What is science journalism? Science journalism summarizes, simplifies, and distributes news from within the scientific fields; Read on to learn more about it.
Science journalism involves reporters producing informed news reports and articles on scientific findings and events. Science reporters are often required to simplify complex concepts so the general public can better understand what is happening in the world around them.
These reporters source news by consulting with researchers and scientists, reading reports and studies, and following the latest scientific trends, projects, and experiments being worked upon. Grand Canyon University describes this field of journalism as “informative and often entertaining summaries of relevant findings, (which are gained by) consulting with expert scientists and researchers and conveying the information in ways that a non-specialist audience can understand.”
The Need for Science Journalists
Science writing by media outlets is a way to keep the public informed on an array of essential topics, from robotics to climate change. It could be argued that scientific journalism is one of the most important fields within the media. That is because these news stories inform and educate their intended audience on the knowledge we are gaining and our progress as a species.
New York University’s prestigious Science, Health & Environmental Reporting program is renowned for producing top-notch journalists who work on this beat. Moreover, the program recognizes this vocation’s importance and the knowledge needed to do it well. Their website discusses the need for informed science writers within the media. It states: “(Science journalists are important) because science is too important to leave only to scientists, and journalism is too important to leave only to the scientifically illiterate.”
If the above acts as a mission statement for the need for educated and informed science journalists, then the below statement in The Science Literacy Project elaborates on the importance of science writers.
A page titled, ‘Why Science Journalism Is Important’ states: “Scientific research, new technologies, paradigm shifts, challenges to accepted scientific “truths”… these aren’t just science stories. They play a major role in key political, economic, cultural and social policy discussions and public dialogue.” One of the essential types in the science sections of publications is around climate change. It is the challenge of our time, and perhaps of all time.
Science Journalism and Climate Change
Covering the subject of climate change is not without its difficulties. Michael Brüggemann discussed some of the challenges science editors face around this topic in his paper entitled ‘Shifting Roles of Science Journalists Covering Climate Change.’
It read: “Communicating climate change is a formidable challenge for journalists… it conflicts with established media logics. (For instance) the geographical and time scales of the phenomenon cut across the categories of journalistic coverage in several ways.”
“First, the time frame of climate change is decades and centuries, while journalism reconstructs the world as a set of short-term events… Second, the geographical categories of journalism (local, national, and international) are neatly separated, while the causes and effects of climate change transcend borders and are local and global at the same time.”
In other words, the rolling 24-hour news cycle has made it more challenging to report on some of the more long-term environmental problems that we face. Not only that, the location-specific nature of news prevents many good journalists from reporting on the effect climate change science has on the world.
However, despite these challenges, it is clear that confining reports around climate change and other critical issues to the realms of scientific papers, research institutions, and those within scientific fields will not enact change.
Thus, science journalists must work with their colleagues and attempt to highlight this issue impartially and factually. Jonathan Watts of The Guardian said when discussing the importance of journalistic coverage of climate change: “The media is part of a social nervous system, alerting the public to remote danger in the same way neurotransmitters tell the brain the tips of the fingers are being burned. We serve as amplifiers… to reach a wide audience and centers of decision making.”
Scientific Journalism and Infotainment
Discussing the importance of scientific writing within journalism is essential, as it is a type of writing that can enact change and doesn’t always gain the plaudits it deserves. However, that is not to say that this type of reporting does not have its issues and critics.
We look at issues around global environmental reporting above. However, there are also critiques of science journalism as a whole. These critiques often point toward how the science within a story can be ‘dumbed down’ to make it more digestible for an intended audience.
A piece in The Guardian coined the term ‘infotainment’ when discussing this process. That article cited some of the problems with this type of writing. Another issue with this type of journalism is that it doesn’t challenge the science associated with a story.
The Guardian piece read: “Infotainment science journalism rarely challenges the validity of the scientific research study or criticises its conclusions.”Perfunctory comments, either by the journalist or in the form of quotes – such as “It is not clear whether these findings will also apply to humans” or “This is just a first step and more research is needed” are usually found at the end of such pieces – but it is rare to find an independent or detailed critical analysis.”Of course, balancing the need to be engaging with the need to be informative is a challenge faced by all journalists. However, it’s particularly true when relating to popular science.
As one Science writer put it: “Too much information and you’re squashing your potential audience into those who care enough about the subject to read more than two lines; too much entertainment and the punch-lines become more interesting than the subject line.”
Processing Information Within Scientific Journalism
There is also an apparent conflict between increasing the outreach of your articles and sharing detailed, and sometimes tedious, scientific data. This can lead to sensationalism in reporting scientific information, or as Vox calls it, ‘hyped-up science.’ This is where the journalist creates a story from a press release or a fragment of scientific research. In doing so, they create an article that readers are interested in but not necessarily one that is scientifically accurate. This can result from the journalist exciting the story, but it can also be an issue around how the press release is presented to the media outlet.
Vox pointed towards a 2014 correlational study that found that when press releases exaggerate findings, the news articles that follow are more likely also to contain exaggerations. The numbers from the study are listed below, with comments from that Vox article. It shows the issues with science communications and how they can be skewed. The study focused on articles in the health field of science.
It read: “When a press release included actual health advice, 58 percent of the related news articles would do so too (even if the actual study did no such thing). When a press release confused correlation with causation, 81 percent of related news articles would. And when press releases made unwarranted inferences about animal studies, 86 percent of the journalistic coverage did, too.”
Of course, journalism and science are two different and often contrasting spheres. Thus, it is essential that the scientists aren’t over-hyping their press releases and that the journalists don’t come to their scientific conclusions without being present in the studies.
As Quentin Cooper once said on BBC Radio science program, Material World, “Science values detail, precision, the impersonal, the technical, the lasting, facts, numbers and being right. Journalism values brevity, approximation, the personal, the colloquial, the immediate, stories, words, and being. “There are going to be tensions.”
Resources For Journalists
FAQs About What is Science Journalism
What are the skills needed in science journalism?
According to the Aljazeera Media Institute, a science journalist needs the following skills:
1. The ability to research and investigate
2. The capacity to communicate simultaneously with both the general public and the scientific community
3. Analytical skills;
4. An interest in science;
5. Rigour and precision;
6. Neutrality and objectivity;
7. An understanding of scientific writing.
Of course, a science journalist also needs many basic skills to work as a reporter in any field, such as a good eye for a story, an ability to write engagingly, and a robust code of journalistic ethics.
How is science journalism different from other types of journalism?
One of the critical differences between scientific journalism and other fields of journalism, such as politics, is that “diversity of sources… does not usually mean presenting a range of different opinions. Instead, it involves linking together the opinions of experts from different disciplines.”
Interesting in learning more? Check out our guide on advocacy journalism!
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