Climate change communication, energy politics, and journalism: Syllabus and schedule

September 1, 2016--In this advanced seminar, students apply research and best practices to communicating about and reporting on climate change and energy issues. Course work prepares students for careers in journalism, advocacy, government, and strategic communication. Students analyze major debates over the environment, climate change, and related technologies; assessing how they are portrayed by experts, advocates, and the media; and the implications for effective journalism, communication, and policymaker engagement.  Students gain an integrated understanding of the different roles they can play as professionals, advocates, citizens, and consumers. In doing so, they will have improved their ability to find, discuss, evaluate, and use expert sources of information; assess competing media claims and narratives; think strategically and critically; and write impactful, evidence-based news stories, analyses, and commentaries. Stories are published at the New England Climate Change Review, a website covering climate and energy in New England and beyond.


  • Reading Familiarity Quizzes (10%): Each Tuesday class will begin with a short quiz testing your familiarity with the assigned readings and the previous week’s major news stories.
  • News Article on New Study or Report (15%): You will choose a recently published peer-reviewed study or expert report along with their accompanying news releases, where possible. These studies should relate to a New England-related issue; or be authored by a New England-based expert or organization. For this assignment, chose one that you can develop into a 700-word news story relevant to New England readership. Take care to advance the story beyond the information provided in the paper and news release by using at least one additional interview source, who you must interview in person or by phone, or by email, and one additional piece of documentary evidence. Documentary evidence includes: a report from an official organization or institution; scientific paper; speech; policy paper; research report; or book. Please note that a media statement or press release or published news item in a newspaper, magazine, online or broadcast news item does not constitute a documentary source.  You must pitch the idea and story to me by email and I must agree to it.
  • Trend or Backgrounder Article (15%): For this assignment, you must find, develop and produce an original 800-word science news trend or background story on a topic of your choice, aimed at New England readership. The story should have at least three sources. One source must be a paper published in a scientific journal. One source must be an interview. You can write the story in a hard news format; or in a format that reflects evolving online approaches to trend and backgrounder stories such as a story. You must pitch the idea and the format to me by email, and I must agree to it.
  • News Analysis Article (15%): Choosing among the weekly thematic topics, you must write a 1,000-word news analysis article building on, synthesizing, and evaluating the research and arguments posed, pegging the issues discussed to recent events or developments with a focus that is relevant to a New England readership. You must pitch the idea and the format to me by email, and I must agree to it. You should aim to make the news analysis a well-written and seamless discussion that combines your analysis of recent news items with references to points raised in relevant course readings.
  • Commentary / Op-Ed (15%): Choosing among the weekly thematic topics, you must write a 800 word op-ed building on, synthesizing, and evaluating the research and arguments posed, pegging the issues discussed to recent events or developments with a focus that is relevant to a New England readership. Your op-ed must have a clear point of view and distinctive voice. You must pitch the idea and the format to me by email and I must agree to it. You should aim to make your commentary a well-written and seamless argument that combines your analysis of recent news items with references to points raised in relevant course readings.
  • In Depth Report or Analysis (30%): Choosing a climate change or energy topic, you must write a 2,000-word article aimed at New England readers. Choose the topic yourselves, but you must first pitch it to me by email, and I must agree to it, before you can proceed. Stories must contain at least two original interviews and at least three documentary sources: a report from an official organization or institution; scientific paper; speech; policy paper; research report; or book. Please note that a media statement or press release or published news item in a newspaper, magazine, online or broadcast news item does not constitute a documentary source. As part of this assignment, you must present in class on your story, describing how you came up with the idea, how you reported it and why you decided to report in the style and format that you chose. Crucially, you must also reflect on how the readings and class shaped your understanding of how you reported this story.


  1. Represent yourself accurately to sources. You must always let people know you are a reporter and that your story could potentially be published at the Northeastern Climate Change Review. You must make this clear to sources. All submissions for this class could potentially be published.
  2. Do not use unnamed or anonymous sources without prior approval. Occasionally you will encounter sources who do not want to give their names, but unless there is a serious risk to the source of going on the record, you should do your best to convince them to speak on the record. You must clear any use of an unnamed or anonymous source with me before you turn in the assignment.
  3. Use proper attribution. Only live interviews may be quoted directly. Anything off a press release, Web site, statement, another article must be attributed as such.
  4. Include a source appendix. As an appendix to each assignment, please provide:
  • A list of sources that you interviewed personally for the article, the interview method (by phone, in person, via email), the interview dates, and contact details for the source (phone and email);
  • Full references to any documentary sources cited;
  • Full references to the sources of secondary information (previous articles, quotations taken from previously published material, such as previous news reports, books, etc) used in the article;
  • A list of sources of background information not cited in the article. 


                   There are no required texts to purchase for this course. All of the assigned readings are either freely available online, by way of the Northeastern University library; or by way of major news organizations. However, you are strongly advised for purposes of this course to purchase a digital monthly subscription to the Boston Globe. Your subscription will be needed to access several assigned readings; but more importantly to research your stories and articles.


As part of this course, you are expected to be a voracious reader and evaluator of climate change and energy news coverage. Specifically, on a daily and weekly basis, you are expected to read the following sources and journalists. Your familiarity with their coverage will be tested as part of your weekly quizzes:


 Fri. Sept 9 – Class Overview and Introductions


Tues. Sept 13 & Fri. Sept 16 – Our Climate Change Future

  • Climate Ready Boston (2016, Spring). Climate Projections Consensus. [Read Summary Document]
  • Abel, D. (2016, June 22). Climate Change Could Be Worse for Boston than Thought. Boston Globe. [HTML]
  • Gillis, J. (2016, Sept. 3). Flooding of Coast Caused by Climate Change Has Already Begun. The New York Times. [HTML]
  • Belluz, J. (2015, Nov. 30). Why climate change is increasingly seen as an urgent health issue. [HTML]
  • Fernandez, I.J., C.V. Schmitt, S.D. Birkel, E. Stancioff, A.J. Pershing, J.T. Kelley, J.A. Runge, G.L. Jacobson, & P.A. Mayewski. 2015. Maine’s Climate Future: 2015 Update. Orono, ME: University of Maine. [PDF]
  • Abel, D. (2014, Sept. 21). In Maine, Scientists See Signs of Climate Change. Boston Globe [HTML]
  • Woodward, C. (2015, Oct. 25). MayDay: Gulf of Maine in Distress. Portland Press Herald. 6 part series [HTML]

Tues. Sept 20 — Our Energy Future

  • Fitzgerald, J. (2016, March 12). Clean energy industry goes mainstream amid investments. Boston Globe [HTML]
  • Gillis, J. (2016, Aug. 22). America’s First Offshore Wind Farm May Power Up a New Industry. The New York Times. [HTML]
  • Turkel, T. (2016, July 10). Risky choices paying off for UMaine’s wind project. Portland Press Herald. [HTML]
  • Abel, D. (2016, May 16).  Carbon emissions rising at New England power plants. The Boston Globe [HTML]
  • Mooney, C. (2016, Aug. 11). Turns out wind and solar have a secret friend: Natural gas. Washington Post. [HTML]
  • (2016, July 29). We Must Preserve Nuclear Power Plants. Commonwealth Magazine. [HTML]
  • Mohl, B. (2016, July 31). Lawmakers give late-night OK to energy bill. Commonwealth Magazine [HTML]
  • Berwick, A. (2016, Aug. 3). Energy Bill a Solid Step Forward. Commonwealth Magazine. [HTML]
  • Gerwatowski, R. (2016, Aug. 3). The inconvenient truth of energy policy. Commonwealth Magazine. [HTML]
  • Turkel, T. (2016, July 30). Expect your electric bill to go up for the next few years. Portland Press Herald. [HTML]

Fri. Sept. 23 — NO CLASS 


Tues. Sept. 27 — Reporting on Scientific Studies and Reports

  • Siegfried, T. (2005). “Reporting from science journals”. In Blum, D., Knudson, M., & Marantz Henig, R. (Eds). A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers (pp 11-17). New York: Oxford University Press. [Distributed to Class]
  • Journalist’s Resource (2011, Sept. 27)  Research chat: Andrew Revkin on covering and using scholarship. [HTML]
  • Journalist’s Resource (2016, June 1). Interviewing a source: Rules of the road; talking with officials and experts. [HTML]
  • Journalist’s Resource (2015, March 26). Eight questions to ask when interpreting academic studies: A primer for media. [HTML]
  • Borenstein, S. (2016, Sept. 7). NOAA: Global warming increased odds for Louisiana downpour. Associated Press. [HTML]
  • Kintisch, E. (2016, June 9). Is wacky weather helping melt Greenland? Science magazine [HTML]
  • Revkin, A. (2013, March 12). Can Wind, Water and Sunlight Power New York by 2050? Dot Earth blog, The New York Times [HTML]

 Friday, Sept. 30 — Trend Stories, News Analysis, and Commentary

  • Abel, D. (2016, Aug 27). Drought’s effects mount as dry weather continues. The Boston Globe [HTML]
  • Jackson, D.Z. (2016, July 22). San Diego sets an example for Mass. on renewable energy. The Boston Globe [HTML]
  • Jackson, D.Z. (2016, May 13). With Obama cuts, Mass. should rethink its reliance on natural gas. The Boston Globe [HTML]
  • Porter, E. (2016, July 19). How Renewable Energy Is Blowing Climate Change Efforts Off Course. The New York Times [HTML]
  • Porter, E. (2016, April 19). Liberal Biases, Too, May Block Progress on Climate Change. The New York Times [HTML]
  • Plumer, B. (2014, April 22). Two degrees: The world set a simple goal for climate change. We’re likely to miss it. [HTML]
  • Merchant, E.F. (2016, March 18). Is it Game Over for Coal? The New Republic. [HTML]

Friday, Oct. 7 —  Story Angles, Frames, and Visuals

  • Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter to Public Engagement.Environment, 51 (2), 514-518. [HTML]
  • Journalist Resource (2016, Apr 18). Localizing the climate change mitigation story in your state and region: Some data tools to use. [HTML]
  • Climate Outreach (2016). Climate Visuals – 7 Key Visuals for Climate Change Communication. (Skim Report and Visuals Web Site) [HTML]
  • Journalist Resource (2016, Apr 1). Getting started with data visualization: A quick primer to jump-start the process. [HTML]


Tues. Oct. 4 – What Kind of Problem is Climate Change?

  • Nisbet, M. C. (2014). Disruptive ideas: public intellectuals and their arguments for action on climate change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 5(6), 809-823. [HTML] [PDF]
  • McKibben, B. (2016, Aug. 15). A World at War: We’re under attack from climate change—and our only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII. New Republic. [HTML]
  • Rayner, S. (2016, Aug. 31). A Climate Movement at War. The Breakthrough [HTML]

Tues. Oct. 18 & Fri. Oct. 21 — Climate Communication Challenges & Strategies

  • Nisbet, M.C. & Markowitz, E. (2016, March). Americans’ Attitudes About Science and Technology: The Social Context for Public Communication. AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. [PDF] [Read through climate change section]
  • Geiling, N. (2014, May 7). Why doesn’t anyone know how to talk about global warming? The Smithsonian magazine. [HTML]
  • Voosen, P. (2014, Nov 3). Seeking a Climate Change. Chronicle of Higher Education. [HTML]
  • Hoffman, A. (2012). Climate Science as Culture War. Stanford Social Innovation Review. [HTML]
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Markowitz, E. (2016). Strategic Science Communication on Environmental Issues. AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. [PDF]

Tues. Oct 25 & Fri. Oct. 28 —Journalistic Challenges & Shifting Roles

  • Gibson, T. A., Craig, R. T., Harper, A. C., & Alpert, J. M. (2015). Covering global warming in dubious times: Environmental reporters in the new media ecosystem. Journalism. [Library Gateway]
  • Brainard, C. (2015). The changing ecology of news and news organizations: Implications for environmental news. In A. Hansen and R. Cox (Eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Environment and Communication (pp.168-185). London: Routledge. [Distributed to Class]
  • Revkin, A. 2007. “Climate change as news: Challenges in communicating environmental science”. In J.C. DiMento & P.M. Doughman (Eds.).Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren. Boston, MA: MIT Press, pp. 139-160. [PDF]
  • Fahy, D. & Nisbet, M.C. (2011). The Science Journalist Online: Shifting Roles and Emerging Practices. Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism, 12: 778-793. [HTML]
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Fahy, D. (2015). The Need for Knowledge-based Journalism in Politicized Science Debates. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 658, 223-234. [PDF]


Tues. Nov. 1 & Fri. Nov. 4 — Journalism and the “Climate Change Denial” Movement

  • Dunlap, R. E., & McCright, A. M. (2011). Organized climate change denial. The Oxford handbook of climate change and society, 144-160. [Google Books]
  • Feldman, L. (2016). The Effects of Network and Cable TV News Viewing on Climate Change Opinion, Knowledge, and Behavior. ORE Climate Science. [Distributed to Class]
  • Mayer, J. (2016). Dark money: The hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right. Doubleday, pgs 198-225 [Distributed to Class]
  • Jerving, S. et al (2015, Oct. 9). What Exxon knew about the Earth’s melting Arctic. The Los Angeles Times [HTML]
  • Lewandowsky, S., Oreskes, N., Risbey, J. S., Newell, B. R., & Smithson, M. (2015). Seepage: Climate change denial and its effect on the scientific community. Global Environmental Change, 33, 1-13. [HTML]
  • Howarth, C. C., & Sharman, A. G. (2015). Labeling opinions in the climate debate: a critical review. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 6(2), 239-254. [Library Gateway]
  • Colford, P. (2015, Sept. 22). An addition to AP Stylebook entry on global warming. Associated Press. [HTML]

Tues. Nov. 15  The Election: What Happened and What’s Next?

  • Guillen, A. et al (2016, Nov. 12). Trump’s win upends climate fight. Politico. [HTML]
  • Revkin, A. (2016, Nov. 9). Prospects for the Climate, and Environmentalism, Under President Trump. New York Times [HTML]
  • Plumer B. (2016, Nov. 9). There’s no way around it: Donald Trump looks like a disaster for the planet. [HTML]
  • Brooks, D. (2016, Nov. 11). The View from Trump Tower. The New York Times [HTML]
  • Greenwald, G. (2016, Nov. 9). Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit. The Intercept. [HTML]

Friday Nov. 19 — Sicence, Journalism and Advocacy in Turbulent Times

  • Donner, S. D. (2014). Finding your place on the science–advocacy continuum: an editorial essay. Climatic change, 124(1-2), 1-8. [PDF]
  • Stephenson, W. (2012, Nov. 5). A Convenient Excuse. The Boston Phoenix [HTML]
  • Nisbet, M.C. (2015, Oct. 23). MIT rejects fossil fuel divestment but is still a leader on climate change. The Conversation. [HTML]



Tues. Nov. 29 – Tues. Dec. 6


Fox News seeds climate doubts, but liberal media also distort

October 30, 2014 —Recent Pew Research Center studies offer valuable insight on the ideological makeup of those Americans most likely to voice their opinion in politics generally and the climate debate specifically, including the news sources they rely on to articulate their arguments.

What’s clear from the Pew findings and related research is that the highly selective media habits of strongly conservative and liberal Americans are likely to be a major barrier to charting a path to progress on our tough, new planet.

In a June 2014 study, Pew found that the approximately 1 in 5 Americans who score as either consistently conservative (9%) or consistently liberal (12%) in their answers to a variety of questions, are far more likely to vote than other Americans and are at least twice as likely to volunteer for a campaign, contact an elected official, or donate money.

Consistent liberals and conservatives are also more likely than those with moderate opinions to view the opposing party negatively. Half of all consistent liberals and 2/3 of consistent conservatives believe that the policies of their partisan opponents are “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” These feelings of extreme antipathy towards the other side are a major factor motivating their higher levels of political participation.

The ‘U-Shape’ of Political Activism; Higher at Ideological Extremes, Lower in Center

More subtle liberal distortions

Yet the tendency of politically active liberals to rely on left-leaning outlets like MSNBC as news sources is likely to have other under-examined distorting effects on their climate change-related opinions and beliefs. These include at least four important impacts:

1. Misplaced hope in renewables. Many liberal commentators tend to focus on just a handful of policy actions and technologies to address climate change, advocating for example a carbon tax and renewable energy sources while dismissing nuclear energy or carbon capture and storage. Liberal audiences may therefore have a skewed outlook on what it will take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while meeting the global demand for economic growth. (See for example these recent headlines.)

2. Extreme weather fears. To the extent that left-leaning news sources play up the catastrophic consequences of climate change, as a recent study of international outlets suggests, or present “Franken-storms” like Hurricane Sandy as the new normal in a warming world, their audiences are likely to have a faulty perception of the causes and incidence of these events. Such portrayals may also promote feelings of hopelessness, fatalism, and avoidance.

3. No compromise with conservatives. As Duke University’s Frederick Mayer describes in a 2012 paper, among common narratives offered about climate change, MSNBC tends to emphasize what Mayer calls the “Denialist Conspiracy,” accounting for 23 percent of the story lines at the network, far more than any other cable news outlet.

Playing to the intense antipathy that liberals feel for conservatives, this conflict-focused narrative emphasizes that “a shadowy network of oil-funded front groups and the politicians they control (the villains) mislead the gullible and the religious to subvert progress on climate change. Those who expose the conspiracy are the heroes. The moral of the story: opponents of acting on climate change are either corrupt or deluded,” writes Mayer (Watch example).

Even in covering the release of major scientific reports, at MSNBC such moments were “less a hook for telling the environmental story than an opportunity to bash the right,” writes Mayer.

“The closest thing I know of as a way to goose my own ratings is to showcase some villainous behavior from a media figure on the right,” admitted MSNBC host Rachel Maddow in a 2010 speech. “The numbers rise then because there is an appetite for hearing that media figures on the right are terrible people doing terrible things.”

Fed a steady stream of arguments at MSNBC and other liberal outlets asserting the cynical and deceitful strategies of conservatives and their industry allies, politically active liberals are likely to believe that any efforts at negotiation or compromise with conservatives in the climate debate are either hopelessly misguided or motivated by the hidden influence of the fossil fuel industry.

When asked generally about policy disagreements with Republicans, according to Pew, consistent liberals believe that President Obama should give little to no ground, a disdain for compromise equivalent to that of their conservative counterparts.

4. Amplification via social media. As liberal groups and like-minded peers flood social media with links to MSNBC segments and other liberal media accounts, exposure among liberals to arguments exaggerating the potential of renewable energy, emphasizing extreme weather events, and stoking anger over conservative “denialists” are only likely to be amplified.

On this possibility, the Pew analysis finds that consistent liberals rely in greater proportion than other audience segments on Twitter and Facebook as news sources, pay closer attention to political posts at Facebook, and are more likely to follow via Facebook issue-based groups. Consistent liberals are also more likely than others to block or defriend someone because they disagree with their views.

To be sure, the strong reliance by conservatives on Fox News will continue to be a major obstacle to progress on climate change and should be a subject of extreme concern.

Yet the more subtle, less examined impact of left-leaning media on politically active liberals – including activists and donors among their ranks – deserves serious attention, even if for many of us such possibilities are inconvenient to consider.

–This article originally appeared at The Conversation US.


Nisbet, M.C. (2014, Oct. 30). Fox News seeds climate doubts, but liberal media also distort. The Conversation US.


Naomi Klein or Al Gore? Making sense of clashing views on climate change

October 15, 2014 —Earth is “fucked” and our insatiable growth economy is to blame. So argues Naomi Klein in her intentionally provocative best-seller This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

Klein is the latest among an influential network of like-minded authors who have declared that modern society is at war with nature in a battle that threatens the survivial of the human species. Examples include US writer/activist Bill McKibben, Canadian broadcaster David Suzuki, and Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton.

Deeply skeptical of technological and market-based approaches to climate change, they urge the need for a new consciousness spread through grassroots organizing and protest. “Only mass movements can save us now,” Klein writes. She argues that “profound and radical economic transformation” is needed to avoid certain catastrophe.

The more than 300,000 people who turned out for last month’s People’s Climate March in New York are just the start.

For Klein, human survival demands that we engage in a furious battle against the status quo, one equal in intensity to the efforts that ended slavery and European colonialism. “Both these transformative movements forced ruling elites to relinquish practices that were still extraordinarily profitable, much as fossil fuel extraction is today,” she writes.

An abolitionist-style climate movement would allow a global alliance of left-wing activists to achieve a diverse range of social justice goals, argues Klein. These include repealing free trade agreements, easing immigration rules, establishing indigenous rights, and guaranteeing a minimum income level.

Ultimately, for Klein, climate change is our best chance to right the “festering wrongs” of colonialism and slavery, “the unfinished business of liberation.”

As a public intellectual and aspiring movement leader, Klein sees her mission as winning a “battle of cultural worldviews,” opening up the space for a “full throated debate about values,” telling new stories to “replace the ones that have failed us.”

In these new stories, Klein and her intellectual confederates value solutions that they see as coming from the natural world. They eschew technologies such as nuclear power or genetic engineering, arguing on behalf of a transition to smaller scale, locally controlled solar, wind, and geothermal energy technologies and organic farming.

In this egalitarian future where people grow their own food, produce their own energy, share jobs working 3-4 days/week, and deliberate in small groups, traditional definitions of economic growth would cease, with progress defined instead in terms of health, happiness, and community.

Ultimately, the hoped-for grand bargain on climate change will be that as rich nations “de-grow” their economies, they will share their surplus wealth and renewable technologies with China, India and other developing countries. In return these countries will choose a different, less consumer-driven path.

Public Intellectuals, Disruptive Ideas

In a paper just published at Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews Climate Change, I analyze how public intellectuals such as Klein and McKibben shape debate over climate change. I compare their arguments to other prominent public intellectuals such as UK economist Nicholas Stern, former US Vice President Al Gore, The New York Times’ writer Andrew Revkin, and Oxford University anthropologist Steve Rayner.

Gore and Stern differ from Klein in arguing that climate change can be tackled primarily through market-based policies like carbon pricing, rejecting the idea that we must choose between growing the economy and fighting climate change.

In contrast, Rayner was among the first public intellectuals to argue that climate change is more accurately framed as an energy innovation and societal resilience problem. He has also strongly questioned the pursuit of a binding international agreement to limit emissions.

Similarly, as Revkin recently noted, contrary to the arguments of Klein, renewable energy sources alone are not likely to meet the “intertwined challenges of expanding energy access [among the world’s poor] while limiting global warming.” Like Rayner, he argues that we need to rethink our assumptions, and broaden the menu of policy options and technologies considered.

On the need to diversify approaches, Stern along with Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs have offered similar arguments, but place much stronger faith than either Rayner or Revkin in the ability of a global international agreement to decarbonize the world economy, guided by timetables, temperature targets, carbon budgets, research and development investments and carbon pricing signals.

In defining what climate change means, these public intellectuals and others help create a common outlook, informally guiding the work of like-minded advocates, funders, journalists, and governmental officials.

Given the complexity of climate change as a social problem it is possible for competing narratives and explanations about its social implications and solutions to exist.

So it is not surprising that among public intellectuals there is disagreement over what the issue means for society, leading to intense clashes among those who look to one discourse over another to guide their work (see table below).

Revkin, for example, has criticized the grassroots campaign against the Keystone XL oil pipeline as distracting from the “core issues involving our energy future and is largely insignificant if your concern is averting a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

He has also argued the need to chart a path to a “Good Anthropocene”. In this new “Age of Us”, humans have generated considerable ecological and social risks, but at the same time, in the face of this uncertainty, possess the ability to create a better future through technological innovation and resilience strategies.

Not surprisingly, Bill McKibben dismisses Revkin’s outlook on climate change as “relentlessly middle seeking.” Incredible Hulk actor Mark Ruffalo, who opposes the pipeline, has called Revkin a “climate coward.”

For his part, Clive Hamilton argues that Revkin and other public intellectuals promoting the possibility of the “good Anthropocene” are “unscientific and live in a fantasy world of their own construction.”

These disagreements over the social implications of climate change reflect differing values, intellectual traditions, and visions of the “good society.” They are embedded in contrasting beliefs about nature, risk, progress, authority, and technology.

In this battle among competing ideas, climate change becomes “a synecdoche – a figurative turn of phrase in which something stands in for something else — for something much more important than simply the way humans are changing the weather,” notes Kings College London’s Mike Hulme (a public intellectual himself).

Reading Klein, it is clear that she is not confident that the mass movement she calls for and the deep structural reforms that “change everything” are achievable. Instead, like radical intellectuals of movements past, her utopian vision serves an important political function, creating space for more pragmatic, less revolutionary social innovations.

Many who are inspired by Klein’s arguments will take to the streets, to social media, and to campuses to wage battle for their worldviews. For the rest of us, we should carefully engage with Klein’s ideas, seeking out with equal enthusiasm and critical reflection the arguments of other public intellectuals in the climate debate.

The goal is not to choose among competing perspectives, but to grapple with their tensions and uncertainties. Through this process, as we call on our political leaders to act and work with others on solutions, we can hold our own convictions and opinions more lightly; identifying what is of value among the ideas offered by those on the left, right, and in the center.

–This article originally appeared at The Conversation UK.


Nisbet, M.C. (2014, Oct. 6). Naomi Klein or Al Gore? Making Sense of Contrasting Views of Climate Change. The Conversation UK


Nisbet, M.C. (2014). Disruptive Ideas: Public Intellectuals and their Arguments for Action on Climate Change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews Climate Change, 5, 809–823.

Opinions about scientific advances blur party-political lines

Reading about the rapid pace of advances in biomedicine, you may have wondered why more politically liberal countries like Germany and Canada have stronger restrictions on embryonic stem cell research than the politically conservative US.

History and happenstance play a role, but these differences also reflect public concerns that do not conform to traditional left or right political ideologies.

As debates over stem cell research continue and as conflicts over other biomedical advances emerge, a recurring set of questions is likely to be seen. Do scientific breakthroughs promote or undermine social progress? Is research being pursued too cautiously or too quickly? Do scientists respect or cross moral boundaries?

In a study published in PLOS ONE with Ezra Markowitz, we analyzed series of surveys collected between 2002 and 2010 to better understand what the US public thinks about stem cell research and how they formed these opinions. We were able to distinguish between the different factors influencing their beliefs. At play were factors such as traditional loyalties to political parties and more fundamental beliefs about science and society.

Our results indicate that, more than political party identification, ideology or religious beliefs, an individual’s beliefs about science and society had the strongest influence on their support for stem cell research. It was also possible to identify distinct segments who differ substantially in what they thought about science’s social implications. Traditional political labels do not easily define these groups.

Based on our data we classify the US public in four categories:

  1. Scientific optimists: These comprise about a third of the public. They believe strongly in the link between science and social progress. They are likely to support most scientific advances and three quarters of this group are in favour of embryonic stem cell research. Optimists are on average highly educated, financially well off and disproportionately white. They are split almost evenly along political lines, with slightly more Democrats among them. In terms of political ideology, they are the most moderate in their outlook.
  2. Scientific pessimists: This group comprises just under a quarter of the public. They have strong reservations about the moral boundaries that might be crossed by scientists and believe science may lead to new problems. They are the most likely to oppose advances in biomedical research, with only 40% in favour of stem cell research. Compared to optimists, this group scores much lower on average in terms of educational attainment and income. More tend to be female and from a minority background. Pessimists split evenly along party lines, but tend to be disproportionately either moderate or conservative in their ideological outlook.
  3. The conflicted: This group represents another quarter of the public. They view science in both optimistic and pessimistic terms. Though they are socially similar to the Pessimists in their background, they tend to be older on average than members of other segments. They appear open to accepting the arguments of scientists and advocates who emphasise the benefits of research. By 2010, more than 60% of this segment had come to favour embryonic stem cell research.
  4. The disengaged: About 15% of the public lacks strong beliefs about how science might impact society. As a result, they are likely to be the most susceptible to shifts in opinion driven by political messages. For example, between 2008 and 2010, support for embryonic stem cell research among this group increased by 20 percentage points.

A Better Informed Public

As advances in stem cell research, synthetic biology, personalized genomics and other scientific fields move forward, our current media is unlikely to adequately address the deeper set of public concerns reflected in our study.

Cable TV, social media and the tabloid press tend to favor sensationalism over context. These complex debates are all too likely to be distorted in terms of simplistic left-right distinctions or exaggerated to be miracle breakthroughs or morally repugnant. At more prestigious news outlets, budget cuts and layoffs will limit the opportunity for in-depth coverage and analysis.

Given these challenges, academics need to invest in encouraging respectful debate about the future of science and what it means for society. The place to start may be in the cities and regions where research is taking place. Here we need to better understand the different questions being asked about scientific advances and invest in local media and public forums that encourage constructive discussion and debate.

–A version of this article was co-authored with Ezra Markowitz and originally published at The Conversation


Nisbet, M.C. & Markowitz, E. (2014, Feb. 19). Opinions about Scientific Advances Blur Party/Political Lines. The Conversation UK


Nisbet, M.C. & Markowitz, E. (2014). Understanding Public Opinion in Debates Over Biomedical Research: Looking Beyond Partisanship to Focus on Beliefs about Science and Society. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88473.

The science journalist online: Shifting roles and emerging practices

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.

This article summarizes a peer-reviewed study published at Journalism on Sept. 8, 2011.

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 BBCCNN, 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; the news and blogging communities formed by journals such as ScienceNature 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 PharyngulaClimate 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 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 CentralYale 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.


Fahy, D., & Nisbet, M. (2011). The science journalist online: Shifting roles and emerging practices Journalism, 12(7), 778-793