What does recent research say about science journalism in the UK, is it business as usual or have a new breed of science journalists established a ‘new science journalism’ in the blogosphere? Who is right in the heated debate over whether bloggers are journalists and has the distinction between blogging and journalism become a meaningless and semantic debate in the internet age? Do the changes in science reporting herald a new golden age for accuracy or the triumph of bad science?
Martin Bauer (LSE)
Andy Williams (Cardiff University)
Andy Williams is the RCUK Research Fellow in Risk, Health and Science Communication. He has a number of research interests which intersect journalism studies and cultural studies. His current major research interests relate to news sources and the influence of public relations on the UK media, especially in the area of science, health and environment news.
Ed Yong (Not Exactly Rocket Science)
Fiona Fox (Science Media Centre)
Chair: Pallab Ghosh (BBC)
Marion Dakers, MA Newspaper Journalism, City University
The conference organisers could have saved themselves trouble by sitting bloggers and journalists separately. Before the speakers had even finished their opening statements, delegates were talking over each other from every side of the room to get their points across.
Fiona Fox, who was chairing the Business as Usual debate in place of the BBC's Pallab Ghosh, did a valiant job keeping the chatter in order. But her opening quip that "journalists have worked hard to earn their low reputation" was never going to settle this crowd.
"There will be uproar for saying this, but why not get rid of the embargo system altogether?" said the Economist's Oliver Morton from the back of the room. Several science writers, including Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science fame, had raised concerns that only certain bloggers get access to embargoed press releases. "No-one thinks all bloggers are journalists, surely. But readers are now thinking of bloggers as sources of journalism, and bloggers are waking up to their responsibilities," Yong had said earlier.
Andy Mills from Cardiff University outlined the widening gaps in mainstream coverage: three-quarters of science reporting is done by general reporters, and the number of specialists hit its peak in 2005.
"A lot of their time is spent convincing their editors not to run with bad science stories, with less and less time to fact-check," he warned, adding that just one in four journalists' claim most of their stories come from original work.
Only 38 per cent of journalists work full-time, according to Martin Bauer's research at the London School of Economics, leading to a lack of dedicated specialists and "the opportunity for commercialisation, hype and exaggeration of smaller and smaller differences" in science stories.
Mark Henderson from the Times countered with the tale of an American colleague whose editor preferred his reporters not to vote, in order to preserve their complete neutrality. "But we're human, and can never be neutral. We owe it to our readers to clear a path and make judgements on who should be believed," he added.
A woman to his left nodded vigorously. A few more made moves to applaud, though the delegate beside this correspondent continued with her knitting. It was hard to tell who was a journalist and who blogged, but unexpected reactions followed almost every speaker.
On whether it is business as usual for science journalism, opinions were predictably mixed.
Ed Yong said the current situation was a "new ecosystem where bloggers journalise and journalists blog. We shouldn't waste time on pointless dichotomies."
Oliver Morton agreed to some extent. "The blogosphere is not a noble savage that represents what we in the mainstream media would like to be - there are plenty of rules similar to those of journalism."
Mark Henderson wrested the microphone from the now exhausted runner to make a call for calm in the final minutes of the session. "There is plenty of space to be symbiotic, since neither journalism nor blogging are a whole."