Journalism everywhere is in a process of huge upheaval. As traditional business models change in response to digital innovation, so journalists have seen huge transformations in their ways of working. Science journalism too is facing all of these pressures.
QUEST is focusing on science communication in three areas; social media, journalism and museums. At City, University of London we have one of the leading UK journalism departments and our tasks in QUEST are centred around investigating both the state of science journalism and looking at ways in which it can be enhanced and improved. This will result in outputs such as tool-kits and suggested curricula for educating journalists to report on science.
At this point we have produced a literature review which surveys the field of science journalism and conducted a series of in-depth interviews with a range of participants including experts, editors and leaders in this field based across Europe. In September we had a paper accepted at the prestigious Future of Journalism conference held biennially at Cardiff University. This has become a key event for anyone in the area of journalism studies and assembles 300 researchers from across the world to debate and discuss issues such as changing business models, the transforming role of big data and much else beyond.
A particular area of interest is the emerging role of AI in journalism. Our presentation was focused on the way that AI might be harnessed to assist reporting about science – which is another task that QUEST is examining. Typically the concerns of journalists are that computational journalism is overwhelmingly a means of cutting costs, by using robots to produce material such as financial or sports reports. There are a number of tools already in development that will produce automated summaries of scientific papers (Tatalovic 2018) – and this too has been perceived as a way that AI will circumvent humans. Some versions of this will even attempt to draft an article with suggested interviewees, based on a paper or discovery. However QUEST by contrast will endeavour (see previous post) to devise ways in which algorithms can enhance the creativity and support journalists reporting on science to widen their range and scope. In Cardiff we engaged with a large and lively audience to discuss how this might work. Some were sceptical but others were encouraging and saw an important role in supporting the activity of science journalism.
As the news model has radically shifted these past years, so wider commercial pressures have also affected specialists writing about science. Mainstream media are hiring fewer correspondents with a distinct specialism. Often those writing about science have to cover a wider range of topics and yet simultaneously produce more material for an ever hungry 24 hours news machine. Keeping abreast of developments across many areas is a huge challenge for science journalists. Being accurate and ensuring that facts are checked and verified whilst writing about highly complex subjects were concerns raised by many interviewees in our research.
Science journalism also faces another issue that is part of this wider picture of media change. The economic pressures which have seen shrinking resources available for reporting news have been mirrored by the relentless rise of public relations and corporate communication. Branded content for example is now a huge area in many media organisations. But in science this has seen a particular twist. Most scientific organisations now seek to promote their own messages through science communication (which has in itself become a huge industry). Sophisticated resources are engaged to ‘tell their story’ and at several levels resist the work of journalists as an interference or irritation. Just as an AI tool which summarises a scientific paper cannot be called journalism, neither is expecting the reporter to serve as no more than a conduit for communicating the message via press release from the scientist or institution.
Some of our interviewees spoke about receiving literally hundreds of press releases from Science PRs every day.
“We receive tons of press releases every day and tons of phone calls from media offices and so on…. In scientific institutions, …., they’re getting used to calling big news stuff that is not big news or trying to sell us stories that are not so important. Maybe they have too much pressure on receiving money from politics so they feel like they are obliged to talk about themselves everyday so we are believing less in them so we are losing our ability to trust in scientific institutions because they’re too easy to come out with news”
The central issue here reflects the boundaries of science journalism as opposed to the task of communicating information about science. (Angler, 2017) Science journalism, which involves critiquing and assessing research and seeking the views of protagonists, is rather more than summarising complicated articles. (Carr, 2019) As one of the interviewees in the QUEST project commented. “My job is not just writing articles, it’s reflecting on science and society and being able to write about it, whatever may happen to me.”
It is apparent already from our work that science journalists require resources and expertise to interrogate science news effectively. This is how they can best serve their readers and viewers – as distinct from performing the cheerleading role which is often associated with science communication (Carr, 2019)
Angler M. (2017) Science Journalism: An Introduction London, Routledge
Carr, T. (2019) ‘Revisiting the Role of the Science Journalist’ Undark Magazine
Tatalovic, M. (2018) ‘AI writing bots are about to revolutionise science journalism: we must shape how this is done’ Journal of SciComm