The state of UK science journalism

By Peter Griffin 18/01/2010

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…