The recent coverage of the subatomic particles found to have travelled faster than the speed of light—tentative evidence that could mean a revision of Einstein’s special theory of relativity and a rewriting of the basic laws of physics—highlighted an emerging form of science reporting: the science journalist as science critic.
Dennis Overbye in The New York Times, for example, analyzed the findings against the context of a recent history of physics and astronomy that is “strewn with reports of suspicious data bumps [that] disappear with more data or critical scrutiny”. Brian Vastag in The Washington Post framed his report around the long process of scientific revolutions where “Eureka moments can stretch into noggin-scratching years.”
These are examples of the style of reporting that former science correspondent for the BBC World Service Toby Murcott argued, in a 2009 Nature article, should become routine in science journalism. Science writers should open up the process of science in their reports, he said, examining how a piece of research came to be undertaken and how it fits into the larger history and current debates about a field.
It is becoming increasingly important for science reporters to become this type of science critic, as their professional roles and practices are shifting in the digital age, a shift examined by myself and a colleague, Matthew Nisbet, in a recently published paper at Journalism.
The contemporary science journalist, we found, is now working at the confluence of three cultural trends. First, their traditional historical role as the privileged disseminators of scientific information has been undercut by the emergence a new science media ecosystem in which scientific journals, institutions and individuals are producing original science content directly for non-specialist audiences. As a result, journalists are no longer the primary source of breaking news about science. Consequently, they need additional ways to attract readers and maintain their professional identity.
Second, the traditional ‘scoop’ culture of journalism is being supplemented by other forms of journalistic authority, what journalism scholar Donald Matheson, in an academic article on online journalism trends in New Media & Society, called “knowing more, knowing better, knowing more comprehensively and knowing in as much depth or extent as readers would wish.” To do this, science journalists need to provide expert interpretation of scientific knowledge, operating similarly to art critics as they evaluate — rather than just describe — scientific findings.
And, thirdly, the economic changes in the news industry has meant that science reporters are increasingly working as freelancers, the working life of many split between a portfolio of journalism, teaching, convening science-related events and writing books. For example, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Deborah Blum said the industry-wide move to freelancing has driven changing perceptions of what a science reporter is and does. She said in an interview for our paper: “A science journalist wears a lot of hats, the way I do… I write books, I do magazine articles, I teach - [this] is much more the 21st century version of a journalist.”
An example of a science reporter doing this kind of science criticism is John Horgan, who writes the Cross-Check blog for Scientific American, and who we categorize in our paper as undertaking the role of a public intellectual, synthesizing a range of complex information about science and its social implications and presenting his view from a distinct, identifiable perspective.
In an interview for our paper, Horgan said that he became dissatisfied with the constraints of traditional reporting while working as a staff reporter for Scientific American in the 1990s and wanted to undertake a more opinion-based, interpretative type of reporting. He said: “I convinced myself that that was actually a good thing to do because science had become such an authority that there was a need for a scientific critic … I just enjoy that form of journalism myself. It’s a paradox: it’s using subjectivity to ultimately get a more clear, objective picture of things.”
Horgan, whose author bio on his blog says he takes “a puckish, provocative look at breaking science,” has focused on a recurring them in recent posts: what he described as “the unhealthy influence of profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies on our health-care system”. He explored this idea in a post about the prescription of psychiatric drugs to children and one about the accusation by Michele Bachmann that drug company Merck may have influenced Rick Perry’s 2007 proposal that girls in Texas be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV).