Essay | Published:

Science journalism: Toppling the priesthood

Nature volume 459, pages 10541055 (25 June 2009) | Download Citation

In the first of three essays, Toby Murcott argues that the process of science needs to be opened up if journalists are to provide proper critique.

There is a rhythm to science news, easy to spot in the mainstream media and as familiar to every science journalist as breathing. It follows the publication cycles of the major peer-reviewed journals such as Science, The Lancet and Nature. As press releases describing research arrive in our inboxes they are scanned for stories, the most newsworthy picked, offered to editors and then reported.

This is not unusual. As British journalist Nick Davies points out in his book Flat Earth News, much of the news agenda in all fields is press-release driven. Journalists are of course trained to stand back and provide a critique, including context and a broader perspective, rather than simply reporting what they read in a press release. But doing so is a particular challenge for science journalists.

“Greater public awareness of the peer-review process would benefit us all.”

To best serve our audiences, we journalists need to be able to see how a new finding fits into the field, know when something new is significant, and have the knowledge and the confidence to ask searching questions. I have a PhD in biochemistry and three years postdoctoral research, so if I am reporting a discovery in my field, I can make a reasonable attempt at understanding the technical detail and will have a sense of the overall history, evolution of ideas and current debates. I will know who is a leader in the field, and who is an outlier; I will be able to distinguish majority views from minority ones. Yet as a science journalist I am expected to cover more than just biochemistry. I need to be able to report on findings in cosmology, ecology, particle physics and much more. To draw on the knowledge of scientists in these fields, I must first find out which scientists are most relevant, and have a sense of their opinions and place within the field. All of this takes time, which reporters often don't have.

This is partly why so many journalists resort to doing the bare minimum: reproducing press releases. Many journalists will telephone or e-mail one of the main contributors given on the press release to ask a few supplementary questions; but there is rarely the time or the expertise to go into the full story of how an item of research came to be, and how it fits into the bigger picture.

Other (non-science) journalists recognize this and are uncomfortable with what they see. As science correspondent for the BBC World Service, I regularly experienced the quiet frustration some elements of the newsroom felt with science journalists. My colleagues felt that we reported on published papers without significant analysis, depth or critical comment: we just translated what scientists said.

Image: ILLUSTRATIONS BY J. FIELD

The priest perception

You could say that this is not exactly a description of a journalist — more that of a priest, taking information from a source of authority and communicating it to the congregation.

This perception is reinforced when you compare our role with that of other journalists. Political journalists, for example, take an active part in the political debate. They produce expert commentary on the subtleties of the political process, highlighting strengths, weaknesses and potential pitfalls of policy ideas. They interview politicians as equals, challenging them to explain their ideas and, crucially, picking them up on inconsistencies, contradictions and mistakes.

These journalists are active participants in the process of knowledge creation in a way that science journalists cannot be, given the qualifications needed to act as an equal in scientific debate. Although science news reporting can influence science funding and research priorities, science journalists are not players in the scientific process. Again this is like a priest, who has little or no effect on the activities of the deity itself and who is not actually needed for the deity to continue.

The 'priesthood' model of science journalism needs to be toppled, but this is easier said than done. The time pressures on journalists today do not bode well for calls for more depth, context and criticism. But one appealing way to start is if scientists helped to unmask the very human process through which science is produced and reviewed, thus dismantling their church-like roles as unquestionable authorities. Press officers at universities and research journals could help by providing more background and context to new findings and discoveries for those journalists who are still too pressed for time to obtain this information themselves.

Alongside this is a need for science journalism to develop roles analogous to those of political journalism or literary and artistic criticism. We need to have the willingness to acquire more expertise so we can understand the technical details of the science, be able to interrogate and be critical when necessary, and not feel intimidated by those we are interviewing.

Crafting knowledge

All over the world, scientists, educators and policy-makers rightly call for more public understanding — or public awareness — of science. But many assume that this means more media coverage of the latest genome sequence, or the latest Hubble image. And journalists oblige by serving up stories along these lines. Genuine public awareness of science, however, also includes an understanding of how scientific knowledge is crafted. This is something that scientists and editors of research journals know intimately, and often talk about. The broader public deserves to know too.

Journalism is often described as history's first draft. Much contemporary science journalism, however, can be seen as a second, or even a third draft. Unlike reporters covering other fields of public life, science journalists don't get to witness earlier drafts of history-making because these are part of the peer-review process.

One way to tackle this would be to allow journalists access to (anonymous) referee comments alongside a final paper. This would have implications for how journals communicate their findings, and would need more discussion among the science community before being broadly implemented (some journals, such as Biology Direct, already publish reviewer's comments alongside their final papers). On balance, I think it would be beneficial to science communication if this were the usual practice.

When we read a published scientific paper, it often feels like the last word, even though there is often a gripping story behind and ahead of it. Unless they are very experienced, journalists will have little sense of these stories, and that what they are reading has in fact been through an extensive review process of critique, comment, discussion, argument and refinement. Access to that process would help to make stories richer and more compelling for audiences. It is also likely to reduce the tendency — or should I say temptation — to report every new finding as a 'breakthrough', something that happens all too often in the general media.

Greater public awareness of the peer-review process is something that we will all benefit from. It will help journalists do a more thorough job of reporting science; and it will aid the public understanding of science.

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  1. Toby Murcott is a writer and broadcaster and former science correspondent for the BBC World Service. A longer version of this Essay will appear in Communicating Biological Sciences, which will be published in November by Ashgate.  toby.murcott@ketoe.co.uk.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/4591054a

See Editorial, page 1033, and online at http://tinyurl.com/sciencejournalism.

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