Science and the media – an uncomfortable fit

Sallie Robbins

Sallie Robins 1 200x300 Science and the media – an uncomfortable fitSuch was the fury of a scientist at her treatment by the media last year that she established the Orwellian prize for journalistic misrepresentation. That scientists have an axe to grind is also clear from the hero worship of Ben Goldacre of the Guardian’s Bad Science column, for his weekly exposure of sloppy science journalism (well it’s mainly health journalism he criticises but let’s not split hairs). So what’s going on here, why do scientists feel so hard done by when it comes to the media in the UK? Are they overzealous pedants looking down from their ivory towers wishing all science journalism read like Nature? Or do they have a real point to make? At the heart of all this angst are the completely different worlds of science and the media. This has been described beautifully by Quentin Cooper, of BBC Radio 4’s Material World: “Science values detail, precision, the impersonal, the technical, the lasting, facts, numbers and being right. Journalism values brevity, approximation, the personal, the colloquial, the immediate, stories, words and being right now. There are going to be tensions.”

I explored these tensions at the Royal Institution’s “Unconference” event for 14-18 year olds, yesterday. Are young people aware of these tensions? What do they think of the way science is presented to them by the media?

Not so long ago, science journalists had to fight hard to get their stories past the steely glare of the news desk. These days, there seems to be a far greater appetite for science in all parts of the media and there is plenty of quality out there. The recently re-established Association of British Science Writers’ (ABSW) Awards have found much to celebrate in UK science writing. A read, listen or view of the winning pieces should bring some comfort to even the most aggrieved of scientists. In typical scientific style though, there is a caveat – investigative journalism. At the panel meeting for the Awards this year, those assessing this category were quite clear that the number and quality of many entries left much to be desired.

When the issue of investigative journalism is raised the response is always that there just isn’t time.   Journalists have always been under a great deal of pressure but now even more so with the need for multiplatform coverage. Oh the luxury of just writing an article – now you have to write it, blog on it, make a video, write the theme tune, sing the theme tune… Moves are afoot, however, to redress the balance. Last year the Bureau for Investigative Journalism was established in the UK. Funded by the David & Elaine Potter Foundation, the Bureau bolsters original journalism by producing high-quality investigations for press and broadcast media. Perhaps the young people at the “Unconference” will have other solutions to ensure investigative journalism can maintain its bite in the future.

But there is something else going on in the science media world that is shifting the balance.   Scientists and science organisations are doing it for themselves.  Tired of misrepresentation or just making the most of the opportunities that the internet provides, they are producing their own news, through blogs, podcasts and video. That’s great news for the scientists, but I asked the young students at the “Unconference” if it is such good news for the public? Isn’t this just science ‘PR’, a glorified ‘advertorial’ for science and science organisations? Who is calling science to account in these initiatives? Aren’t the public better served by journalists investigating, criticising, getting to the truth? And therein lies the dilemma. If journalists aren’t doing this job, as has been suggested, then perhaps the journalists’ reports are no better than that of the scientists’ – at least the scientists will get the science right.

At the “Unconference” I posed questions rather than provided answers but I should say here that I think science journalists do get the science right, and what is more they care about whether they get the science right (just don’t tell the kids!)

Science journalism at its best celebrates science and calls it to account.  Scientists speaking direct to the public can really only do the former, and quite clearly we need both. But will the “Unconference” agree?

Sallie Robins, Science Publicist and a key note speaker at the Royal Institution’s “Unconference” hosted by the L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre.

The Ri Unconference is the first ever national event where 150 14-18 year olds from across the UK will be invited to debate the future of the science sector and have the opportunity to shape the future of science policy and decision making.

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  • MightyDrunken

    Well many of the hard scientists would probably agree with you, and the “soft” scientists would not ;)

  • MightyDrunken

    Good point about how some “science” is really press release. This can even bite reputable scientists when their university writes a press release to gain public attention and go too far. Well that is life.

    Nuclear science portrayal is an interesting thing, especially as the fossil fuel and nuclear industries have often/always? been at loggerheads.

  • MightyDrunken

    Your post reminds me that the problem of the media and journalism does not lie just in science. Every time I hear someone comment about a story regarding themselves they say how they are taken out of context, things appear in the article they did not say. Journalism is not about the truth, it is about sales. Treat it more like an advert :(

    Bye bye fourth estate.

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