Are science journalists too tame to be watchdogs?

The question was: are science journalists too tame to be watchdogs? The verdict was mixed.

Tame watchdogs? Mixed verdict from the panel.

There has been a ‘medialisaton’ of science, with many institutes engaged in public relations and bombarding journalists with well-crafted press releases (OK, that is unusual in the developing world). Plus scientists have now started blogging too.

Add to that the pressures of time, worsened by the demands online media makes of journalists, such as blogs and twitters. So, are science journalists just not digging deep into a story?

As Hans Peter Peters, a researcher at the Institute of Neurosciences and Medicine at the Helmholtz Association in Germany, and adjunct professor of science journalism at the Free University of Berlin, told a session at ESOF 2010, on 3 July, the main goal of science public relations is ‘legitimacy’ or gaining public support for (sometimes controversial) science, rather than to disseminate information.

The pros include helping journalists find information, and helping research organisations survive in a society in which being in the media helps boost a scientist’s career.

But the cons include over-emphasising the immediate practical utility of research, framing scientific advances as organisational output, and focusing on the competitive rather than cooperative nature of science.

Who us? Tame? Don't think so.

Science press relations is both necessary and legitimate, but it must be counterbalanced by strong science journalism,” said Peters. “Strong science journalism will not only be beneficial to the science media and scientific audiences, but also to science itself.”.

Patrick Imhalsy, member of the board of the Swiss science writers association, says it is difficult for science journalists to be really snappish watchdogs, as they lack time.

“We need more time to read scientific papers and not press releases, to understand how science research grows and not just look at the end results, to leave one’s office and go to a laboratory, and above all, to write carefully.”

So what’s your verdict?

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net.

One Response to Are science journalists too tame to be watchdogs?

  1. Yes. Organization constraints and sources strategies are making journalists focus more on breaking news. And that’s a recipe for being tame. Please check: The use of Internet in newsgathering among European science journalists.

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