings on training and the future of science reporting.

New training for generalists

Science journalists agree on one thing over all else – that almost all the examples of science stories reported badly have involved generalist journalists, editors or presenters who lack any grasp of the basic principles of science reporting.  To my absolute delight, meetings with those responsible for training at the BBC, Reuters the Press Association and elsewhere also revealed a huge appetite to train their journalists in science. Bingo!

The scientific community wants to run science training for generalist reporters. The media organizations are willing to include it in their training packages.  And I’m delighted to announce in this article that Lord Drayson has confirmed that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will fund our recommendation for a new National Science Training Co-ordinator to design and run this training, and roll it out to all media organisations as well as undergraduate and postgraduate journalism courses.

Future of journalism

The section on the future of journalism charts the dramatic changes that are transforming our media landscape and posing new challenges. It also undoubtedly raises more questions than answers; questions like whether we should be defending ‘traditional’ journalism at all; whether good quality blogs now play the same role as journalism; whether press officers can now communicate science more effectively by bypassing the news media; whether scientific institutions setting up their own news media are being innovative or practising PR masquerading as objective journalism.

I would be the first to admit that we only scratched the surface of this very new era.  Moves are afoot to implement one of our other recommendations: a working group to focus on new initiatives in science reporting. 

One of the group’s most important recommendations was that the scientific community must now engage much more fully with these developments and debates, and start to identify and support those innovations that are most likely to deliver the kind of good science reporting that we all want.

1 N Davies (2008), Flat Earth News, Chatto & Windus

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Fiona Fox
Fiona Fox is Director of the Science Media Centre
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