Science communication is changing, but investigative reporting is still important.
Midsummer in Helsinki is a blast. The nights are white and the pavement cafés crowded. Last month, an unusual ingredient joined the mix: more than 800 journalists, science communicators and scientists from 77 countries, there for the biennial World Conference of Science Journalists.
The Helsinki attendees and indeed all science journalists are caught between an idealized past and a volatile future. Until a decade ago, most newspapers employed a dedicated science reporter or three, and television networks had whole teams of science journalists. These days, specialist science correspondents are an endangered species.
Yet while mainstream science journalism fears for its future, the parallel field of science communication is booming. Blogs, Tumblrs and Pinterest pages provide small to medium-sized audiences with compelling coverage of every topic imaginable. Funders such as the Wellcome Trust in London and the John Templeton Foundation in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, launch flashy, well-produced science publications on what seems like a weekly basis, supporting talented writers. Curation websites such as reddit.com can focus immense traffic on little-known sites. It has never been easier for science communicators to reach their audience.
Some of this output is by and for scientists — who else but a computational biologist would read a 2,000-word analysis of the shortcomings of algorithms for analysing RNA-sequencing data? Writing for the general public tends to focus on explanatory celebrations of scientific discovery.
But the mass media, whatever that has become in 2013, remains the major conduit for scientific information when it really matters.
For example, blogs featured outstanding technical coverage of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown, but most of the world’s public learned about the disaster and how it could affect them through conventional media. And the relationship between politicians and the mass media often drives public policy.
The UK Science Media Centre (SMC) in London, and its founding director, Fiona Fox — who is profiled in a News Feature on page 142 — know this. The centre focuses on getting scientific voices into big stories in newspapers and broadcast news. Some media observers bristle at the SMC’s approach of cultivating relationships with science and health reporters and providing them with quotes and stories from scientists. Critics see it as an attack on the independent and investigative reporting that flourished during a supposed golden age of science journalism.
To be sure, there has been good journalism on scientific matters in the past. But most newspaper science pages — then as now — were filled with stories, albeit well-written ones, about press-released research papers. True investigation into scientific matters, such as journalist Brian Deer’s dismantling of the claim that vaccines are linked to autism, or a report in the Financial Times this year about the mysterious death of a US scientist working for the Singaporean government on a technology with military applications, has often reached beyond the science desk.
Expensive, time-consuming and often unpopular with readers, this is the science journalism that is most in danger. It is the science journalism that needs to survive if the public is to be properly informed and the powerful to be held accountable.