Although I say it myself, there are some really stimulating, readable and fascinating articles in Nature this week (25 June issue) about science, journalism and communication with the lay public. Most of this post is taken from a Nature Network forum post: you're welcome to join in the discussion there.
Many researchers see science journalists as a public-relations service or as an ally in spreading the news about their work, asserts a Nature Editorial this week (459, 1033; 2009 – free to read online). The Editorial points out that there is a deeper value of journalism: to cast a fair but sceptical eye over everything in the public sphere — science included. This kind of scrutiny is easy for researchers to applaud when a news report questions dodgy statistics or dubious claims about uncertainties in evolution. It is not so easy when the story takes a critical look at animal-research practices, overblown claims about climate change or scientists’ conflicts of interest. But such examinations are to the benefit of society, which needs to see science scrutinized as well as regurgitated, and journalists are an essential part of that process.
This week’s Nature special issue, of which the Editorial is a part, shines a spotlight on the profession in changing, troubled times, and is published to mark the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists from 30 June to 2 July 2009 in London.
Scientists can do little to stem the current bloodletting, in which readers and advertisers are deserting publications that are downsizing or folding at fast pace. But, argues the Editorial, they can make worthwhile attempts to ensure that questioning and informed science journalism persists in whatever new forms might emerge from the carnage. If the future of the media truly is a dire landscape of top-100 lists, shouting heads and minimal attention span, then such efforts might at least defer the grim end. A good start would be to have a look at the advice for academics speaking to journalists provided by Brad Delong and Susan Rasky. And from the other side of the coin, the Washington Post‘s national environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin and its executive editor Marcus Brauchli discuss the future of science coverage in their newspaper in a Nature Books&Arts Q&A.
But do newspapers even matter? Blogs and microblogging services like Twitter are opening up conferences to those not actually there – how is this direct to web exposure affecting science journalism, and indeed scientists themselves and their options for peer-review and publication of their research? A range of angles on these questions are covered in a Nature News feature, including the story of a recent ’blogostorm’ about a Cold Spring Harbor meeting in which scientists seemed free to report what journalists could not.
In other articles in this week’s Nature, Toby Murcott in Toppling the priesthood argues that the process of science needs to be opened up to journalists; Boyce Rensberger (Too close for comfort) tracks the progression of scientific correspondent from cheerleader to watchdog; and Nadia El-Awady in The Arab boom suggests much room for improvement in local journalism in Arab countries. The bottom line? To what extent should scientists help — or care?
(All the Nature articles mentioned and linked here are part of the science journalism special in the issue of 25 June 2009. The three Essays and the Books&Arts article are free to read online for 2 weeks from the publication date.)