Science journalism – the dark side of science?

20 June, 2012, Laura Brierley

On the whole the scientific community can often take a negative view of how the media reports science.

Why is this the case? OK, every scientist who reads the news can name at least one article that could be described as ‘bad science’. As a science PhD researcher attempting to move to the ‘dark side’ of journalism I am intrigued to know where this conflict originates.

Surely there should be a mutual respect between the two disciplines. The first point of call for the general public to discover the scientific advances is the media –not expensive, closed scientific journals. Logically scientists and journalists should work together to accurately report science to the public.[frax09alpha]

At the end of the day science and journalism are both different professions –both jobs require different components. A joke which is widespread between the two disciplines is a scientist finds a drug that shows some anti-cancer properties against genetically engineered cancer cells; yet a journalist will lead with the headline ‘Scientists finds the cure for cancer’. This is two very different stories but in summary a scientist wants to find the facts and a journalist wants a story that can sell newspapers.

The situation needs to improve; with public interest in science dwindling something is needed to reignite a passion for science. My personal opinion is science needs the media. This is going to become even more relevant with cuts to public services. Much of scientific research relies on tax payer’s money so more of the public are going to want to know where there money is going. The media is a perfect platform for this.

There are obvious faults with how research is reported in the media- remember the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination scandal and also the hundreds of conflicting climate change stories?

Climate change is a difficult case, however is often cited as an example of how the media reports ‘bad science’. The scientific community overall agrees that global warming is happening however there is a small minority of researchers who disagree and this is disproportionately reported in the press. The climate change debate does make an amazing story but with so much government promotion into reducing our carbon footprint, it makes it difficult for the public to make an informed decision as to which side of the argument is correct. In turn, the discontinuity in the reporting of science leads to a loss of faith in the scientific community.

In addition to this many papers will write about the same scientific issue however will draw different conclusions from the same piece of research depending on what the editors want from the story. How can this be a way of accurately reporting science?

It is no wonder that scientists often look down their nose at journalists. I have experienced it myself when I have mentioned that I would like a career in science journalism to some of my peers. However this attitude is naïve. Yes, science is a complicated subject but despite the egotistical nature of some scientists, it is something to be shared with everyone. After all, science is everywhere. Everything we touch, we use, we see, we are, is science.

How can this endless cycle change? A journalist needs their story and a scientist needs their research to be reported accurately without being sensationalised.

Education of journalists and scientists is a possible route. If each parties know what is involved in each profession perhaps more harmony could be achieved.
Perhaps if more journalists were employed from a science background would that improve the situation? Many scientific papers require some background knowledge into the subject to gain an understanding. From my own personal experience it wasn’t until half way through my masters’ qualification I got the hang of interpreting a scientific paper. However within the journalism community this is debated, to be a journalist you need to be able to be able to present the facts in an understandable way and make the story interesting. Not all scientists can do that.

Science journalism should not be considered the ‘dark side’ of science, rather a platform to get your science out there to the general public. In return a science journalist should speak to the researchers to make sure that they have got the whole story behind the research. Communication between the two is vital researchers must learn to talk to journalists, just as a journalist must learn to work with scientists to write a factually accurate story.

The main issue is that attitudes between scientist and journalists need to change. With the rise of the internet, people are able to access information in seconds and therefore a reliable method of reporting science is needed to restore the public’s faith in science.

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