Is there a global crisis in science journalism?
The situation differs round the globe, find Luis Amorim, Martin Bauer, Sue Howard, Luisa Massarani and Yulye Jessica Romo Ramos, authors of a recent report for SciDev.Net
Forty years ago, science journalists were described as being more missionary than scientists themselves. This mood is changing now. Recent studies of science writers in the United States, Canada and Europe have found staff cuts, pessimism, and standards being threatened by increased workloads, time pressures and risks of journalists churning out news stories from press releases (‘churnalism’).
But is this predicament universal? Between June 2009 and April 2012, we asked close to 1000 science journalists in 88 countries about their conditions and views of the profession. Our data was collected on-line in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic.
Most science journalists across the globe are less than 45 years old, typically male and less than five years on the beat. They mostly have university degrees, ten per cent with a PhD. Only ten per cent trained on the job. In Latin America (including Mexico) female science journalists are more typical. Print, web and blogging are the key outlets. Blogging is particularly prevalent in Africa.
The intensity of work varies across world regions, but intensification is global. Science journalists produce between five and 11 items in two weeks; those in Africa and Asia are busier. Women and men have similar loads, except in Middle East/North Africa, where men report more items; Asian women report more work. Two-thirds report increasing workloads in the past five years.
Precarious work conditions are common: 50 per cent work in full-time positions, the other 50 per cent precariously. In Asia and in Latin America, full-time positions are easier to get, while across Africa they are very unlikely. This situation has worsened over the past five years in most places, except in Asia and Latin America, where it remains stable or has improved.
Ethos and job satisfaction
The work ethos of science journalists varies across the globe. A good science journalist is typically described as ‘well trained and reports facts independently, neutral and in an original manner’. Many lament the lack of critical edge: ‘Too much exposition and not enough exposure’ as the Association of British Science Writers meeting 2012 put it. For some, formal science training (‘understanding statistics and a passion for science’) are important, for others skills (‘knowing how to deal with new media, visualisation and with facts and their investigation’) are more important.
Despite deteriorating working conditions, the majority remain happy on the job. We distinguished satisfaction with operational specifics such as physical safety, censorship, and source access, from general job satisfaction. Europeans, Canadians and Americans are happier with the specifics of their work, but less so with job conditions. Elsewhere, this is reversed. Across Africa the specifics are precarious, while the job seems fine. Across Asia and Latin America the two aspects are balanced.
We asked whether science journalism is in crisis. Most working in USA, Canada and the Middle East/North Africa agree, while those in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa disagree. Across Europe and Asia, opinions are balanced. Asked ‘will you be working in the field in five years’ time?’, 20 per cent of respondents in USA, Canada and Europe are pessimistic. Elsewhere, the future seems brighter. Asked ‘would you recommend a career as science journalist’, 30 per cent in USA,Canada and Europe would not do so; while in other regions there is little reason for pessimism.
Work pressures are increasing globally, conditions are becoming more precarious, practice is moving from print to on-line platforms, and there is pessimism in the profession, but mainly in USA, Canada and Europe. So is there a sense of crisis in the profession? It depends where you work!