Understanding the World of science journalism

Although I’m a JIC student, I’m currently based in a lab in the University of Oxford. Whilst it means I miss out on lots of the exciting opportunities that pop up within the Norwich-sphere, it does give me access to lot of others. One such event, which I attended in March, was a conversation about Science Journalism, hosted by one of the colleges.

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The event, entitled ‘Writing about science, health and climate’ was hosted by Lady Margaret Hall, and was chaired by their Principal, Alan Rusbridger, ex-Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian. He invited along three of his colleagues to talk about the world of science news: Sarah Boseley, who has been writing about Health for over a decade; Hannah Devlin, Science Correspondent; and James Randerson, News Editor. The event set-up was simple – quick introductions from each, before immediately throwing the conversation out into the audience – a mainly academic crowd at all stages of their careers.

A common theme throughout was scientists keen to get their side of the story out without it being warped or misinterpreted. The key point made over and over again was that of trust. A journalist wants to be able to trust a scientist to give them all the facts, and building the relationships with these scientists is an important part of journalism. The reporters must be careful not to get lazy though – don’t approach a non-expert just because you can’t be bothered to track down someone who knows more.

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On the other side, scientist wants to talk to a journalist who they believe will represent their story, and give it the justice it deserves. This can be particularly important for those caught up in breaking news and scandals. An academic in the audience was one of those who had been tracking Cecil the Lion. He shared his experience of being hounded by over 200 journalists, with thousands of articles appearing as the story evolved. Many of these journalists were entirely uninformed about the story, and only cared about a hook to bring in readers. It’s hard to predict how your work will be portrayed by these reporters, and so difficult to put your trust in them.

Whilst it’s important to be informed as a journalist, it is obviously impossible to be an expert in everything. One of the panel mentioned that science journalism is not the same as science communication. Of course, papers may feature more ‘popular science’ style articles, and these will tend to be written by experts in a less journalistic style. The main brunt of articles, however, will be written by someone who has had to understand a story within a time limit – possibly with just a couple of hours to wrap their head around the topic. The job of a journalist isn’t just to summarise a recent publication. They need to understand the topic around it, and talk to the authors as well as others in the field (including those who may disagree with the findings). In these situations, the journalist has to rely on the goodwill of scientists (who have time constraints of their own) in order to be informed in their writing. For some stories this can be especially important – such as in health; uninformed reporting could influence readers to make detrimental lifestyle changes rather than beneficial ones.

As part of the discussions around being informed, one person asked how the journalists tackle representation of arguments. Journalists tend to be trained to represent both sides of an argument in a balanced way, and often this is how a story should be treated. For some issues, such as climate change, this does science a disservice – and often an argument is represented in an unbalanced way to appeal to the readership of a certain paper. Other topics, such as nuclear energy are still dividing people, and the paper needs to represent the arguments fairly if they don’t want to choose a stance.

As scientists ourselves, the audience was keen to find out how they can get their work out into the newspapers. The panel all agreed that they look for interesting and catchy topics, and will respond to an email if the subject matter appeals. As scientists, we need to take control of our own stories – sending out contact to the journalists, and making sure that the press releases from journals are representing our work correctly.

Sometimes an interesting topic is obvious; those that affect us or those we care about is usually attractive to a reader. As for other subjects, picking the best stories is about instinct. As papers move to the Internet this has become easier to follow, and statistics about views and shares are accessible at the click of a mouse. The fast-growing stories tend to be those that make us say ‘wow’ – the type we’d chat about in the pub.

Social media is having huge impact on the subject matter within science journalism. Stories that would previously have taken weeks to unfold can now follow their course in a matter of hours – a classic example would be the recent Creationism row over an article in PLoS One. Journalism is now a 24/7 business, and you have to be ready for breaking news at any time. Again, the internet has made breaking the news easier. Live blogs can be used as stories unfold, and can feature in-the-moment comments and information.

To finish the conversation, a PhD student asked something that I’m sure many in the audience were keen to hear answered: how do us academics, who have been writing in jargon for most of our adult life, try and write in a non-academic way. The response from the panel was clear – do it. Just go out and write – show it to your friends or your mum, write some blogs, or get involved in student journalism. Plenty of science blogs are happy to have guest writers, as are student publications.

Izzy is a student at the JIC who is based at Oxford she is on Twitter as @Isabelwebb

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