How will a media outlet benefit from partnering with a science organization?

June 9, 2015

Partnerships are nothing new for WGBH, the Boston public broadcaster responsible for airing monster PBS content like Frontline and science hit NOVA. After forming a partnership with the fledgling New England Center for Investigative Reporting, the two worked together so closely that the Center is now based at the station’s offices.

So while its latest pairing with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences seems par for the course, it’s actually a bit more groundbreaking. The Academy has been in existence for 235 years, but WGBH is the only media organization it’s aligned itself with.

It’s clear what the Academy gets from having a close relationship with a large radio station that can make a major city aware of the work its researchers are doing. It’s less clear what WGBH gets from the deal.

One thing the station’s editors are looking for is access–to the Academy’s scientists and their storied expertise, to major research projects coming down the pipeline. “The broader your ability to talk with multiple sources and have access to the best brains, that’s when you look at partnerships,” says Phil Ledo, general manager of WGBH News. “We have access that we didn’t have before this partnership.”

“The broader your ability to talk with multiple sources and have access to the best brains, that’s when you look at partnerships.”

But talking with multiple sources and getting background information on what’s to come is the bread and butter of good journalism work, without the need for academics to sit down in a pitch meeting with reporters. It may instead signal a shift in how Ledo, and many others, see the role of reporters in a time when sponsored content is no longer shocking and public relations teams are growing into ever more sophisticated barriers. “We’ve become sort of these conduits for the general public on different platforms,” Ledo says of news organizations.

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Journalism, though, is more than a conduit. It’s about finding information that’s been hidden and using it to hold sources accountable. Science needs that kind of journalism more than ever.

The move comes in an era when science is simultaneously in increasing demand to solve the world’s most pressing problems–climate change, a struggling food supply, aging and ailing populations–and under ever greater political pressure and zealous attack. At the same time, the field is struggling with its own failings, like fabricated data and a pressure to publish that leads to hasty work.

So it’s worth asking how a major media outlet will handle a collaborative relationship with an organization that can be both source and subject. And it’s not simply an abstract question. Late last month, the journal Science found itself at the center of a media storm when its editors retracted a paper claiming to have found a technique for changing an individual’s mind on the topic of gay marriage that turned out to be based on allegedly made-up data.

The agreement with WGBH guarantees that both parties remain autonomous, says Linda Polach, the managing editor for the newsroom’s first major project with the Academy. Polach is overseeing a series of local and national stories about water, using expertise from the Academy as well as outside sources. “We’ll do our own good work on finding various opinions to counter [the Academy’s viewpoint] or support it, whatever the case may be,” Polach says.

With no model relationship from which to work, both groups will have to navigate what it means to have reporters working closely with the sources they’re supposed to be covering. (“It’s a crawl-walk-run kind of thing,” Redo says.) A closer relationship with thousands of academics could provide an excellent opportunity for in-depth science journalism, which is too often relegated to the daily churn of the latest study.

But it’s crucial that the station crew remembers their role as journalists, not communications staff for the Academy or its experts. And they can’t be afraid to walk away if the Academy gets squeamish with its promise of editorial autonomy.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences operates a press release service called EurekAlert! and publishes four academic journals, including Science. The American Association for the Advancement of Science operates EurekAlert! and publishes Science, not the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It also stated that the Academy is 167 years old. It is 235 years old. CJR regrets the errors.

Laura Dattaro is a science journalist, writer, and producer based in New York.