Plenary: Is science journalism special?

This was the most anticipated session of the day, chaired by Guardian’s Alok Jha, and it promised to be an interesting and controversial debate between four great minds in journalism and broadcasting.

William Cullerne-Brown spoke first, opening by confidently stating the science journalism is failing at a commercial level. The chairman and founder of Research Europe and Research Fortnight went on to speak about how science sections are being “ousted” by technology sections with the public, editors and publishers all disregarding science stories for more commercial articles.

So what can be done? Cullerne-Brown argued that we do not publicise the back stories enough: “how did the discovery get made?” Reporting on the failures of science could also make articles more approachable. “[It’s] like sports journalists only reporting about the goals, not the back story,” he said.

Unsure of how to solve this problem, Cullerne-Brown handed over to Evan Davis, presenter on the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4. Unlike the previous speaker, Davis praised the science journalism community for their progress, saying that although it is not special it is fundamentally different to other forms of journalism. Explanation is crucial in this genre, he said, and explaining things is more important than exposing issues.

The next speaker was Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, whose plenary session kicked off the conference. Rosen said that he hoped that science journalism is special and that it would take the lead in confronting denialism. Finding what is on the public’s agenda and reporting on that will make science journalism interesting to the masses, Rosen reckons.

Rosen went on to claim that there is a lot of control within journalism, with older and more experienced editors preventing the young from speaking their minds. In his final advice, Rosen criticized the use of the term ‘reader’: when journalists talk about the reader, they are actually talking about their own opinion of what readers want. He said that this “abstract notion” needs to be less abstract and more humanized to make science journalism more approachable.

The final speaker of the day was ABSW president Connie St Louis who boldly started by saying that although science journalism is by no means special, it thinks it is. St Louis argued that instead of focusing on explanatory writing, we needed more investigative and challenging reporting. Pointing out that “the public doesn’t trust us [the scientific community] anyway”, science journalism should report more on scientific misconduct and the dominance of professional societies within research. In a confident and blunt final talk, St Louis told her audience of science journalists to remove all of the jargon and confusing terms from their writing. “Journalists need to stick to being journalists,” she said.

Many thought-provoking questions and heated debate followed these speakers’ contributions. The session, like all of the others at this conference, got the audience thinking, and was a resounding success. I doubt a single member of the audience left without wondering what talks will feature at the next UKCSJ. The Royal Society and all of the organisers involved deserve credit for holding a very enjoyable and interesting event.

Daniel Sharpe, UKCSJ student scholar