Not Exactly Rocket Science

In the opening salvo of the World Conference of Science Journalists, three speakers debated the role of new media in the science journalism of tomorrow. What follows is an account of the session and personal opinions on some of the issues raised.

How online news can evolve (and have blogs and other media already beaten it there?)

Krishna Bharat, founder of Google News and owner of the incredible job title of “Distinguished Researcher”, kicked things off with a whirlwind tour of ideas on the future of online news. He touched on each one for the briefest of moments:

  • He highlighted Google News as a way of gaining access to “thousands of other perspectives”.
  • He talked about encouraging links between different news sources so that people cooperate rather than compete over the same story.
  • He cited the Wikipedia page on the swine flu pandemic could easily be seen as a “living story” that stood in contrast to the usual static, unchanging pages of normal news sites – why can’t news organisations adopt similar models and create “timeless resources”, rather than a time-stamped drop in the pond?
  • He suggested that news organisations bring in scientists all over the world to help them to actively tell stories about topics that they are experts in.
  • And finally, he challenged the idea that news organisation need to make money only on their website. Instead, they should be considering syndication – packaging content that “floats freely online and lands anywhere”. 

Of these, it is the “living story” concept that most interests me. The others have a twinge of the familiar about them, for while the presentation was entitled Evolving Online News, many of these ideas are already par for the course for blogs and other less conventional forms of journalism. The best exemplars of the medium already encourage links across news sources and aggregate content that we are interested in. Through providing free production tools, blogs have made it easier for those with expertise to share it (see Effect Measure’s coverage of swine flu, Dan Macarthur’s writings on genetics or Laelap’s Ida analyses for a start). And we are already pretty good at syndication, either through linking across and highlighting passages of text, or through more interesting routes – this blog, for example, is occasionally translated into Polish, featured on the NSF’s Science 360 site and even provides fodder for major national press.  

The theme of syndication was picked by Jeff Nesbit of the National Science Foundation, who deemed it a necessity to compensate for the falling numbers of science journalists. When CNN folded its production team at the end of December, the NSF approached its senior producers to do a weekly video piece. That was the genesis of Science Nation, a series of videos that are circulated to news sources around the web.

These tactics sparked a good deal of controversy. Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre branded the project as PR instead of journalism, claiming that blurred the lines between simple science communication and the process of scrutiny, balance and so on that journalism should entail. Frank Nuijens from TU Delft asked if producing your own news segments and distributing it through TV networks was “journalism or churnalism”?

Does the rise of new media herald an overall improvement in quality?

Ben Hammersley, Associate Editor at Wired UK argued that while there has been a massive increase in the number of outlets and people involved in all forms of journalism, it is only the stuff of extremely high quality that will succeed. New media has gone through teething period and both editors and the audience are getting used to it. They’re now getting sophisticated and picky and there is only going to be space in their mind for extraordinarily good science content. There has been an explosion of production tools, which means there is a surplus of stuff to look at. “And if there’s anything worse that bad old media, it’s bad new media,” he added.

There will be two consequences of this model. Firstly, there will be a respecialisation of journalists; currently, people are trying to master all domains – TV, radio, print etc. – with poor results and in the future, the successful ones will be those who are really good at print or even really good at Twitter. Secondly, the number of journalists will fall as the weaker ones are weeded out. As Hammersley said, “There will be perhaps half as many people in this room in a few years’ time and they’ll have to be the best at what they do.”

There is much to agree with in Hammersley’s model and the idea of science journalism undergoing a process of natural selection seems sound, but the argument does have some serious flaws. Certainly among paid journalists, there may come a reckoning of numbers where only the best will survive. It’s equally likely that the demise of defined science beats and the loss of knowledgeable reporters will lead to the same subjects being covered by those with no experience, expertise or enthusiasm for the subject matter. That’s hardly a recipe for extreme quality.

Hammersley’s model also ignores the growing number of people who are writing about science for free and who are doing it very well (look at my blogroll for some examples). The “explosion in production tools” has meant that you don’t need connections or training to talk about science – you merely need time, desire and a decent computer.

This ease of production means that there is indeed a large amount to choose from but Hammersley is wrong if he believes that this will collapse into a few top players. As one audience member noted, the plurality of the Internet is a strength, not a weakness and the rise of blogs mean that a lot of incredibly niche and eccentric tastes are being catered for. If anything, I would speculate that the number of people who are writing about science will rise, even if the number of people who earn a living through it falls.

Who is our audience?

Hammersley dove straight into controversial waters when he derided London’s free newspapers (so far, so good) and the people who read them, claiming that they are not the people we are writing for. “If you watch X-Factor,” he said, “you’re not going to be interested in the Large Hadron Collider.”

On the contrary, I believe those are exactly the people who we should be trying our damnedest to reach. Of course it is important to cater for those already interested in science, to nourish their interests with morsels of well-written goodness. But, as an audience member rightly said, “If we are not reaching new readers, we are not participating in the mission of spreading scientific knowledge and values.”

This is the crux of it – channelling your efforts to those who are already won over by science is preaching to the converted. The new audiences are the challenge and attracting them is an area that new media can excel in. Through a few magic blue words, people can link to stories of interest. They can re-tweet them, post them on forums and generally bring them to the eyes of friends-of-friends who might not be directly interested in science themselves. I have seen so many of my posts disseminated in this way and I bet that some of you readers came to this blog through these routes. The tools of the web allow people who are very interested in science to reach a much broader audience than those who voluntarily visit any given website.

More on science journalism

 

Comments

  1. #1 Alex
    July 1, 2009

    Funny that Google News would have anything worthwhile to say about Science journalism.

    Google’s news page lumps science into the Tech business section, so that any actual science is buried by news about iPhone releases and telecom industry mergers. Google is perhaps the worst science news aggregator I’ve seen anywhere.

  2. #2 Regnier
    July 2, 2009

    On living stories – it does seem as though this is an approach that would work particularly well in science, where new research perhaps shouldn’t be reported except in the context of all previous work, current (competing) hypotheses and so on. But it wouldn’t exactly be “news” to say that the weight of scientific evidence has today shifted slightly towards hypothesis X thanks to new research published in A Good Peer-Reviewed Journal. I’m tempted to say that the demise of science in the news might be good for science – as long as there is some other outlet for current scientific information that has a regular trigger / reason for people to go and look at it. Which could be difficult to engineer.

    On the question of PR or journalism / journalism or churnalism: the line from Google and even some media outlets is that quantity of content is king. So who cares who produced it (note the BBC and others who often beg viewers/listeners to send in their views, or the US outlets who quote people’s facebook messages as if it’s considered comment) as long as it fills the airwaves for a few precious seconds? This came up in the investigative science journalism strand (hope to see your blog on that soon, Ed) and it may be that journalists will suffer while the new platforms dictate that something be said regardless of how interesting it is. Hopefully a new appetite for quality of content will arise, and this new journalism will demand its platforms, rather than the platforms demanding whatever content is available.

  3. #3 Richard
    July 3, 2009

    On timestamping stories – it is essential that ‘living stories’ be timestamped as they are altered. (Wikipedia does this through its talk pages). This is a big fail for the BBC (to pick one) – they should timestamp updates to science stories so you can see where corrections happen.