Theres life in the old dog yet: in defense of journalism

Source: On Science and the Media

Any notion that the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London last week was going to be a tame, cosy affair was shattered at the opening plenary when a row broke out as to what constitutes science journalism. Jeff Nesbit, Director of the office of legislative affairs at the US National Science Foundation, which is a bit like our research councils, offered his prescription for the current crisis in science journalism – the scientific community should step in and do it ourselves. And this was not just a provocative idea – we learned that no sooner had Jeff heard that CNN had closed their entire science unit, than he hired two of them to write and film content for NSF’s websites. When I leapt to my feet to describe what he was doing as ‘science communication’ not ‘science journalism’, Nesbitt fought back with two contentious statements. Firstly he argued that because the two people he hired are journalists with journalistic training that they will still be doing journalism for NSF. And secondly that we no longer have the luxury of this academic debate – science journalism is disappearing before our eyes and the scientific community is obliged to step in and replace it.

For me the issue became the defining theme of the Conference and raised its head in almost every session. Most people spent the week trying to tell me that arrival of new media and the pressures on science journalism around the world mean that the lines between journalism and PR have now been blurred. Press officers tweeting all day and creating video clips for their University websites told me that the term press officer has become a misnomer as they spend as much time creating ‘content’ as helping journalists to create it. And science writers who have moved from national newspapers to write for popular science blogs insisted that they are engaged in the same craft. But just because we are blurring lines doesn’t mean those lines no longer exist. And nor does it mean that we should not pause at this time of change and reflect on whether those lines are important to maintain. One of the delegates challenged Nesbitt to give the money spent hiring the ex CNN reporters to CNN to keep them on. Unrealistic maybe, but a neat way of making the point that we have some choices here. Faced with a crisis in journalism we can look for ways to shore it up and defend it, or we can simply declare it in terminal decline and set about replacing it.

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