Science journalism in a connected future

David SeckoPublic health officials, academics and researchers joined journalists including documentary producer Ira Basen, the Vancouver Sun’s Kirk LaPointe, Canwest News Service’s Margaret Munro at a recent conference at the University of British Columbia

David SeckoPublic health officials, academics and researchers joined journalists including documentary producer Ira Basen, the Vancouver Sun’s Kirk LaPointe, Canwest News Service’s Margaret Munro at a recent conference at the University of British Columbia that asked “how and where the science journalists of tomorrow will work.” Concordia University assistant professor David Secko captured some of the highlights.

Dorothy Nelkin’s opening to an interesting 1987 article in Society entitled “The culture of science journalism” is fitting here. It’s drawn from a nineteenth-century staff writer at the Sunday World, who describes their approach:

“Suppose it’s Halley's Comet. Well, first, you have a half-page decoration showing the comet…If you can work a pretty girl into the decoration, so much the better. If not, get some good nightmare idea like the inhabitants of Mars watching it pass. Then you want a quarter of a page of big type heads…and a two-column boxed freak containing a scientific opinion which nobody will understand, just to give it class.”

Journalists have come a long way in how they think about science. But much of the above tension persists, and is now joined  by an uncertain future as journalism adapts to a hybrid collection of mixed media, social networking and changing audience demands.

These tensions ran thick at Health and Environment Reporting in a Connected World, the Nov. 6 conference at UBC. Stephen Ward opened the day focusing on the growth in new media forms and the excitement they are generating, “balanced by worries as to where all this is headed”.

Science journalism is much needed today, said Ward, the James E. Burgess professor of journalism ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But with the all flux, we have to ask how and where will the science journalists of tomorrow work?

Traditional practices in science journalism are perhaps weakening as we adapt to a connect world. But rather than blindly abandon traditions, journalists need to reflect critically upon the culture of science journalism. The UBC conference set out to do this and what follows are some highlights.

New media and public responses to disease and pandemics

With H1N1 coverage, we are all sensitized to how different forms of media have affected the communication of pandemics. 
Ira Basen, a documentary producer at CBC Radio and a freelance journalist, explained how the “old” media (those working in a Web 1.0 paradigm) responds to pandemics. At CBC Newsworld story meetings, he laughed, the first thing said was “I’m sick of this story”, followed by “now what are we going to do about H1N1?”

One of the drivers of coverage was to provide people with robust information on the pandemic. But Basen noted that people asked about H1N1 say they don’t have enough information. So, if the information is out there, does this suggests a media trust issue? If so, Basen suggested that social networking (Web 2.0) now clearly provides a second source of information for people.

Alan Cassels, a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria, built on this line of thinking by taking a look at the online comments related H1N1 stories on the CBC News website. In a brief taxonomy of commenters generated by the analysis, Cassels defined people who comment on H1N1 stories as information givers, information seeks, sceptics or cheerleaders. The H1N1 sceptics often ruled the comments section.       

“The quality of science news has increased in the past 15 to 20 years,” said Patricia Daly, Public Health and Chief Medical Health Officer at Vancouver Coastal Health. She and Roy Wadia, director of communications at British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, rounded out the session. Daly, who has worked hard to build ties with the media in BC, sees the population as a patient. During any health crisis, the media is a partner.

Daly noted that this partnership worked well during a boil water advisory in 2006. But for the H1N1 pandemic, the partnership was not working as well as it could be. Although not fully clear, the turning point seemed to be the death of a Toronto teen, said Daly.

“Controversy is all they [the media] are searching for,” she said.

Fuelling this controversy in part, Wadia noted, was the fact that new media (such as blogs and YouTube) are providing a strong basis to counter dominant H1N1 discourses by governments and health organizations. By the time H1N1 came along, many conspiracy websites were already in place due to the bird flu. YouTube is fantastic for the conspiracy theorist, Wadia said. Without dealing with the truth or accuracy of such conspiracy websites, it was clear that Basen’s second stream of information on H1N1 was alive and kicking.

Conference attendees wanted to dig into the role science journalists are best meant to play in “balancing” these competing voices. While I prefer notions of verification and synthesis, good answers will have to wait for another day. 

Accuracy and genomics research

The roles of media and public relations drove discussion after Eric Jandciu, a research coordinator at the UBC School of Journalism, and Elodie Portales-Casamar, a research associate at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics, described research into the accuracy of newspaper reports on genetic research over two years in The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the National Post.

Jandciu, Portales-Casamar and Ward plan to publish the results in the future, but the study highlights once again that it is often “sins of omission” which plague newspaper reports of genetic research, not issues of accuracy.

Omissions included identifying how preliminary the scientific data might be, failure to mention the sources of research funding and problems dealing with absolute versus relative numbers.

Nicola Jones, science journalist in residence at UBC School of Journalism, said we must move away from notions of accuracy and onto notions of fairness. The classical problem with accuracy, she said, was reporting faithfully what a scientist says while their quotes may nevertheless not represent (scientifically) what the reporter thought they did.

“Fairness is perhaps more important,” said Jones, in terms of representing what a story really means to people.

Margaret Munro, a well-respected science reporter at CanWest News Service, said journalists’ first task if they want to talk about accuracy and fairness in science reporting should be to examine the role of public relations in science. Scientific studies do not often drive reporters. Reporters see PR, which is spun into breakthroughs, said Munro. If there are three genomic studies per month on Eurekalert, pointed out Munro, they can’t all be breakthroughs, can they?    

“The research community needs to tone this down,” said Munro.

“I wasn't expecting to get such a media vs. PR debate going,” said Jandciu, after the conference. “That was interesting and maybe something that needs to pursued on its own sometime.”

Where do we go from here? The future of science journalism

We are entering a time when science journalism cannot be considered “finished” upon publication. The narrative authority of the science journalist, if it ever truly existed, it now subject to increasing modification by the audience. We are left with the challenge of deciding how scientific expertise will be negotiated online. 

Conference organizer Stephen Ward noted the challenges ahead. “The conference showed clearly that science journalism is caught up in the great tumult surrounding the passage of journalism from traditional mainstream to a 'new' mainstream consisting of an amazing hybrid collection of mixed media,” he said in an email.  “This transition, like all fundamental transitions, is difficult and raising many questions about how informed and accurate science journalism can be maintained in a chaotic, expanding universe of online media.”

Kirk Lapointe, managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, said science journalism has some growing up to do as traditional media cope with the financial pressures of the new media environment. The protection that science journalists may have been given in the newsroom will likely will not endure, said Lapointe, considering five key realities.

  • We live in an always on world;
  • Distance does not really exist anymore;
  • It is a many-to-many age that can be thought of as an ongoing conversation;
  • There is the potential for everyone to be a journalist;
  • Thankfully, not everyone wants to be a journalist.

Great science writing will endure, concluded Lapointe. But it will continue within an audience mindset of “if the information is important, it will find me”. 

It is an exciting time to discuss what this means for the science journalist. The new media universe comes with a stark financial reality for journalists engaging in science writing, worries Nicola Jones, particularly science bloggers.

“The people who love it are not getting paid,” she said.

David Secko is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism at Concordia University and lead investigator of the Concordia Science Journalism Project.