Monday, 13 July 2009

There’s life in the old dog yet: in defence of journalism

Any notion that the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London last week was going to be a tame, cosy affair was shattered at the opening plenary when a row broke out as to what constitutes science journalism. Jeff Nesbit, Director of the office of legislative affairs at the US National Science Foundation, which is a bit like our research councils, offered his prescription for the current crisis in science journalism – the scientific community should step in and do it ourselves. And this was not just a provocative idea – we learned that no sooner had Jeff heard that CNN had closed their entire science unit, than he hired two of them to write and film content for NSF’s websites. When I leapt to my feet to describe what he was doing as ‘science communication’ not ‘science journalism’, Nesbitt fought back with two contentious statements. Firstly he argued that because the two people he hired are journalists with journalistic training that they will still be doing journalism for NSF. And secondly that we no longer have the luxury of this academic debate – science journalism is disappearing before our eyes and the scientific community is obliged to step in and replace it.

For me the issue became the defining theme of the Conference and raised its head in almost every session. Most people spent the week trying to tell me that arrival of new media and the pressures on science journalism around the world mean that the lines between journalism and PR have now been blurred. Press officers tweeting all day and creating video clips for their University websites told me that the term press officer has become a misnomer as they spend as much time creating ‘content’ as helping journalists to create it. And science writers who have moved from national newspapers to write for popular science blogs insisted that they are engaged in the same craft. But just because we are blurring lines doesn’t mean those lines no longer exist. And nor does it mean that we should not pause at this time of change and reflect on whether those lines are important to maintain. One of the delegates challenged Nesbitt to give the money spent hiring the ex CNN reporters to CNN to keep them on. Unrealistic maybe, but a neat way of making the point that we have some choices here. Faced with a crisis in journalism we can look for ways to shore it up and defend it, or we can simply declare it in terminal decline and set about replacing it.

I think one of the reasons Nesbitt’s talk left me bristling is that I’m finding it increasingly hard to find anyone to defend the craft of journalism. Having decided aged 18 to study it and spent my adult life as a journalism junky I find this alarming. Of course I could talk about its flaws forever and listening to Nick Davies again at the conference we were reminded that ‘churnalism’ prevails. But at its best journalism represents a specific approach which is distinct from other forms of communication; it is a process with a common set of standards including selection, investigation, truth telling, independence, editing, accuracy, balance, scrutiny, objectivity and so on.

Yet for some this fine set of mores is so fragile that it has apparently just collapsed in the face of a barrage of new technologies. Mobile phones, blogs and twitter have, we are told, made journalists of us all. I can’t tell you how mad it makes me to hear the people who were caught up in the July 7th bombings or the poor unfortunates vomiting on some cruise ship, or even the brave protestors in Iran described as ‘citizen journalists’. They are nothing of the sort – they are members of the public caught up in a news story as members of the public always have been. Yes their photos, blogs and tweets have radically changed the face of journalism – mostly for the better - but that does not make them journalists. And anyone who noticed how many conflicting reports came from the ‘citizen journalists’ who witnessed the shooting of John Charles de Menzes should note that a journalist is still needed to sift thought these accounts and apply journalistic standards to the mess.

And I have a similar reaction to Jeff Nesbitt’s approach. I don’t buy the ‘once a journalist always a journalist’ line and in fact I take a sneaking pleasure in watching many journalists who have been rude about PR finally come over to the dark side when needs must. Jeff’s ex-journalists will make great employees, they will understand the way the media works and apply the values of journalism to what they do but they are no longer working journalists. As soon as NSF employed them to produce copy for its website they underwent a career change – they can take their pick of job titles – they can be science writers, science communicators or science PR officers but they are not journalists. Of course I don’t actually know the finer details of their contract so maybe I will stand corrected but since there is a lot of this about I am determined to labour my point here. If NSF selects the subjects that they film then that immediately make this a different enterprise. And here’s a thing – what if in the course of their work for NSF they discover a funding scandal or uncover a scientific fraud– will that end up as a film on the website? Maybe I’ll be surprised by the answers but we should at least ask the questions.

I am not in any way posing science journalism as superior to science communication. I am a huge fan of the latter and believe it's imperative for science in general to get round the very journalistic vagaries that I alluded to earlier. Just because journalism is worth defending does not mean it’s always a good thing for science, as we know to our cost after stories like GM and MMR. Finding ways round some of the less attractive norms of journalism – the perverse news values, the dreaded headline writers, the need to ‘balance’ every article – is critical and scientists should use every method at their disposal to get the full story about science direct to the public. But in the same way that ‘citizen journalists’ would never have claimed that title for themselves, none of the science communicators I know see themselves as journalists and while the delegate who described us as ‘cheerleaders’ for science may have gone too far, I think most science press officers and communicators would accept that we are paid to get the best possible profile for the science carried out in our institutions.

Nor am I arguing that some of the new approaches like the one described by Nesbitt will not end up taking the place of traditional journalism. If Nick Davies’ bleak view that the thing we know as ‘journalism’ may be beyond saving is right then we must accept that we need to look at ways of doing something similar which achieves some of the same ends – informing educating and entertaining vast sections of the public about science. Indeed some blogs like RealClimate and PlanetEarth could be said to be doing that already. But that still doesn’t make these things ‘journalism’. It’s perhaps ironic that a week after Davies announced the death of journalism at the World Conference he himself broke one of the biggest stories of the year about the bugging of celebrities phones.

It is precisely because science journalism (as all traditional journalism) is under pressure and in decline that I think we need to fight for it. Instead of standing by passively and allowing lines to be blurred and investing in alternatives, we should consider ways to defend, shore up and champion science journalism – something we did collectively and to good effect at the World Conference.

2 comments:

MK said...

I am so glad that I missed the WCSJ. These tales of blurred lines are too depressing.

Peter Green said...

In a democracy the balance between the media 'promoting' and the media 'being critical' is fundamental. Last week I spoke at a seminar of international science journalists, researchers and PROs. There was wide acceptance of this viewpoint from the older speakers and attendees, but one young journalist called for a "partnership between the media and the research community to promote science". I found that disturbing.