While the public today is thirsty for reliable news about scientific issues, the changing news media landscape is a challenging environment for science journalists. This blog post looks at the trends shaping the future of today’s science journalism students, and describes the goals of the QUEST curriculum for science journalism.
Scroll down to download our Curriculum on Science Journalism.
The need for public confidence in trustworthy news about science is at an all-time high, given widespread concern about the impact of the global pandemic and climate change. However, rather than being well served, audiences are being targeted by rising levels of unreliable and inaccurate scientific information, to the extent that recent research considers misinformation about the pandemic ‘a major threat to public health’.
Indeed, during 2020, surveys have pointed to an ‘infodemic’ of false claims and inaccurate data around COVID-19 (Ofcom 2020). Against this tide, the role of science journalists in communicating reliable information has become more significant than ever.
At the same time, and as evidenced by QUEST’s research journalism itself is in transition, and it follows that the skillset of science journalists needs to be revised and refocused. In the 21st century when media reach has global impact, effective science journalists must develop the skills of independent scrutiny of scientific evidence in a bid to offer clear and untainted information to the public. These skills are embedded in the up-to-date Science Journalism curriculum devised by the QUEST team. This follows a wide-ranging consultation with educators, working journalists and focus groups of MA students and relevant tutors on elective science journalism modules.
Challenges to science journalism today
Science journalism students are taking up their studies at a time when objective and independent journalism itself is under increasing pressure, particularly in the mainstream media. Dwindling revenues for legacy media mean news corporations and publications are less likely to employ science specialists. At the same time, science journalists report being subject to a daily bombardment of press releases and corporate communication material whose branded content seeks to present a favourable message, unmediated by a potentially sceptical media.
In another part of the media landscape, elements of the powerful and unaccountable social media publish misinformation based on fake or discredited science. These include what’s being called ‘an explosive growth in anti-vaccination views’ on social media platforms with clear implications for the control of COVID-19. Media practitioners and stakeholders interviewed in QUEST workshops explicitly requested ‘specific science journalism training’ to address exactly these issues and challenges.
It is in this challenging context that the next generation of science journalists also face a particular need to develop skills to engage audiences and encourage science literacy, when science is often perceived as dry, overly complicated or uninteresting.
QUEST’s previous mapping exercise revealed Science Communication courses vastly outnumber discrete Science Journalism courses across Europe. Simply, our curriculum aims to redress the balance and offer a complementary route to effective, journalistically focussed science communication.
Helping journalists interpret scientific research and data
Evidence from QUEST’s semi-structured workshops with journalists, editors and other stakeholders had previously revealed that general journalists handling science stories find themselves often lacking basic science literacy and the inability to properly interpret scientific data and statistics, especially given the pressure of deadlines and other professional time constraints. The decision to develop two modules on, respectively, Reporting data and statistics & Understanding and interpreting science reports and papers to address these shortcomings was made in consultation with working journalists.
Students will also study a module on Science, Media and Society which sheds light on how effective communication between scientists and the media can support a well-functioning democracy and help people make up their minds on a range of scientific issues. The journalism-focussed modules offer training in the core skills of storytelling, interviewing and structuring stories, plus the technical expertise necessary to produce multimedia and online content, including data visualisation. In overall approach, the curriculum mines deeply into QUEST’s Key Performance Indicators for quality and effective science communication , with a parallel focus on developing the skills of rigorous, factual and independent coverage and scrutiny.
The next step is to disseminate and promote the curriculum as a flexible model, with a particular target of both Journalism departments – where it could be adopted in its entirety or introduced as a specialism – and also Science Communication programmes, where specific modules may be of interest. Universities across Europe will be encouraged to adopt it, or adapt it as necessary, to enhance the effectiveness of science journalism and to boost professional recognition and public confidence.
Curious to know more about our curriculum for science journalism? Are you potentially interested in adopting it at your organisation? Let us know by contacting QUEST partner Barbara Schofield at City, University of London: B.Schofield@city.ac.uk.
- Angler, M. (2017) Science Journalism: An introduction. London: Routledge
- De Semir, V. (2010) Metareview: Science Communication and Science Journalism, Media for Science Forum
- Pitrelli, N. (2017) Science Journalism: In search of a new identity. Medical Writing, vol.26, no.2
- Schunemann, S. (2013) Science journalism, in Turner, B and Orange, R. (eds) Specialist Journalism, London: Routledge, 134-146
(Image source: City, University of London)