It’s Time to have The Conversation about Science Journalism

The mass media plays a critical role in influencing publics perceptions, opinions and knowledge of scientific research. There is a systematic misrepresentation of scientific concepts in the Australian media, from climate change and vaccines to genetic engineering and vitamins, contributing to low scientific literacy. This leads to widespread misinformation, which skews public opinion, affecting government policy and people’s own behaviours, so much so that it hinders the ability of society to act in its own best interest.

When discussing science journalism there are a plethora of examples of bad practice. To save time, and for the simple fact that all I couldn’t possibly cover anywhere near the amount of content I would like to in one short blog, I won’t delve into the ways in which the media get it wrong. If you are interested (and I highly recommend you should be) Ben Goldacre, who is a medically trained doctor and professional science journalism critique had a website aptly called badscience.net that covers all you could possibly want to know about the ways in which the media skews science. For simplicity, there are some main reasons why journalists get science wrong:

  • A lack of time: as more articles are expected from fewer journalists, the time in which they can spend on any single piece is reduced and leads to mistakes.
  • A lack of understanding: Journalists don’t traditionally have a scientific training, and the media reports and journals themselves can be quite wordy and difficult to understand
  • Profit: I would like to believe this is rarely the case, however, there have been instances where columnist have promoted bad science about products that they themselves just happen to sell.
  • Science usually doesn’t have “breakthroughs“: The days of huge and exciting scientific breakthroughs are long gone. Any “breakthrough” that we see in the news today is either a small discovery that builds on years of individual studies (not very newsworthy) or a piece of data that goes against a huge body of research (which is most often later proved to be wrong).

The desire for journalists to fit science into their usual news format is why science journalism has never developed into a successful model. Whilst it’s easy to focus on the negatives, in the ever more technological ages there have been some solutions. Convergent journalism is yet another manifestation of the instant gratification culture that we live in today. It focuses on the need for news that is easily and instantly accessible, that can be tailored to the viewer’s preference and come from various mediums. This usually comes in the form of online journalism and reporting, which offer variety never seen in regular print or television.

The Conversation is one website made possible in the convergent journalism age that combats the problems all of the main of issues with scientific journalism with a very innovative solution. It is a news website curated by professional editors that get academics in different fields of study to talk about their work in articles that are well-informed and superbly written.This ensures that the journalists aren’t pressed for time as there aren’t chaotic deadlines, there’s no misunderstanding because the academic is writing about their own field, it’s a not-for-profit organisation so money isn’t an influence and the academics on The Conversation don’t have a formal ‘news piece structure’ that they feel the need to conform to, leading to a more accurate portrayal of content.

This has led to scientific articles of a nature that has never been seen before. Whilst in the past in has been common for researchers to write press releases for news agencies, often the keys points are lost between the press release and the eventual news article. Science magazines that are written by scientists have been traditionally rather expensive, and tailor to a very niche audience. Now viewers can have access to a wealth of new research that is, for the most part, accessible and easy to read. So far The Conversation is unique in its nature, however, is growing from it’s humble Melbourne beginning to spread across the globe. This could potentially push the state of scientific literacy forward in a way never seen before. It’s an exciting time to be in science.

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