Framing Science

i-6f697b48fbc487d59e70ffd4077d9935-media_for_science_forum.jpg

Organizers of the upcoming Science for Media Forum in Madrid, Spain have launched a blog as part of the build up to the event. In the first posts, several European-based journalists raise concerns about the increased financial pressures on news organizations that have reduced the amount and quality of science coverage. At the same time, there is concern about the resources spent on journalism in comparison to those spent on public relations, including the contributions to “science hype” from university-based communication initiatives.

In articles published with colleagues last year and in posts at this blog, I have raised similar concerns.

In particular, relative to the responsibilities and practices of research universities, given the severe pressures to the news industry, to what extent should the resources traditionally spent on media relations–or for example the production of a university research magazine–be better spent in collaborating with journalism schools and faculty on launching digital news communities that would cover issues of science, health, the environment, and technology that are relevant to the university’s state, region or community and that actively engage local citizens as users, contributors, and co-creators of the news site? Similar to the model for public media in the U.S., these efforts could also be underwritten, for example, by biomedical or technology companies, with content shared with other local or regional news outlets. They can also be the organizing hub and digital complement to many of the innovations being applied in the design and use of face-to-face public forums and other engagement initiatives.

Below are a few highlights from the views posted so far at the blog for the Media for Science Forum. You can also check out the full agenda for the conference.

In one post, Finnish science journalist Vesa Niinikangas reflects on the economic pressures faced by science journalists in his country:

I asked recently some active members of the Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists (FASEJ) what they think about future of science journalism in Finland. They were rather optimistic. One said that there’ll always be a need for good stories based on scientific facts. An ex-editor-in-chief of the largest popular science magazine said that science based stories are best entertainment. Another science journalist reminded me about shadows: in spite of good profits big media companies have fired about 100 experienced good journalists during last year – journalists specialized on science among them. Time schedules have become shorter and stories have to be published much more quickly than earlier. What follows is that there are more mistakes; texts and graphics are based on wrong or false data. Is it because of a lack of time to check the facts or is it because of a lack of good journalistic skills? Whatever the reason is columns of corrections grow longer. Finland has adapted US experiences in many ways after the World War II. Is the future of science journalism in Finland similar to the current situation in USA, too?

In another post, Elmar Veerman, a Danish journalist with VPRO, one of the public broadcast outlets in the Netherlands, considers the amount of money spent by universities and corporations on public relations, with each organization besieging journalists with attempts to boost their single study or product. Veerman wonders if the resources might be better spent as pooled money that would underwrite the efforts of independent science journalists:

That’s no reason to complain, of course. I can choose what to do with all those offers. I mostly ignore them. But it seems such a waste of money. How much do universities, research foundations, medical centers and other producers of scientific results spend on science communication, all aimed at a small and diminishing group of science journalists? It seems harder and harder for them to get our attention. Surely they see the problem here too? Journalists are the bottleneck in the science communication chain, simply because there are so few of them. Or perhaps there are too many communicators. Wouldn’t it be better if all those universities and institutions gave a small part of their communications budget to a fund that would pass it on to independent, skilled science journalists? That way, their press officers would have more people to sell their news to. And the public would get more science news, which would be more reliable too. What do you think?

In a third post, Vladmir de Semir, Director of the Science Communication Observatory at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain, offers similar concern about the resources spent on public relations efforts and in particular the embargo policy at scientific journals:

The constant stream of embargoed news releases distracts journalists from what they should be doing–namely, taking a more critical approach to their beat. The existence of this embargo-driven “pack journalism” should be antithetical to a group that usually resists any authority trying to influence what it does. It is strange that journalists acquiesce to the will of such powerful publishing organizations.[ii]

In the last World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) held in London, June 2009, there was a panel turned to the embargo system. The conclusion for many was that embargoed science turns journalists into agents of propaganda and standardizes science news all over the world. Vincent Krienan advised to journalists: “It’s time to walk away from the embargo. Just walk away.”

Comments

  1. #1 Earle Holland
    April 16, 2010

    Sorry, Matt, but I think the suggestion that research universities shift resources from their own media relations efforts “to fund collaborations with journalism schools and faculty” is blatantly wrong-headed! Instead, European research universities ought to follow the model of so many excellent American universities and hire first-rate science writers and then let them produce good science journalism. The issue isn’t how to bail out the ever-dwindling world of traditional journalism but rather how to have organizations take on the philosophy and responsibilities of producing good journalism.

    Granted, institutions that are using research communications as a poorly cloaked mask for marketing or blatant public relations do a disservice both to the public and to their own researchers. But there is an easy alternative available that focuses on the higher value of truely informing the public rather than self-serving PR for the institution — hire good science journalists at the institutions and let them loose!

    As for the resources spent on fancy research magazines, I agree that they are largely wasted on publications that ultimately have little effect other than to feed the egos of the administrators who fund them. The extinction of these particular periodicals woud be no great loss to my mind.

    But in fairness, the average quality of European science writing seems to leave much to be desired. Either it is too politically slanted to one side or another — as with much of the British press — or it is too much the parroting of crudely blatant PR — at least that’s my view from this side of the “pond” for the last three decades.

    Earle Holland
    Asst VP for Research Communications
    Ohio State University

  2. #2 Jon C
    April 17, 2010

    Earle – wouldn’t “hiring good science journalists at the institutions and letting them loose” rather defeat the whole role of journalism in providing *independent* reporting and analysis? What if your “good journalist” found evidence of widespread mispractice or scientific fraud at their institute? Would you really expect them to publish an expose about it?

    I’d place far more trust in an article by someone not in the pay of the same organisation whose research they happen to be reporting. To me, what you propose looks like PR and spin dressed in a gossamer cloak of… well, I don’t know what, because I can see right through it – and so would the public. To quote the sage words of Guardian former science editor Tim Radford: you overestimate your audience’s knowledge, but underestimate their intelligence, at your peril.

  3. #3 Earle Holland
    April 19, 2010

    Jon — While I understand your argument, it is one that’s continually thrown up as a convenience for folks who seem more comfortable in compartmentalizing roles. It assumes that anyone in the employ of an organization will automatically acquiese to its vested interests. And the skeptic in me readily acknowledges that this scenario is frequently seen, but not always. For example, some journalists work for media organizations and still find ways to report on the good and the bad of that organization, depending on the commitment of both the journalist and his/her media outlet.

    At the same time, I know plenty of science writer PIOs who do nothing but straight science writing as opposed to hyperbolic PR. Again they do so because of their commitment and that of their organization to provide accurate information. Granted, it may not be the norm but it occurs frequently enough to be an alternative model.

    It has always surprised me that so many people need to constrict people and their roles by virtue of their stereotypes. PIOs are paid by their institutions so therefore are selling soap . . . Journalists only report without bias, advocacy or influence. Anyone who has worked in either situation knows that both stereotypes are far from real.

    How is it that, in a time when the news media, and the scholars who study it, all agree that the rules have changed, that we’re stuck with the same paradigm? The movement supporting the so-called “citizen journalists” trend is backing reporting by individuals lacking any journalism training while professional science writers are suspect, based on who pays their checks?

    Of course, it is easier to just argue that the reporting from within an institution is weaker than that from without, but having done both, I argue that the opposite is true. Research institutions have self-reported problems often enough that they should not be branded as untrustworthy. News organizations are often the last to acknowledge their own internal problems, based on my experiences.

    The argument you make rests largely on the premise that only independent journalists can provide balance to stories, but as we’ve seen so often in the coverage of climate change and evolution vs. intelligent design, the quest for a false balance in reporting has only muddied the waters.

    The majority of science journalism and science reporting doesn’t involve malfeasance, misconduct or shoddy science — it focuses on discovery, questions and challenges. Given that, I’m not clear what bearing the “looking-under-rocks” aspect of reporting applies to the broad field of science journalism and science writing.__ Earle Holland

  4. #4 Don
    April 20, 2010

    I am a prof at at big research university. Media relations here is led by a harried, noble person long with a staff of three, recently cut to two in the downward spiral of funding. She tries valiantly to represent what is happening in the research labs, and gets a good story about 60% of the time, a story that is misrepresented, ignored, or virtually ridiculed by the commercial media. The commercial media cater to their big, corporate ownership who wants to publish pabulum and feel good vignettes that fit between commercials. Matthew has it right, right at the beginning of his post about the “severe pressures of the news industry.” Those pressures are hugely different from enlightened, intelligent, and insightful reporting on much of anything, especially on what research universities actually do. It would be interesting to chronicle the discoveries, insights, and advances at any one research university versus what the news actually reports. Most of the substantial stuff would be ignored.

  5. #5 Recharddo
    July 6, 2010

    I agree with Don’s comment. I think that the organization of scientific forums in Universities, Research Centers, resources will be difficult …. When Organizations such as financial cost for the one good science forum. But the fact they were not so. There are too many things happen but the media did not say true. Right at the beginning of his post (Matthew) about the “severe pressures of the news industry.” Those pressures are hugely different from enlightened, intelligent, and insightful reporting on much of anything, especially on what research universities actually do. It would be interesting to chronicle the discoveries, insights, and advances at any one research university versus what the news actually reports. Most of problem importance would be ignored.

  6. #6 Recharddo
    July 6, 2010

    I agree with Don’s comment. I think that the organization of scientific forums in Universities, Research Centers, resources will be difficult …. When Organizations such as financial cost for the one good science forum. But the fact they were not so. There are too many things happen but the media did not say true.

  7. #7 Recharddo
    July 6, 2010

    I agree with Don’s comment. I think that the organization of scientific forums in Universities, Research Centers, resources will be difficult …. When Organizations such as financial cost for the one good science forum. But the fact they were not so. There are too many things happen but the media did not say true.

  8. #8 Recharddo
    July 6, 2010

    PARIS ACCOMMODATION – I agree with Don’s comment. I think that the organization of scientific forums in Universities, Research Centers, resources will be difficult …. When Organizations such as financial cost for the one good science forum. But the fact they were not so. There are too many things happen but the media did not say true.