Science writing vs. science journalism

By Grant Jacobs 07/01/2010

Science writing aims to make the reader an insider to the science at hand; science journalism science reporting leaves the reader an outsider to the science.

There’s a lot of talk about blogging or some other “new media” variant replacing mainstream meadia (MSM) science journalism, for example in a recent post at Neuron Culture, which I hope to address later, and many place elsewhere. (Search for many more yourself!)

A confusion that seems to frequently arise is that different commenters have different notions of what “science writing” or “science journalism” mean. I guess there is a further confusion that some see a distinction between these two and others don’t.

Below I offer my current working definitions of these two related but somewhat different things.

These are personal working definitions. They’re not here to appease anyone, set some kind of “standard”, nor set in stone. I expect they’ll change over time. You’re invited to suggest improvements or objections.

I should say that while I do not have the practical experience of many members of these on-line discussions I have spent a fair bit of time (given I have a consultancy to look after) trying to get to grips with what I see as the main issues involved. This is more than mere curiosity for me, as I’m exploring adding this as a sideline to my consultancy.

You’ll see in the first paragraph that I replaced science journalism with science (news) reporting. Properly speaking, journalism is a profession, not a style of writing, even though there is a typical style of writing associated with it, especially for news pieces. Seeing as I want to compare two types of writing, I’ve changed the term.

This still has obvious flaws: reporting is, well, reporting and I’m talking about something more general. Likewise, I’d replace science writing with science communication (communication of science), but for all the wrong reasons I prefer the former term so I’m sticking with it!

I haven’t paid as much attention to existing use of the terms as I might, partly because I consider they’re used inconsistently. I’m aware, for example, that the American National Association of Science Writers in their organisation name use the term in the opposite sense to my own, in that my meaning is narrow and their’s broad. With that in mind, ideally I’d find another term that ‘science writing’, but for now, confusing as it might be, I’m going to let it stand.

So what’s the difference?

Briefly, science writing, to me, is writing about science in and of itself, or writing that works from this position; science reporting focuses makes little effort to explain the science itself, but focuses on the outcomes of the science, it’s applications, settings or what it affects. I elaborate on the distinction below.

I’m not taking sides here. Done well, neither is “better” than the other. Both have flaws. Both have strengths.

Some readers will say, so what? In some contexts the difference between the two doesn’t matter and in others it does. However, I believe it matters when people talk about replacing MSM science journalism, as I hope to examine later and is the reason for me bringing this up. (I’m of the opinion that it’s not a matter of a directly replacing one with the other, but a change of what is being offered and read.)

The distinction I’m making is not a difference of what media the article is in, but the nature of the article. The distinction isn’t black and white either, there is every shade of grey in between, that’s just life.

I would write ‘science essay’ in place of ‘science writing’, as it does convey some of the aspects to I’m referring to, but I won’t for a few reasons. Many readers (in my experience) have a negative view of the word ‘essay’, possibly stemming from them being those things that were set as homework!

More importantly ‘essay’ implies a particular writing form or style. My focus is on the objective of the writing. In principle science writing could be sidebar science or even editorials, which have their own typical forms.

Science writing

Science writing aims primarily to describe the science itself. It might (should!) employ many of the usual “tricks” to (try) entertain, to avoid “telling”, and so on. While it might use the understanding of the science to move onto the outcomes, applications, implications, etc., it won’t skip lightly over the science in a hurry to get to the latter, as it considers the understanding of the science to be the real meat it’s working from. Reporting, by contrast, will consider it’s main material to be some company’s use of the science, the politics surrounding the science, legal issues surrounding applications of the science and moves quickly past any science to get there.

Defining it this way happens to exclude many brief journalistic pieces (sometimes [often?] effectively ghosted PR pieces) reporting a new finding, as they rarely explain the science; their main focus is reporting the claims of the new results. This distinction may appear subtle to some, but it’s important to my purpose. The former aims to make the reader an insider to what science has taken place; the latter writes leaving the reader an outsider to the science.

Symptomatically, science writing rarely needs quotes to give it’s pieces credibility. The judgement of credibility of the statements made is the same used in science itself, the scientific evidence and publications backing the claims. I may to come back to this in a later post. This is not to say that quotes are not useful (they can be), but that they’re not credibility devices when it comes to science writing in the way that they can be in reporting.

Science reporting

Science (news) reporting have in their core some (nominally) scientific issue, but focus their aim outside of the science in and of itself. They may include some token gesture or head nod at an explanation, but it’s not the driving force of the piece.

As these stories focus on issues external to science itself, they might include substantial angles on legal aspects, business or other commercial issues, public opinion, and so on, in fact we’d expect them to.

If I’m writing explaining the importance of methane levels to the global climate, that’s science writing. If I’m writing about the public response to reports of higher methane levels, that’s science reporting: while it has a science element driving part of the story, it’s real focus is the public opinion. Naturally, there is somewhere in between too, just to make things confusing.

Wrap-up thoughts

There is, of course, a need to use strategies to “sell” the story to a reader or ways to present a voice of the narrative but this shouldn’t be confused by the objective of the story, which is what underlies my distinction of the two.

One reason I bring this distinction up , besides the confusion in some blog comment threads, is that the two require different skill sets, a point noted in particular by those currently working as journalists, editors or publishers commenting on these topics on-line. I want to emphasise that my interest in this distinction is not purely academic, it is about objectives and the skills needed to attain those objectives.

As I hope to elaborate later, these different objectives (and the different skills required for them) form part of what I perceive is taking place as a shift in science communication.

A selection of science journalism posts on Code for life:

For those interested science journalism

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion

Scientists on TV: referees of evidence or expert’s opinion?

Genetic tests and personalised medicine, some science communication issues

Three kinds of knowledge about science journalism

Science journalism–critical analysis not debate

Note to science communicators–alleles, not ’disease genes’

Sidebar scientists

Scientists can’t write?

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