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Science journalism is threatened. How can scientists help?

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By Pascal Lapointe, Policy and Politics Editor

I have borrowed this blog post title from an editorial published in Nature – not last week or last month, but in 2009.

 

 Science and journalism are not alien cultures, for all that they can sometimes seem that way. They are built on the same foundation — the belief that conclusions require evidence; that the evidence should be open to everyone; and that everything is subject to question. Both groups are comprised of professional skeptics. And whether it’s directed towards an experiment or a breaking news story, each can appreciate the other’s critical eye.

 

That statement, from the Nature editorial, was made within the larger context of the science journalism crisis we’ve been experiencing since the 1980s which has resulted in fewer science pages in newspapers, closure of print magazines, and stagnant freelancing fees, among other problems.

During this same period however, budgets for science communication have been expanding. Universities and other institutions are hiring public relations officers and scientists are using new tools to communicate directly with the public.

It seems easy to conclude that science does not need science journalists anymore, right? That would be a mistake, says Nature–

 

It is not so easy when the story takes a critical look at sloppy animal-research practices, overblown claims about climate change or scientists’ conflicts of interest. But such examinations are to the benefit of the enterprise as a whole: society needs to see science scrutinized as well as regurgitated if it is to give science its trust, and journalists are an essential part of that process.

 

So, what can scientists do to help science journalism? 

In Quebec, since the near-closure, in 2014, of the only Canadian science magazine, Québec Science and the only Canadian science press agency, Agence Science-Presse*, there has been a lot of thinking and discussion around how the science or research communities can build bridges with science journalism.

Here is a list of ideas and actions that have emerged from those conversations –

 

  • Finance grants or training in science journalism, like Canadian Institute of Health Research did a few years ago. It’s the easiest of all the options, but it has limits— if new science journalists do not have employment opportunities after their internship, nobody wins.
  • Buy advertising in local dailies, but with one condition: those ads must be published on a science page. If a newspaper does create a science page, it will have to hire a science journalist.
  • Buy advertising in science media. There are not a lot of science media outlets, and they are fragile, so anything can help.
  • Finance journalistic projects: a new column, investigative work, a multimedia or fact-checking initiative, like Le Détecteur de rumeurs, which recently launched in Quebec.
  • Create ambitious collaborations like Climate Central, a 50-50 partnership between scientists and journalists where each group remains independent, but share a joint editorial committee. To fund large collaborations like this would require support of wealthy foundations.
  • Ask governments to invest a percentage of research funds into science journalism. That idea may seem heretical to scientists who need more, not less funding, but governments and universities have heavily funded their public relations for the last 30 years —money that could, at least in part, support science journalism.
  • Provide tax credits for media hiring journalists.
  • Legal status for not-for-profit media. Status would allow eligible media (current or future not-for-profits) to access different kinds of direct or indirect financial assistance, for instance tax refunds or special grants.

 

Those last two ideas come from groups looking beyond the science journalism crisis to the larger picture—the overall journalism crisis. If we’re serious about it, it’s journalism as a whole that will need help in an era when Facebook and Google are swallowing all the advertising revenues, without producing any original content.

Open discussion of these topics will encourage scientists to think about differences between science journalism and science communication, between good and bad journalism, and about what would happen in a hypothetical future where science « fake news » and science « alternative facts » would be countered only by a few scientist bloggers whose teaching duties and research take priority.

 

* The author of this post is editor for Agence Science-Presse.

Editor’s note: This post was corrected to clarify that the fact-checking site that recently launched in Quebec is Le Détecteur de rumeurs, not Undark as previously written. (04/17/2017 7:50 pm)

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