October 1, 2011 — Science journalists in the US and UK face unique pressures adapting to the social and participatory nature of online news, to economic conditions that force them to fill a diversity of roles in the newsroom, and to the many hats they must wear if they are to survive as freelancers.
As a consequence, science journalists in writing for online media have shifted away from their traditional role as privileged conveyors of scientific findings to a diversity of roles as curators, conveners, public intellectuals and civic educators, roles that are underwritten by the essential skills of criticism, synthesis and analysis.
These online science journalists have a more collaborative relationship with their audiences and sources and are generally adopting a more critical and interpretative stance towards the scientific community, industry, and policy-oriented organizations. Those are just a few of the key conclusions from a new peer-reviewed study that we published this month at Journalism: Theory, Criticism and Practice. We based our analysis on a systematic review of recent studies and reports and on interviews that we conducted with nationally prominent science journalists and writers in the US and UK.
A Typology of Roles for Journalists
We began our analysis by systematically reviewing studies that describe the changing nature of science journalism and public affairs journalism more generally. We also reviewed related recent discussions at news outlets and public forums.
Our goal was to identify the emerging practices for science reporters in this new digital era and the multiple roles that journalists are adopting. Based on this process, to guide our investigation, we developed a typology of journalistic roles. Typologies are valuable tools, enabling researchers to validly categorize many observations based on multiple attributes. A chief goal of this paper was to be able to classify the roles adopted by science journalists so that these roles can be further examined, refined and tracked across future studies. We identified the following roles for online science journalists:
- The conduit explains or translates scientific information in their reporting from experts to non-specialist publics.
- The public intellectual synthesizes a range of complex information about science and its social implications – in which the writer has a degree of specialization – presenting that information from a distinct, identifiable perspective.
- The agenda-setter identifies and calls attention to important areas of research, trends and issues, coverage of which is then picked up and reflected in other science news outlets.
- The watchdog holds scientists, scientific institutions, industry and policy-orientated organizations to scrutiny.
- The investigative reporter carries out in-depth journalistic investigations into scientific topics, especially where science meets public affairs.
- The civic educator informs non-specialist audiences about the methods, aims, limits and risks of scientific work.
- The curator gathers science-related news, opinion and commentary, presenting it in a structured format, with some evaluation, for audiences.
- The convener connects and brings together scientists and various non-specialist publics to discuss science-related issues in public, either online or physically.
- The advocate reports and writes driven by a specific worldview or on behalf of an issue or idea, such as sustainability or environmentalism.
Journalists and Commentators Interviewed for the Study
Once establishing this typology, we then conducted interviews with a sample of journalists to determine whether these categories appeared to be valid descriptions of their activities and professional roles. While recognizing some of the method’s limitations, we judged this to be the best means for gaining rich data about how journalists interpret the changes in their professional roles and routines over the past decade.
We chose for our sample journalists who based on their organizational affiliation and status we considered to be paradigmatic cases, professionals who highlight general characteristics of online science journalists and commentators. These journalists serve as major reference points for others in the US and UK.
Four interviewees were chosen because they occupy prominent roles in elite, legacy media outlets. Andrew Revkin, former environment correspondent for the New York Times, writes the Dot Earth blog for the newspaper and was recognized this year by the National Academies for his “pioneering social media” about climate and sustainability with “worldwide readership and impact.” James Randerson is environment and science news editor with the Guardian, and Alok Jha is science correspondent at the same paper. Curtis Brainard is editor of The Observatory column at Columbia Journalism Review.
Two interviewees were chosen because they write for the traditional popular science magazines Scientific American and Discover. John Horgan is the author of several popular science books, including The End of Science (1996), and writes the Cross-check blog for Scientific American. Ed Yong writes the Not Exactly Rocket Science blog at Discover and is past winner of the National Academies Online Science Journalism Award for “engaging and jargon-free multimedia storytelling about science in the digital age.”
Eli Kintisch was chosen because he works as a journalist for the journal Science, writes for the magazine’s Science Insider blog, and is author of Hack the Planet, an examination of geo-engineering. Three others were chosen because they write for innovative online science media endeavors. Mike Lemonick is senior writer at ClimateCentral and previously with Time magazine where he contributed more than 50 cover stories over 20 years. Charles Petit is lead writer at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker and covered science for the San Francisco Chronicle for more than 25 years before moving on to US News & World Report. David Roberts is staff writer and blogger at Grist, a left-leaning news and commentary site about the environment.
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Deborah Blum was chosen as she combines the prominent roles of freelance science journalist, popular science book author, professor at the University of Wisconsin, and blogger with the non-profit organization PLoS, which aims to make the world’s scientific literature freely available.
Each of these interviewees were asked a common set of open-ended questions on how they defined their own roles, their relationship with readers and sources, how these relationships may have changed in the digital age, and their view on the state of contemporary science reporting. They were also asked if they regarded their work as fitting into each of the proposed categories of science reporters and, if so, how. Interviews were recorded with permission and lasted between 45 minutes to an hour.
Science Journalism that Is Participatory, Social, and Pluralistic
As science and society scholar Brian Trench notes, for several decades, science reporters have held a privileged status as “the principal arbiters of what scientific information enters the public domain and how it does it,” a gate-keeping role that simultaneously enhanced the status of reporters, the authority of scientists, and the prestige of their institutions. Moreover, science reporting has tended to conform to a transmission communication model in which information was relayed faithfully “from privileged sources to diverse publics.”
The current “digital age” of science reporting, however, is uniquely characterized by self-publishing online via blogs, social media and personal websites while also simultaneously filing traditional edited and vetted stories.
At the same time, individual scientists are using blogs and other social media to communicate their work and agendas directly with various publics, creating a challenge for science reporters to not only cover the publication of new scientific knowledge in journals, but also to analyze and interpret scientific findings as they are being discussed online.
As a partial consequence, there has been a dramatic expansion online in the availability of science-related information and a perceived diminished role for science reporters as chief disseminators of scientific content. As Eli Kintisch of Science magazine and Science Insider told us:
Today there are much lower barriers between my audience and information, especially information reporters used to have sort of privileged access to, that includes today digital copies of scientific papers and main sources of information such as podcasts of news conferences, transcripts of speeches, or hearings. In the past, reporters were the only ones, now there is much more broad access, including the fact that scientists themselves have blogged about the paper or event. So information goes straight to the Internet audience, versus before there was more of a privileged role of reporters as an intermediary.
In addition, scientific publishers and societies, universities, science centers and museums, and interest groups are communicating directly with wider audiences, unmediated by journalists, often using narrative and presentation formats that were once the exclusive domain of news organizations, many even employing veteran science journalists as communication staffers. Scholars of science policy and communication, as well as critics and writers, are also producing science-related content directly online.
According to science journalism scholar Trench, these trends have created an “overlapping information and communication space” in which scientists, journalists, advocates, and the people formerly known as audiences are all content contributors, each with varying knowledge, background and perspectives.
This shift in the science journalism field parallels broader trends towards employing new digital formats and practices in public affairs media that enable non-journalists to be active co-producers of news content, engaging in ‘pro-am’ [professional-amateur] reporting on issues and events and adding their lay expertise and knowledge.
As a result, online science news and content has the potential to be highly participatory, social, and collaborative. In the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, more than one third of internet users report that they have contributed to the creation of news generally, commented about it, or disseminated it via postings on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.
However, even as the media system rapidly evolves, the traditional agenda-setting function of news media continues online, with national legacy media in the USA, such as the New York Times or the Washington Post, influencing the agenda of major public affairs-related blogs. As other Pew studies show, more than 99 percent of links at blog posts reference original reporting or commentary appearing first at the traditional legacy media. Just four outlets – the BBC, CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post – accounted for fully 80% of all links.
Deep Diving “Science Publics”
In this new media landscape, highly motivated users – who usually hold personal, professional, or strong political affinities for a field of science, an area of research, or a policy debate such as climate change, evolution, or stem cell research – can “deep dive” into specific science-related subjects.
These “science publics” consume, contribute, recommend, share, and comment on news and discussion of their preferred topics across media and platforms. They expect high standards and quality for content, and they expect that content be interactive and responsive to their feedback, reposting, forwarding, or commenting. As Curtis Brainard, who covers the science beat for the Columbia Journalism Review, told us:
Rather than having a readership that remains dedicated to your publication or any single publication, you’ve got readers who will find you when you’ve got something good. There’s that ability for stories from even the smallest publications, whether that be the Columbia Journalism Review or any other small newspaper, to really go viral and get a lot of national and even international attention.
A diversity of deep content choices, however, also makes it very easy for these “science publics” to only follow and participate at an aligned network of sites or blogs that reflect their worldviews, whether their preferred viewpoint be liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, environmentalism, scientism, atheism, or fundamentalism.
As a result, science-related bloggers on the left and right who target these highly motivated yet selective publics can attract communities of users that rival legacy media in size and depth of participation. This ideological selectivity is magnified by the increasing reliance by audiences on recommendations from like-minded others at Facebook and Twitter.
For legacy media journalists, navigating and synthesizing the “echo chamber” nature of online science media can prove challenging. As Andrew Revkin, who writes the Dot Earth blog at the New York Times, described his community of users:
They are sort of all over the map ideologically. The blog is very different than most in that most blogs are built to provide a comfort zone for a particular ideological camp, for liberals or conservatives or libertarians … what I do at Dot Earth is try to maintain an open forum where everyone can speak. I try – and sometimes fail – to maintain constructive discourse in the comments … And as a result it’s different. It’s a discomfort zone … I’m not here to provide you with a soft couch and free drinks if you’re an enviro or if you are a conservative. It’s a place to challenge yourself.
Mapping the New Science Media Ecosystem
With these trends in mind, we argue that a more suitable metaphor than the traditional transmission model of science journalism for describing this digital space is that of a “science media ecosystem,” drawing on respected technology journalist John Naughton’s description of a new media environment online. He wrote:
The new ecosystem will be richer, more diverse and immeasurably more complex because of the number of content producers, the density of the interactions between them and their products, the speed with which actors in this space can communicate with one another and the pace of development made possible by ubiquitous networking.
Applying this idea, the evolving science media ecosystem consists of legacy media in their print and online formats, including the Guardian and the New York Times; science blogging and aggregation sites, most notably Scienceblogs.com; the news and blogging communities formed by journals such as Science, Nature and PLoS; the news and blogging communities formed by legacy science magazines including Discover and Scientific American; ideologically-driven advocacy blogs and sites such as Pharyngula, Climate Progress and Climate Depot; and reflexive and meta-discussions of science journalism at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker and the Colombia Journalism Review.
Characteristic of this new science media ecosystem are innovative business models for producing science-related content which include “quasi-journalistic ventures set up by the scientific community” such as the communities at PLoS and Science; new ventures emanating from inside journalism such as the blogs and content features at the New York Times and the Guardian; and ‘developments in social networking and on the web which are both changing the way journalism is done and the way the public get their information’ such as scienceblogs.com. In addition, there is a fourth model consisting of foundation funded, not-for-profit ventures such as the environment-focused sites Grist and Climate Central.
This rise in the numbers of actors and types of business models for producing science-related content has mirrored a decline in the numbers of science writers employed by legacy media in the US, with the workloads of the science reporters who remain increasing, with time-pressed reporters increasingly reliant on subsidies from scientific institutions, universities and public relations agencies to find material.
The US-based National Association of Science Writers (NASW) noted that its membership in 2010 fell by approximately 200, or almost 10 percent, in a year. A report on science journalism in the UK found science reporting had been largely “spared the ravages of the US,” although “numbers employed had stagnated.” The report highlighted in particular concerns about a lack of investigative science reporting.
Changing Roles in the New Media Ecosystem
Changing journalist roles within the science media ecosystem reflect economic trends in the international news industry. As Indiana University’s Mark Deuze describes “[news] workers compete for (projectized, one-off, per-story) jobs rather than employers compete for (the best, brightest, most talented) employees.” Since freelancing relies on maintaining multiple streams of income-related activity, the trend has driven an increase in the diversity of roles that a science journalist might pursue.
Examples of journalists performing the roles typologized at the opening to our study have always existed, but the distribution of journalists across categories has grown more diverse in recent years. This trend is pronounced in US science journalism, with Deborah Blum of the University of Wisconsin noting to us that the industry-wide move to freelancing has:
… driven our changing perception of what a science journalist is. 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 twenty-first century version of a journalist.
In this section, we describe how the journalists we interviewed reflected on the different role categories outlined in our typology.
Conduits and explainers. Despite the imperatives for role diversity driven by the increased number of freelancers and the new online content features such as blogs featured at legacy media, a consistent theme among the journalists we interviewed was that the traditional role of reporting new scientific developments remained a cornerstone for their work.
Alok Jha of the Guardian noted that the main goal was reporting “what’s happening and what’s interesting. That’s the primary thing,” and he noted that other roles and functions flow from this primary reporting role. Charles Petit, a veteran science reporter and lead writer for MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker, said science reporters “explain current events by asking scholars about them, and these tend to be scientists’.
Jha was careful to distinguish this reporting function from roles as “conduits” and “explainers.” Petit said the reporting role was previously “much more dominant among science writers” and “it remains important.”
Blum and Ed Yong, who writes the award-winning Not Exactly Rocket Science blog for Discover magazine, were among reporters who said a core feature of their writing was explaining science understandably to non-specialists. Yong said:
I think that area of science reporting often gets forgotten about in the mainstream. I’m not sure it’s as valued as strongly as – I don’t know – uncovering acts of fraud or misconduct or finding juicy human stories. I think the very simple act of making complex things simple is tremendously valuable. It’s essential for science journalism.
Curators of information. Interviewees generally agreed that sifting through and evaluating the vast amount of science-related content has become an increasingly prominent function for science reporters. The Guardian, for example, created Story Trackers, which trace the coverage and commentary on major science stories as they develop, with readers actively pointing out interesting coverage. James Randerson of the Guardian said that, with so much science content available, curation is “about what it means to be a journalist in the digital age.” He said:
We made a very conscious decision to add value to stories by doing this kind of curation role, and basically admitting that we are not the fount of all knowledge, that we do have the ability to present information in a useful way and to hopefully decide which information is useful and which isn’t, and to try and bring in the information that’s good and present it in a way that’s meaningful, and to use our readers, our readership, and the people who are part of our community to help us in that task.
His colleague Jha said curation of stories where there are multiple angles and perspectives on the issue also allows for a more realistic portrayal of scientific work because “scientific papers when they are published are not the be all and end all. They are the start of a massive conversation.”
Curation is also an important function for producers of meta-discussions of science journalism carried out by, for example, The Observatory column at the Columbia Journalism Review. Its editor, Curtis Brainard, noted that curation was more than aggregation of content and adding value to stories is essential. He said:
It means informed or value-added aggregation. If you go to a museum, the curators don’t just put up a painting; they also put up a little sign next to it, explaining something about that work. That’s more what we do, that informed aggregation … We’re collecting headlines, but at the same time, we’re telling you why we’re recommending this story, or why we’re recommending you don’t read this other story.
David Roberts, a staff blogger with Grist, added that the volume of information has meant that “just about everyone online is being forced to play that role sometimes these days,” but for him, the curatorial role has moved to Twitter, which is “just a much handier tool for the job.”
Civic educators. While science journalists have traditionally been resistant to viewing their work as education, some interviewees noted that the limitless availability of space online allowed reporters to fulfill more an educational role. As Brainard told us:
Before digital media, the news was the news, and yesterday was ancient history. There was no efficient way to archive information for the public at your traditional news outlet. But now, the web has changed all that and so journalists need to be not only presenting the news, but they need to make pertinent background information readily accessible … the web allows us to do that. News outlets should almost develop these encyclopedias at their back end. The New York Times has done a great job on this.
Contextualized science reporting has an education function, according to Yong, not only promoting scientific achievements, but also showing “where scientists disagree, areas where controversies are going on, because that’s part of science, that’s an inescapable part of the scientific process … it shows people scientists are human and that science is a human process.”
Several journalists interviewed, however, were resistant or ambiguous about this role. Jha noted that it’s “a role that if it happens, then great … but it’s not the primary intention.” Mike Lemonick, formerly of Time magazine, now with Climate Central, and who teaches at Princeton University, said that most journalists have a strong resistance to the educator role:
Educators identify areas where knowledge is necessary, and provide it. An educator provides a discrete body of knowledge; they try and tell you everything about a certain subject, within limits of time. [Journalists] put educational content in a story in order to make news understandable. Another thing we do not do is assess what was learned.
Public intellectuals. Reporters in this role are similar to traditional newspaper commentators or columnists, moving frequently between specialized topics that they present from their distinctive worldview. Several interviewees were resistant to being classified in this role, but John Horgan, who writes the Cross-check blog for Scientific American, contributes to science magazines and writes popular science books, is the interviewee who illustrates this role most clearly.
While working as a staff reporter for Scientific American in the 1990s, he said he ‘became dissatisfied’ with the constraints of traditional reporting and he wanted to undertake more opinion-based, interpretative reporting. He classified himself as a “critical debunker” and said he looks for “exaggerated or erroneous scientific claims” that he tries to question and debunk. Horgan 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.
Agenda-setters. Randerson said a distinct role for science reporters remained “being able to project the story … The readership and the influence of the Guardian are very important in terms of making a story acquire legs and really start moving and change what governments think.’
A form of agenda-setting is happening also through social media, with Revkin, for example, sending out his blog posts through Twitter to “sort of to test the idea and get it propagating.”
Brainard noted: “One thing that hasn’t been lost in the media is that desire to be first … We love it when we can get out with an analysis before anybody else and become the foundation on which all the following coverage is built.”
Watchdogs. Interviewees agreed they generally fulfilled the watchdog role, over scientific institutions and the scientific community, but also over individuals or groups making false scientific claims, and over social actors intervening in science policy discussions. A quote from Jha is representative: “We are playing watchdog, but on all sides, really.”
Conveners. Science reporters connect scientists with various publics to discuss science. Revkin said this was a major part of his current work, either online or in person. He said:
A big subset of posts that I do are along those lines. When I go places to speak, quite often I’ll be in the role of moderator or kind of convener … where I am on stage with four or five scientists or technologies or engineers or academics and challenging them in the same way as I do on the blog.
We approached this article as laying the groundwork for additional research examining the rapidly evolving science media ecosystem and, as a result, we recognize the limitations to our analysis. We focused on elite media in the US and UK and future research might explore the extent to which a similar ecosystem exists in other countries and cultures. We chose to base this first part of our longer term study on elite media, rather than regional, local or community media, which may not have the resources or organizational capacity for its reporters to undertake the variety of roles outlined here.
The new science media ecosystem in the US and UK that we have mapped in this article – a mostly online environment that is deeply pluralistic, participatory and social – has presented challenges to the traditional professional role and working practices of the science reporter. In this environment, journalists have moved from their dominant historical role as privileged conveyors of scientific findings to an increasing plurality of roles that involve diverse, pluralistic and interactive ways of telling science news.
The increasing plurality of roles has been driven also by the shifting economic and career conditions for science journalists, who are, with increasing number in the United States, working as freelancers. The increase in role diversity is also a function of news organizations requiring their staff journalists to not only master various multimedia storytelling and newsgathering formats, but also report, write, create, and communicate across multiple mediums and in different formats.
The roles that are becoming increasingly prevalent are curator, convener, public intellectual and civic educator, roles that are underwritten by the essential skills of criticism, synthesis and analysis.
There remains, however, as described by our interviewees, a strong continuation of the traditional journalistic role conceptions of conduit and agenda-setter. The traditional reporter role emerged in interviews as being more fundamental to online science journalists than we had anticipated at the outset of our research.
Journalists also strongly identified with the watchdog role, stressing that this meant they covered critically the scientific community itself, new scientific findings, challenges to scientific knowledge, science policy claims and, indeed, science journalism itself.
Yet, as several interviewees stressed, critical, interpretative, analytical reporting cut across several roles, suggesting to us that the structural, organizational and professional changes in the digital age have enabled science reporters to more generally fulfill the historically much hoped for roles of science critics and civic interpreters.
Despite the rise in advocacy journalism, none of the interviewees self-identified in the advocate role, though this likely reflects the absence of a professional advocate from the sample we were able to interview. In addition, apart from some examples from established legacy media, the interviewed journalists did not self-identify strongly as investigative reporters.
Interviewees noted that legacy media had the resources and expertise to conduct investigative reporting, but, in the US at least, investigative work is now being carried out by, or in partnership with, non-profits, universities or philanthropically supported organizations, such as ProPublica or American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop.
The trend toward non-profit models that have flowered among a collaborative network of investigative reporters has been comparatively slow to develop in similar fashion among science journalists.
Still, there are existing non-profit models in science journalism that future research should examine, including Climate Central, Yale Environment 360, and the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. Yet these models stand as just six among what investigative reporter Charles Lewis has identified as more than 60 non-profit public affairs journalism initiatives at the national and local level in the US.
Given this growing population of ventures, future research should attempt to systematically account for the features and principles that can usefully inform the growth of non-profit science journalism.