The dilemma facing journalism

Let’s talk about the dark sides of science journalism – those things that look and sound like good independent science reporting, but may in fact be something other.

“It’s content that has a vested interest or that is trying to persuade the audience to think in a definite way,” says Susannah Eliott, the CEO of the Australian Science Media Centre in Adelaide.  “And that is a problem when it is not being declared.”

The problem is not new but it had mushroomed in recent times because of the shifting balance between PR and science journalism.  In the last few years, struggling mainstream media outfits worldwide have jettisoned their science journalists. Reciprocally, the influence of PR agencies has grown stronger. General reporters, under pressure to file quickly and attract on-line attention, simply rehash press releases.

The dark side can also be seen in the blurring of lines between advertising, journalism and advocacy. “Looking around on the internet, it is hard to distinguish what is written by a journalist or by somebody paid to write a piece,” says Bianca Nogrady, a freelance journalist, and editor of The Best Australian Science Writing 2015.

“I know of one particular example where the journalist didn’t even think there was something wrong, when University X asked the journalist to write positive stories for them,” adds Eliott.

The role of sponsorship can often be murky as well. The esteemed journal Scientific American was recently the subject of questions about its independence when it ran a conference on Science in the Media in the USA in March this year – sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and GMO Answers.

Described as a “branded partnership”, the event was run by Scientific America’s Custom Media division – said to be a distinct entity from the magazine – but of course using the magazine’s name and prestige, and not easily differentiated.

An article in Undark Science looking at commercial partnerships with publications quoted AdAge magazine’s annual list of branded content, that showed that such practices grew from 1,500 cited cases in 2014, to 7,000 in 2015. They included partnerships between the Wall Street Journal and Netflix; the New York Times and GE and Wired and Nokia.

That such sponsorships exist isn’t the major point of contention, as they are inevitable given the increasing commercial pressures on media outlets. Also not of contention is that there are sufficient cases of sponsored journalism that are balanced and well-reported – but the influence of sponsor’s is rarely disclosed, which is a problem, making it hard for any reader to know just how balanced and well-reported a piece may be.

Then there is the “grey side” – science journalists who pursues a tacit advocacy of “brand science”, particularly when science itself is under attack.

“The issue is whether science journalists are a cheer squad for science,” says Nogrady

In March this year, in a widely-shared article in the US-based Pacific Standard, Michael Schulson wrote, “In short, more than other fields, science journalists see themselves as working in partnership with their sources…. there’s probably no field of journalism that’s less sceptical, less critical, less given to investigative work, and less independent of its sources than science reporting.”

Charles Seife, a science writer and academic at New York University, takes a similar view, “Today, science journalists’ motivations align very nicely with what the scientists themselves want, which is publicity for their work. This alignment creates this—almost collusion, that might even be unethical in other branches of journalism.”

Another grey area is the trend for organisations to bypass traditional media altogether and create their own media and audiences, with no one to independently appraise their information.

Deborah Smith, former science journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, and now a science communication officer for the University of New South Wales, said she thought it was a good thing that many former science journalists were moving into science-based agencies to work.

She said, “We bring the ethics of science journalism into our new roles and are less likely to overstate something, and we can explain ambiguities so that reporters can’t mistakenly get it wrong.”

“Many research organisations have picked up many of the science journalists that left news rooms and created their own channels, at places like the CSIRO and the University of Melbourne and so on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but they are never going to criticise themselves,” says Eliott

While it is certainly a difficult time to be a science journalist, with increasing economic and time pressures pushing people into dark and grey areas, often in such tiny steps that the transition might go unnoticed, there is still some hope for optimism.

New funding models, through crowd-sourcing and independent financial supporters – that still believe in resisting the dark and grey sides – may or may not provide the space and time for more investigative and independent science journalism, but it will remain important that there is more light shone into the dark and grey sides of science journalism.

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