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Aussies petition for more science news – should we? Peter Griffin Jul 24

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A group of science students and researchers at Queensland University have started a petition seeking 20,000 names in support of a letter urging Australian youth radio network Triple J to feature more science news.

The group dubbed And in Science quote research from ANU University that suggests the public is very interested in stories about science, health, new discoveries and environmental issues – more so than sport and politics. From the 2010 ANU Poll, which surveyed 1200 Australians:

The latest ANU Poll looked at public attitudes about science. It found that far from being a nation of sports obsessives, Australians would prefer to hear about health issues, medical discoveries and the environment in their news bulletins. However, the poll also found that the public felt poorly informed about science, are confused about climate science, and think politicians are too easily swayed by media reaction when they should be listening to scientists.

Source: ANU Poll 2010

Source: ANU Poll 2010

Here is what And in Science want, specifically:

We, the undersigned, believe that science deserves equivalent representation to that of politics, culture, breaking news, and sport. We believe that science is both interesting and relevant, and meaningfully contributes to our understanding of the world (and universe) around us. Therefore, we hereby petition Triple J (Australia’s publicly owned youth radio station) to include an ‘In science’ report in their hourly news updates, of one or more contemporary and current science news items and of at least 20 seconds duration.

It seems like a reasonable request and I hope they get to their target of 20,000 signatures at Change.org.

I’d obviously like to see more science coverage in the mainstream media – and that’s an issue I could write a lot about.

But let’s deal for the moment with youth radio in New Zealand.

Ironically, I just did my weekly Dear Science slot on Bfm where I wrap up the big science stories of the week with the Wednesday host of The Wire, Georgia Moselen-Sloog. The station, which is similar to Tripe J in many respects, but is not publicly-funded, actually has a fairly strong science focus. I know this because often I have to drop science or environment stories from Dear Science because they have had significant coverage earlier in the day. A lot of experts and scientists are featured in Bfm interviews. Other stations that are part of the bNet network of student radio stations also cover a lot of science-related stories.

The point is, I think, that young people host these shows and produce these news bulletins, and young people are particularly interested in science, environment and tech stories. So I think the problem is not so pronounced here as it may be with Triple J.

We will also towards the end of the year see the formation of a youth-orientated news service by Radio New Zealand. This is an exciting project and will see a true multimedia approach to news mainly online, with content also running on National Radio. I’ve spoken to the team behind it – they are enthusiastic about science coverage. Both they and I see it as a great opportunity to communicate science in a way that cuts through with a younger audience.

Mainstream commercial media the problem

So for me, youth-orientated radio does reasonably well on science – there could always be more, but I see good anecdotal evidence that science-related content is a strong part of the news mix.

A problem remains with science coverage in the mainstream media in general. Most editors and executive producers tell me that science stories are no more or less important than other types of stories and need to slug in out with them to find a place on the news agenda. But the reality is that it is down to resourcing. No news outlets, other than Radio New Zealand, have fulltime science reporters on staff. General reporters cover science alongside politics, spot news and crime.

It means that when a science story gets the green light from an editor, it is likely to get a decent treatment. But it also means that there are few dedicated outlets for science news, that long-running topics and issues like climate change are covered randomly and often without much context. This is not ideal and I’ve been pushing for years for more resourcing of dedicated science coverage.

Editors also tell me that science rates well on news websites, which I think helps build the case for dedicated resourcing of the round, though judging by what’s driving traffic to Stuff today, science more often than not, doesn’t get much of a look-in.

Source: Stuff.co.nz

Source: Stuff.co.nz

I don’t think a petition for more science news will go very far in New Zealand but I’d certainly like to see some decent research done on what sort of news a cross-section of New Zealanders want. If science similarly rates highly as it did in the ANU Poll, the case to push for more science coverage across the board would be very strong.

Science journalism that MATTERs Peter Griffin Nov 19

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Over the weekend I paid 99 cents for a quality piece of long form science journalism that I downloaded and read on my iPad.

Members sign up for 99c a month

Who published it? The New Yorker? Atlantic Monthly? National Geographic? No, the article is the first of what will hopefully be a long series published online by Matter, which bills itself as “the new home for the best in-depth and investigative writing about science and technology”.

The piece Do No Harm? – 8,000 words long, was about Body Identity Integrity Disorder. People with the condition struggle with the urge to have a limb amputated and either attempt to do the job themselves – or seek out doctors willing to do it for them. It isn’t the first time the subject has been covered in-depth. But the piece is a fascinating and emotive read and would happily sit in the publications I mention above.

But author Anil Ananthaswamy, an established science writer who would likely have had editors interested if he’d pitched the story idea to major magazine titles, decided to publish the story through Matter. In doing so, he is taking a punt on a new outlet for science journalism that competes with the establishment but exists precisely because of the dwindling space for this type of journalism in the mainstream media.

There are several reasons why Matter has a fair chance of succeeding – the same reasons why its founders raised US$140,000 on Kickstarter when they only set out to raise US$50,000. The pedigree of the editorial talent is very good as Carl Zimmer points out in this backgrounder. The platform is flexible, attractive and easy to use, particularly for Kindle owners.

But most importantly, the founders seem to understand what drives people who consume and pay for long form science journalism. Such people appreciate depth and quality and are willing to nurture an outlet that will deliver it over the long term.

Matter invites you to join as a member, signing up to pay a mere US99 cents per month. In return you get invited to online Q&As with the authors as well as Matter events and get to pitch story ideas you’d like to see investigated. How this will work out is yet to be seen – it employs an open source system for filtering ideas from members which Matter is calling “Editorial Board”. I love this level of engagement and as the membership grows I’m looking forward to being involved in the ideas-generating process.

Matter also has the advantage of being supported by a range of high-level names from the world of science journalism and also the tech sector. Part of the buzz created by these people explains part of Matter’s success on Kickstarter.

It is early days for this online magazine. And what it is setting out to do is anathema to the race-to-the-bottom, twitch-stream media populating news websites. But, hell, we need this type of thing, which taps into the crowdfunding model in a way that could make it sustainable.

As Zimmer points out:

If Johnson and Giles can continue to publish stories of this caliber, they will make an important contribution to the world of science writing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll ascend to Politico-like heights of commercial success and pose a threat to traditional outlets. Politico does some good reporting, but every day it also serves up the political journalism equivalent of McDonald’s french fries–addictive little bits of information about who said what today in the DC hothouse.

I’m looking forward to Matter’s next release and wish the founders and contributors well in what I consider to be one of the most exciting ventures in science journalism to get underway in recent times.

The best and worst science stories revealed Peter Griffin Aug 04

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The Media7 science special just screened on TVNZ7 and included the section on the best and worst science stories of the last year – as decided by the Scibloggers and you, the Sciblogs readers.

Thanks so much for your submissions – many of the stories won’t appear in the lists below, but we gave due consideration to all entries and had to be ruthless in getting down to the top 5 in each category.

Congratulations to those reporters and media organisations that ended up on the “best of” list. For those on the “worst of” list, hey, we all have our bad days. I was a journalist for long enough, I had enough of my own. The key is to look at what went wrong and what can be learnt for the future. What it shouldn’t mean is to put science stories in the “too hard” basket. If you are doing the story for the right reasons and applying the proper journalistic rigour, the audience will appreciate that.

Best of…

1. Too hot to handle – An excellent New Zealand Listener cover story that looks at the scientific evidence on vitamin D and our health balanced against the need to avoid skin cancer by limiting our exposure to the sun. A wide range of views are canvassed here. A n excellent summary of a complex science-related issue. November 13, 2010 (Ruth, Laugesen, New Zealand Listener)

2. Ken Ring’s quake theories – how scientific are they? – An effort to put things right after the disastrous Campbell Live interview and a good example of how science can actually be explained properly with the right dose of “balance” achieved, in a relatively short TV piece. March (Tristram Clayton, TV3)

3. Animal death toll ends cloning trials – A story that looked at the discontinuation of cloning trials at an Agresearch facility. Not only was it a great front page scoop that relied on the reporter seeking documents under the Official Information Act, but the science-related details were dealt with carefully and were well translated for a general audience. February 21, 2011 (Kiran Chug, Dominion Post)

4. The Climate dissenter holds his ground – An in-depth piece looking at University of Auckland scientist associate professor Chris de Freitas, and the seemingly skewed nature of his teachings on climate change. A piece that highlights the issues that emerge when scientists reject the consensus view of science and do so under the banner of ’academic freedom’. July 16, 2011 (Chris Barton, New Zealand Herald)

5. The case for vaccination – A thorough, absorbing read in North & South that looks at the science behind vaccination, the commonly held beliefs around the lack of safety of vaccines and the impact of diseases such as measles and meningitis which are to a large extent avoidable through vaccination. Thoroughly researched and well-written. June 2010 (Joanna Wane, North & South)

Worst of…

1. Living Proof - 60 Minutes piece on the treatment with high dose vitamin C of a King Country farmer struck down with swine flu – A woeful piece of journalism where the crucial questions remained unanswered because the reporter failed to ask anyone with a scientific or medical background equipped to answer them.   August 16, 2010 (Melanie Reid, TV3)

2. Ken Ring – Moon man interviewed. John Campbell Campbell Live interview with earthquake predictor Ken Ring – not only an awful interview, but one where the presenter’s attempts to lay out the scientific evidence was flawed to the extent that it just served to confuse the audience – and win sympathy for Ken Ring. February 28, 2011 (John Campbell, TV3)

3. Fruit juice, apples linked to fetus harm – The findings of a Liggins Institute paper were misreported giving the alarmist impression that pregnant mothers could be harming their babies by drinking too much fruit juice or apples containing fructose – a natural sugar. In fact, the research really raised concerns about fructose contained in processed foods that had been artificially sweetened. Led to public confusion and a backlash from pregnant mothers. February 12, 2011 (Isaac Davison, New Zealand Herald)

4. Gassing fakes meat freshness – An alarmist front page lead story in the Sunday Star Times that raises concerns about meat preservation techniques that are widely used by the meat industry – but fails to get include any sources with scientific expertise who can actually explain what meat gassing is. A shonky story that sparked the Science Media Centre to actually find out from experts what the real risks there were, if any, from using this technique. February 6, 2011 (Lois Cairns, Sunday Star Times)

5. Two sides to a story – US quake predictor Jim Berkland was interviewed by Mark Sainsbury on Close Up just a few days before Ken Ring’s March 20 earthquake prediction. While Sainsbury followed up the interview with a live cross to a seismologist and psychologist in Christchurch, the interview with Jim Berkland saw many numerous points go unchallenged. It was inadequate interrogation of major claims, with the science completely sidelined, despite Berkland’s status as a former USBS scientist. An oft-repeated flaw in the treatment of science stories where psuedoscience is put up against established science with talking heads ’duking it out’.  March 17, 2011 (Mark Sainsbury, Close Up)

Your picks for the best and worst science journalism Peter Griffin Jul 14

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One of the key functions of journalism is to explain the world around us. Nowadays that is a job that increasingly requires the reporter to present complex science to the public.

Media 7 logoSometimes they get it right, but sometimes they get it wrong. Very, very wrong.

Media7 (a TVNZ7 panel discussion show hosted by Russell Brown) is in the middle of putting together an hour-long Science and Innovation Special to air on the 4th of August.

Russell and the team would like your input! They’re asking the SciBlogs community to help pick the five worst and the five best reported science stories of 2010/11 which will be presented as part of the special.

We’re asking that you email your two lists to the following email address – . We also ask that you state your reasons why you think they deserve to be honoured in such a way.

- The stories can be from any medium

- The stories can be from anywhere in the world

- Please indicate if you do not want any part of your comments to be reproduced on the show

- Only stories that fall within the timeframe: 07/23/2010 – 07/23/2011 can be nominated

Peter Griffin

Sciblogs editor

Is this a Conversation worth having? Peter Griffin Mar 30

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There’s a new player in science communication that has emerged across the Tasman, in the form of The Conversation, a website backed by numerous Australian universities and overseen by a highly experienced team of journalists and scientists.

I’ve known The Conversation was coming for some time – our colleagues at the Australian Science Media Centre are a supporting partner. It is an interesting and promising concept – one that has emerged as people seek out a proliferation of alternative sources to mainstream media coverage of science.

So what’s the deal? The Conversation is a Melbourne-based web start-up featuring content written by scientists, finessed by trained journalists and presented directly to the public.

It is essentially a reaction to the media’s lessening ability to do coverage of science-related issues justice. It has the financial backing of ANU, Monash, Melbourne, UTS, UWA and the CSIRO to the tune of millions of dollars per year and counts those organisations plus a hardful of others among its content partners.

The idea is that The Conversation‘s journalists set the editorial agenda and seek out experts at the scientific institutions to come up with articles and opinion pieces. This graphic nicely sums up how The Conversation differs from the mainstream media.

Source: The COnversation

Source: The Conversation

That could be a recipe for dry, highly-technical pieces from academics, but out of the gates The Conversation is generating interesting, well-written and even controversial material. The hidden hand of seasoned journos shines through in the writing, which so far has covered subjects as varied as the Google Books court reversal and a neuroscientist’s view on “chiropractic quackery“.

The experts featured so far form an eclectic group. There are disclosure statements to cover off potential conflicts of interest and discussion is encouraged with comments open on each article and Creative Commons repurposing of the content endorsed.

The editorial team at The Conversation is headed by Andrew Jaspan, former editor of The Age, The Observer (London), The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. That amounts to some serious journalism experience in Jaspan alone. A team of around 18 makes up The Conversation, though a number of them seem to be part-time assistant editors. As such however, The Conversation represents probably more resourcing in science journalism and communication than any media organisation in Australasia is committing – barring possibly the ABC.

Is it sustainable?

But will it work longterm? The public still gets 90 per cent of its information about science from the mainstream media – newspapers and magazines, TV and radio broadcasts and the online portals of those organisations. The Conversation is a new player that seems to be committed to high-quality content. What it doesn’t have however, is a large audience to put that content in front of. Its readsership will increase over time, but The Conversation will likely need to forge content-sharing partnerships with media organisations for its content to gain traction with the wider public.

This isn’t as hard as it sounds, and The Conversation already has AAP as a strategic partner, suggesting some content sharing with the newswire service is in the pipeline. At  Sciblogs, we’ve found that articles written here can quickly catch the media’s attention. Today alone, nutritionist Amanda Johnson was on radio and TV on the back of her piece about the influence of marketing on children’s perceptions of food.

Since late last year, Sciblogs content has been syndicated via the New Zealand Herald website and occasionally Stuff and NBR. Coverage by our bloggers of the Ken “Moon man” Ring affair pushed Sciblogs traffic last month above the 100,000 visitor per month mark for the first time. So there is mainstream media appetite for good quality content and increasingly, editors are deciding to reach out to bloggers and op-ed writers to supplement their own coverage. This is a good thing and something The Conversation will, I think, find it easy to exploit. The problem is the media are rarely willing to pay for such content, which is leading to a preculiar thing – where some specialist areas of journalism, such as science journalism and investigative journalism, are starting to be funded by groups outside the mainstream media.

The Conversation is a prime example of this. Sciblogs, which was intially funded by the New Zealand Science Media Centre to some extent is also an example of that. In the area of investigative journalism, US not for profits, the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica are examples of this. All of the above area funded by Government, public institutions, philanthropists or a mix of all three.

So we are starting to see a shift in the media landscape where resource-intensive journalism of complex issues is being taken up and funded by third parties. That reflects the commercial reality of the state the media is in at the moment, but isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As long as the quality and independence of content can be maintained, who cares where it comes from?

But the issue of independence shouldn’t be underestimated and The Conversation, like Sciblogs and any other organisation seeking to put out credible information should never the importance of independence – both real and perceived. Editorial decisions need to be made independently of the organisation’s financial backers.

So far so good for The Conversation. The content is making me stop and read, the site looks pretty good. It arrives at a time when major science-related issues of public concern (the tsunami and nuclear situation in Japan, extreme weather events in Australia etc) require effective explanation on the part of experts. This venture facilitates that and therefore shows a lot of promise. So yes, a conversation that is indeed worth having.

Who covers science in the New Zealand media? Peter Griffin Mar 19

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When we set up the Science Media Centre back in June 2008, science reporting in the mainstream media was largely left to a handful of mainly junior reporters who had to juggle the round alongside general reporting duties and who weren’t destined to stick with science for long.

The situation, thankfully, has changed somewhat for the better, though the media is still up against it when it comes to resourcing news gathering in general. At least now there’s a stable of reporters committed to covering science-related issues across the media and while they don’t all get to cover science and environmental issues full-time, there seems to be a growing appetite for covering in these areas.

In a week where the polluted state of our rivers and streams and an environmental snapshot of the Auckland region made front-page news, that is not surprising.

So who are the reporters covering these types of stories? When I randomly ask people to name a New Zealand science writer, I’m usually greated with a blank stare, but occasionally people will come back with Simon Collins (former New Zealand Herald science reporter now social issues reporter), Rebecca Priestley (still doing the odd feature for the Listener) and Kim Hill (still featuring a steady stream of scientists on her Saturday morning radio show).

But there’s a new generation of journalists coming through and enthusiastically tacking science-related subject matter. In the first of what I hope will be a multi-part series, we’ve profiled some them…

New Zealand has some fine science and environment reporters reporting for print, television and radio. Based all over the country, from Auckland to Wellington to Christchurch, they help to ensure that New Zealanders are kept up to date with science and environment issues both here and abroad.

The Science Media Centre approached some of them, and asked them to share how and why they became science/environment reporters, why they love it, and their advice for inspiring journalists.  Their answers, and more besides, are below, and we will add further profiles as they come in.

eloise gibson smallEloise Gibson, Science Reporter for the New Zealand Herald

Why did you get into science journalism?

I’m a curious type and I love reading good science stories in the newspapers. I became the science reporter partly because it fitted well with my other round — covering the environment. It is impossible to write about environmental issues without covering the scientific research, so it made sense to extend that to cover other science developments as well.

Which are your favourite issues to cover?

I think for any science journalist climate change is both the single most interesting topic and the single most difficult to cover. I also love the smaller quirky stories — findings of ancient creatures or odd plants.

What challenges are there to being a science reporter in New Zealand?

I think science journalists face the same issues as all journalists, including that there is never enough time to do their jobs. Explaining complex science is particularly challenging when you are on a tight deadline.

What have you enjoyed most in your time reporting science?

My favourite thing about my job is when I get talking to scientist who is passionate about their particular niche, whether it be an obscure creature or a tiny slice of the solar system. It never ceases to amaze me that there are entire teams of people dedicated to finding out about things that most people don’t know exist. I’ve found scientists are generally very patient about explaining their work to me, and there are some great characters out there working at CRIs and universities.

What would you say to aspiring science reporters?

Goffurrit.

–––––––-

david williams smallDavid Williams, Environment Reporter for

The Press

Why did you get into environment journalism?

To save the world, of course.

Which are your favourite issues to cover?

Climate change and conservation.

What challenges are there to being a environment reporter in New Zealand?

Many and varied. For those of us without academic science training the biggest challenge is the translation of jargon-filled reports into easy-to-understand language. More generally, condensing large reports into a few hundred words. It all comes with the territory, really.

What have you enjoyed most in your time reporting environmental stories?

Getting out and about. Cleaning up rivers and seeing conservation work first hand.

What would you say to aspiring environment reporters?

Set a goal and work towards it. Mine is to have one story appear in National Geographic.

–––––––-

Samantha Hayes, Environment Reporter for TV3 sam hayes small

Why did you get into environment journalism?

After a few years in the studio at TV3 I decided it was time to get out and about reporting again. I grew up traipsing around in New Zealand’s wilderness and what better way to spend the working day than filming stories about our native species or research related to sustaining that beautiful environment.

Which are your favourite issues to cover?

Anything to do with our national parks, native birds and plants and endangered species. New Zealand research, especially related to bio fuels and ways we can make our communities more sustainable. Climate change, whaling, conservation, fisheries and waste reduction.

What challenges are there to being a environment reporter in New Zealand?

A lot of research papers are written overseas so it’s tricky finding people to interview on camera, that’s where SMC can be a great help!

What have you enjoyed most in your time reporting environmental stories?

The most rewarding part is meeting people who are extremely passionate about their slice of the world, people who have spent decades researching penguins or seals. I’m have a feeling one day I’ll interview someone and suddenly realise they have my dream job and I’ll never make it back to the newsroom…

What would you say to aspiring environment reporters?

Listen to every point of view, it’ll keep your stories honest and balanced.

–––––––-

will hineWill Hine, Science Reporter for Radio New Zealand

Why did you get into science journalism?

My father worked for NIWA for many years as a marine pathologist and I think my interest grew out of that.

Which are your favourite issues to cover?

I find earth sciences extremely interesting. I also like how science and technology can be used create innovative, world leading products.

What challenges are there to being a science reporter in New Zealand?

I think many science reporters, like me, need to juggle science with other reporting duties. That can be a challenge. There’s also the constant challenge of making complex information understandable to the audience, while staying true to the science.

What have you enjoyed most in your time reporting science?

I found the opening of the Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre in Palmerston North very interesting.

What would you say to aspiring science reporters?

It pays to repeat back to scientists your understanding of what they’re saying so they’ve got the opportunity to tweak any points you might have got wrong.

The state of UK science journalism Peter Griffin Jan 18

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A comprehensive report published last week in the United Kingdom suggests science journalism is weathering the storm of cost cutting in the media, but is suffering through the workload pressure on journalists, pack journalism and the rise of science PR.

The report, Science and the Media – Securing the Future was commissioned by the UK Government with the research undertaken by Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.

For journalists here in New Zealand, some of the outcomes of the research will come as a surprise – there are more journalists covering science, health and the environment in Britain’s media than in the early 1990s and the majority of journalists don’t think their rounds are under threat.

This point was actually made clear to me last July when I attended the World Conference of Science Journalists in London. Fiona Fox, the director of the UK’s Science Media Centre helped organise the WCSJ and chaired the steering group that produced this report.In a presentation given by the heads of all three SMCs (Britain, Australia and New Zealand) and a representative of the soon to be launched Canadian SMC, the differences between the state of science journalism in the UK and the other countries was striking.

Britain – science still a dedicated round

It was telling that at the WCSJ, Fiona and her co-organisers were able to get top editors from the likes of the BBC, The Guardian and The Times on stage to discuss science journalism. Britain’s mainstream media organisations still resource the science round properly and for good reason. As a centre of science publishing, London often sets the agenda on science news, or more accurately, London-based media set the agenda.

Science stories reported in The Independent, The Guardian and on the BBC regularly find their way into print and on to screens down in our part of the world – often in lieu of local science coverage.

The position of “science editor” still exists on several British newspapers. In contrast, science stories in New Zealand, Australia and Canada are usually covered by general reporters who cover science alongside general news stories. There are few dedicated science sections and general editors make the calls on what science stories are covered.

In that respect, the UK has an enviable position as a bastion of still decent science journalism. But this area of specialist coverage is indeed under pressure, as Fiona Fox points out:

“The stark message from the US where the media is haemorrhaging their best science reporters is that we must act now to protect the gains we have made in science reporting in recent years. We as a society have come to rely on the media to report complex science to a mass audience on some of the most important issues of our times. This report is a call to arms to all those who care about the reporting of science to start thinking creatively about ways to shore up science journalism without undermining its independence. ”

The key findings of the report include:

Numbers of science journalists over time:

The period between 1989 and 2005 saw an unprecedented rise in the numbers of science, health, and environment journalists in the UK national news media (numbers almost doubled from 43 to 82.5). However, most of this historic increase occurred in the ‘90s, and since 2005 there has been a period of slight decline on the broad science beat.

Increasing prestige and growing appetite for science stories:

Long-term increases in the human resources devoted to covering science have developed alongside an increasing respect for science specialists within newsrooms: many report the appetite for science news is high, and that they are often asked to contribute specialist editorial advice.

Increasing workloads:

On the other hand, however, workload increases have been widespread and in many cases are becoming problematic. Whilst the number of journalists employed on the science beat has not risen in the last five years, reporters state that workloads have increased significantly. More than half of our survey respondents (53%) said workloads had increased a lot in the last five years, 35% said they had increased somewhat, 8% reported workloads as stable, and not one journalist was able to say their workload had fallen. Most of these workload rises can be attributed to increasing cross-platform and multi-media journalism and the rise of internet news.

The problem of ’pack journalism’:

A major consequence of increasingly resource-strapped newsrooms is that specialist reporters complain they are expected to rely too much on ’diary stories’, and are not given enough time for independent journalistic work. In many news outlets, we were told, this leads to a centralised news-desk-driven homogenisation of science news coverage.

Time for checking facts and researching stories:

Workload pressures have led to a number of detrimental effects on how many specialist science news journalists work. Almost half (46%) of our survey respondents report they now have less time to research and fact-check stories than previously, and one fifth (22%) say they no longer have enough time to sufficiently fact-check the stories they put their names to.

The dominance of the diary:

Many news journalists told us they do not have enough time for ’original journalism’ and that their work was too dominated by the science news diary: one journalist referred to diary-based press releases as ’low-hanging fruit’ because they are ’easy stuff to turn around’. Only 23% of respondents said most of their stories originated with their own active journalistic investigation; 46% say they are more usually the passive recipients of news story ideas from sources.

The rise of science public relations:

Whilst the extent of the influence of public relations varies widely between different news outlets, there is a general sense that PR has become an increasingly important and unavoidable presence over the last decade. A significant minority, 23%, believe science specialists rely on PR too much, and 25% of respondents said they now use more PR than previously. Many interviewees complained that a lot of their time is spent trying to convince news desks not to run poor-quality ’bad science’ stories they have seen on the news wires and/or in eye-catching press releases.

The future of specialist science news in the UK national news media:

Despite the gloomy picture painted by many, most specialists do not believe their beat is under serious long-term threat. Most do not think that science news has been hit any harder than other specialist patches. 56% of survey respondents disagreed that science specialists are a dying breed in the UK (although 53% also disagreed that there would be more science journalists in the UK in ten years’ time).

The recommendations:

- Set up a new working group to do a rigorous  assessment of emerging innovation in the area of science journalism and identify which ones should be supported as most likely to deliver quality journalism

- Push for greater openness in science in the wake of the Simon Singh case and the David Nutt affair and advocate for free speech for independent scientific advisers to government.

- Appoint a “full time National Journalism Training Officer for Science who will design and deliver training in the ‘Basics of Science Reporting’ to editors and non science reporters throughout the media and to trainee journalists in universities across the UK”.

- Establish a “Science Programming Centre” modelled on the Science Media Centre. Apparently the Wellcome Trust is exploring this idea. The Centre would “facilitate more collaboration between the scientific community and programme makers”.

Other key recommendations: “…include boosting investigative journalism by identifying funding for a specific science strand at the new Bureau at City; a new Fellowships Scheme to  increase the number of people with science backgrounds working in journalism; and a new high profile  ‘Science Lobby’ to operate along similar lines as the influential arts lobby. The Group also called on Government to set up a National Commission on the Future of Journalism and argues that safeguarding the ‘Fourth Estate’ should be as critical to the health of our democracy as health and education.”

The report is very UK-centric but aspects of it are relevant to the New Zealand media industry which faces many of the same issues as the UK media. As such it is well worth a read.

As for the treatment of science-related issues by the New Zealand media, I believe we have turned a corner in terms of resourcing which should lead to an overall improvement in coverage, an issue I will return to in a future post…

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