Science journalism used to not have that 'science' qualifier. It was journalism, like any other kind, but about science.
Last decade, though, science journalism lost its way, as we have discussed many times before. Too many science journalists became cheerleaders for science or, worse, advocates for aspects of controversial science topics. They were no longest trusted guides for the public and, as a result, people stopped reading them and corporate media no longer had need for something no one read. Science 2.0 and other sites filled the void nicely.
Chris Chambers and Petroc Sumner, psychologists at Cardiff University, recently discussed the second UK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ) in The Guardian and what journalists and some outsiders think still plagues the field. The key question seemed to be what the role of science journalism is; whether it should be investigative, as in exposing hype or even outright fraud, or explanatory, providing context for complex topics.
Context has certainly been a failure. I was at an AAAS conference where Pallab Ghosh of the BBC said he saw the cracks in coverage of climate change many years ago. Science journalists were so conspiratorially consumed with public relations efforts by fossil fuel companies they no longer asked the awkward questions of scientists in the field - we commented on it as well, in 2006 and 2007, when media talking points were parroted as evidence and 'churnalism' articles were produced based on each press release. Later, the actual reports were released and turned out to have numerous flaws.
What about now? While bloggers refuse to ask awkward questions about positions they already believe, especially if they have a political slant (some even go out of their way to engage in scientization of politics), science journalism is looking a lot better - that may be because only the good ones are left and the shoddy ones have been shaken out of the field. I didn't make fun of any science journalists in my craziest Higgs stories article, science journalism did quite well.
Chambers and Sumner address other issues as well, like why science journalism, which should be about exposing flaws and keeping people honest, seems to be incapable of doing it for their own field. Martin Robbins, also at The Guardian, was one of few journalists even willing to acknowledge that science journalism had a liberal bias. That is having blinders on, folks. When majorities are overwhelming, it is easy to dismiss bias - denying there is any bias when you have to see the affected people in the hallway is less easy. That is why it is so easy to deny there is any bias against non-liberals in academia; there is no one there to argue the opposite so if a scientist knows even one conservative, they assume there is no prejudice. It's the rationalization some whites also used to use to deny that racism still existed.
Can science journalists ask the awkward questions? Can they be trusted guides? Can they police themselves? The first two seem obviously yes, because only the best people have survived and they did those two things anyway. But in a small insular community, will they police each other? No. I am sure they will police me, they are very good about swarming over anyone who isn't gushing about how awesome corporate science media and its paid bloggers and pet positions are, but it's clearly an echo chamber and they are very careful around each other. Science journalism has already gotten pared down to numbers that make sense, like many corporate news departments have done, but they need to work on having more diversity and certainly more investigative objectivity, including about the flaws in the field.
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