Perspectives: The Need for Strong Science Journalism

By guest contributor, Jean-Marc Fleury, Bell Globemedia Chair in Science Journalism, Université Laval (Québec City) and Executive Director, World Federation of Science Journalists

Science journalism, or as researcher Hans Peter Peters[1] says, “Strong Science Journalism,” involves the public in the governance of science and its applications.

Strong science journalism produces new and original information. In this capacity, science journalists are much more than translators of science, educators, or knowledge intermediaries.

Strong science journalists observe science and produce new public knowledge. They create new knowledge by observing and commenting on science in a way that is relevant to their audience and society. They must put science in the context of everyday life and ongoing key policy-making issues, otherwise they may not receive airtime or space. This is why scientists often remark that the questions journalists pursue are not in their area of expertise; but these questions force a scientist to relate his or her work and expertise to the taxpayers’ preoccupations.

When strong science journalism happens, there are several benefits for society.

Involving the public in the governance of science and its applications helps to direct scientific expertise to a society’s priorities. There are also benefits for science, as journalists provide feedback on how the public feels about the way science and scientists address their needs and priorities. The effect is increased social utility of science and increased credibility and awareness of scientific organizations, research fields, and science in general. Media visibility can provide a proof of relevance.

Finally, strong science journalism increases the chances that scientific expertise will be considered in policy-making since, like it or not, the media identify the science that is politically relevant. Journalists are also particularly skilled at explaining complex issues and politicians cannot ignore the media.

Societies need this independent, annoying, and messy science journalism. But it is very demanding work. A science journalist needs a great depth of general cultural knowledge and curiosity to keep up-to-date. She also continuously needs to argue for space or airtime with her bosses. And these bosses are themselves struggling to attract revenue and identify the publicity that can be attracted by this kind of science reporting. As New York Times’ publisher Arthur Sulzberger says: “quality content attracts quality readers who attract quality publicity.”

While a need exists for solid, independent and informed reporting on so many science-rich issues such as energy, climate change, health policies, and technological advances, science journalism is facing major challenges. Many media have reduced the coverage of science and let their science journalists go.

At the same time, many journalists have to cover these science-rich issues: shale gas, nuclear accidents, floods, tsunamis and tornadoes, new drugs, as well as be able to accurately decipher what makes a national survey scientifically valid. Science pages might have disappeared from many newspapers, but science has infiltrated many beats and issues. Even sports reporters aren’t immune.

Science journalists can find in these challenges the opportunity to innovate.

In the schools of journalism, science journalism attracts some of the brightest and best students. At the Communication and Information Department of Laval University, the Bell Globemedia Chair in Science Journalism is taking the lead in establishing, in collaboration with the media industry, an innovation lab in science journalism. The present challenges facing science journalism open an opportunity for innovation. Universities, with their young and creative minds and the support of the professors, can offer the media as space to innovate and evaluate new practices and forms of science journalism, of strong science journalism.


[1] Hans Peter Peters describes Strong Science Journalism at: http://www.com.ulaval.ca/recherche/cjs/la-chaire/archives/videos-hans-peter-peters/

 

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