the observatory

Science journalism’s great divide

Study finds pessimism in the West, optimism in the Global South
January 21, 2013

Science journalists in the West have a bleaker outlook on the future of their profession than their colleagues in the Global South, according to a survey of the field released this month.

“If there is a sense of crisis in science journalism, this is mainly perceived in USA, Canada and Europe, but less so in Latin American, Asia, and North and Southern Africa,” says the report from researchers at the London School of Economics, Museu da Vida (a science museum in Fiocruz, Brazil), and (a news website that covers science in the developing word), which queried 953 reporters and editors.

Worldwide, 72 percent of science journalists are happy in their jobs, the researchers found, but that belies a hemispherical divide in their level of content and optimism:

In Europe, USA and Canada, more people doubt that they will be working as science journalists in five years’ time, and fewer [would] recommend the career to a youngster. By contrast, across Asia, North and South Africa, the future of science journalism is exciting: the profession is seen to be moving on the right track. Here, as well a in Latin America, there is little doubt about the future, and people happily recommend the career to younger generations.

Are science journalists in the West just a bunch of bellyachers? Perhaps.

Despite the fact that they feel safer and are more satisfied with access to information and people, “they are less happy in their jobs overall,” according to the report. “In the rest of the world, the opposite is the case: there is happiness on the job, but dissatisfaction with the specifics of the operation.”

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The report is full of caveats and uncertainties, however. “The distribution of our survey is biased towards the global ‘South’ and it is likely to under-represent the science journalists in Europe, USA and Canada,” it says.

The report is actually an amalgam of four separate surveys that the researchers conducted between 2009 and 2012 covering journalists from six different regions, listed here in descending order by the number of responses: Latin American (353), Europe/Russia (163), Asia/Pacific (147), Sub-Saharan and Southern Africa (142), Northern Africa and Middle East (115), and USA and Canada (31). With such a strong geographic imbalance, it’s hard to generalize about the respondents.

The report contains the usual stats on age, gender, training, employment status, workload, and primary sources for information for instance (the “typical science journalist” is male, between 21 and 44 years old, and works on nine items over a two-week period), but the authors stress that their conclusions are tentative:

The final sample is unlikely to be representative of the world’s science journalists, as we have little information about this group except that it exists. To a large extent, our sample is haphazard and opportunistic; but some information is better than none at all, and we are comparing results with previous studies (e.g. Nature, 2009) to get a sense of concurrent validity on some terms.

For what it’s worth, the current survey and the one from Nature agree on some demographic points (just over half of science journalists are full-time staffers, and most of the rest are freelancers), but not on others (average age).

Regardless, the latest results track with articles published by CJR in 2009, 2010, and 2011 that also found more pessimism about science journalism in the West, and more optimism in the Global South. Science journalists in the US and Canada are particularly worried about the decline of print media and the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle. Concerns about the quality of journalism are everywhere, though, from sloppy work, to the influence of PR, to a lack of attention to complex issues.

Overall, 53.5 percent of the survey’s respondents “agreed” or “totally agreed” that there is a crisis in journalism, but only 22.3 percent went so far as to concur that it is “a dying profession.”

In fact, it’s likely that if a more thorough survey of North America and Europe were conducted, the results might be brighter. Not only are journalists there under-represented in this report, but the data it does have, collected in 2009, is the oldest among the four surveys used.

While cutbacks in science reporting at traditional news outlets continue to be a problem, the growth of science coverage online in the last three years might buoy the spirits of science journalists here and in Europe. The mood is undoubtedly still better in Latin American, Africa, and Asia, but not all hope is lost in the West.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.