Challenges for Independent Science Journalism

This is a final retrospective note to the World Conference of Science Journalism in Seoul. The keynote address of June 11, 2015 delivered by Dan Fagin, Associate Professor of Journalism […]

(c) WCSJ 2015 Seoul

(c) WCSJ 2015 Seoul

This is a final retrospective note to the World Conference of Science Journalism in Seoul. The keynote address of June 11, 2015 delivered by Dan Fagin, Associate Professor of Journalism and Director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University’s Carter Journalism Institute is highly thoughtful and is an excellent summary of the current state of art of science journalism. His central message is that we have to fight for the values of journalism, depict  a confusing reality as best as we can by means of fact checking and storytelling and that we also have to experiment to stay on top of the fast transformation processes in the world. For example, NYU is training science communicators in both disciplines.

Dan Fagin introduced his speech by pointing out the tremendous changes the world has undergone since the fall of the iron curtain, the advent of globalization, sped up by digitalization, with the erosion of journalism as well as democracy.

Include social implications of research

”In much of the world, we have more wealth but also more inequality”, he observed. “More markets but less unfettered debate. Governments and corporations are more influential and efficient than ever before, but also less transparent and accountable to the public.” Citizens can access more information than ever before, yet there is less deep journalism conducted in the public interest.

Journalists demanded Fagin have to fight for the future of their profession and its role in sustaining democracy.

“Verification — fact-checking – is what separates journalism from propaganda, and the scientific method is a tremendous form of verification … The best science journalists, and some of them are right here in this room, are relentless in their insistence that the weight of the evidence, not the preferences of the powerful, should drive our storytelling. They know that the purpose of science journalism is not to cheerlead for scientists, but to explain scientific developments in full context, including their social implications.”

Scientists are only human with all deficits

Science journalists just don’t quote people’s assertions, but they figure out where the most persuasive evidence lies. And they know that scientists are only human. Ongoing scandals of fraud and irreproducibility and negligent peer review teach the public that scientists are subject to the same errors of hybris and misjudgment and greed that afflict the rest of the society, including journalists—and Fagin asked:

“If we science journalists don’t expose those defects in science and make a fuss about them, then who will? So yes, we science journalists really do have a crucial role to play in demonstrating that independent, unbiased, evidence-based journalism matters, and that journalism’s future as a profession is going to materially affect the world’s future.”

Digital storytelling leads into the future

Then Fagin went on with the convergence and divergence issues and explained:

“The old distinctions between newspaper journalism and television journalism and radio journalism are melting away, and are being replaced by a hybrid model, housed on the Internet, that combines all of those kinds of journalism plus many more. If you go to, for example, presumably a television site, you will see video, yes, but also text stories, data visualizations, audio podcasts, photo slide shows, interactive features, and more.” The same media users find with, or The same media convergence, Fagin believed, will be occurring all over the world.

As a consequence, Fagin continued, students are required to “learn to tell stories in as many ways as possible because that is what the digital journalism marketplace now demands. We’re also now teaching them business and entrepreneurial skills – skills they will need in order to identify opportunities in the digital space and to exploit those opportunities, either by building new journalistic sites or products or even by developing new tools for digital storytelling”.

WCSJ 2015 Seoul

WCSJ 2015 Seoul

The drawbacks of atomized audiences

The described media convergence is allowing students to pick the very best possible combination of tools to tell every particular story in the most compelling possible way. Fagin is convinced that despite problems with access and censorship and broken business models, this is a golden time for science storytellers, “a time when they can tell stories that are more vivid, more comprehensive, more contextual, more transparent than ever before.”

Then Fagin went into the drawback of convergence, which is divergence. “In a digital universe of essentially unlimited searchable, accessible content, our audiences are fracturing – they’re splitting or, and this is the term I prefer: atomizing”, he told his Seoul audience. The magic of web search and the tremendous growth of social media networks are making it easier than ever for individuals to “build their own information bubbles that incorporate only those ideas, topics and opinions that mesh smoothly with their own ideologies and interests”.

This has not only eroded the financial foundation of media companies and budget, employment of high quality journalists and production of premium content, regretted Fagin. While traditional media knitted pluralistic societies together because users also had to read articles which they were not really interested in, audiences have been fractured, not to say atomized , with very adverse effects.

ISIS, CIA and Greenpeace create their own truths

“It creates many more opportunities for mischief by governments, corporations, advocacy groups and others who are much more interested in gaining votes, customers and contributors than in actually informing people. These special interests know that the journalism industry is economically weak, and that information bubbles are easier to create in the digital era then ever before, so they are capitalizing on the trend toward niche audiences.”

And this is  being exploited by all sort sof interested parties, Fagin observed, and presented a long list of clients: ISIS, CIA, the Chinese Communist Party, Exxon-Mobil, Greenpeace. Each of these groups is constructing their own “self-interested version of reality and then marketing that vision to advance their own agendas”, promoting their own truths.

“Now I’m not about to claim that this kind of propaganda hasn’t been thriving for centuries,” Fagin clarified, “and I’m not naive enough to assert that independent journalists have a unique claim in aspiring to the closest possible depiction of reality – of course we don’t. We journalists are flawed, and sometimes corrupt, and always biased by our past experiences.”

Without journalism it will be a world of spin

And Fagin added a phrase which is debatable whether journalists with all limitations listed above really make the difference: “But at least our first loyalties – when things go right, at least – our first loyalties are to our audiences, not to some hidden (or sometimes explicit) self-interested agenda. If we journalists go away – and there’s no guarantee that someday we won’t – there will be nothing left but a world of spin. That’s not a world I want to live in, and I don’t think you do either.”

Fagin reinforced the aforementioned that “we journalists are in the business of depicting reality, and we need to see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

As to an outlook Fagin predicted that “we are surely going to see much more journalistic content produced directly by non-journalists, especially by experts who can communicate with authority. Scientists are very much at the leading edge of this trend, as the rapid growth of science blogs shows”.

Journalism schools organizes workshops for science communicators

What’s crucial, Fagin noted “is that those stories need to be infused with core journalistic values like verification and clarity and transparency and fairness and context. Professional journalists will, I think, be spending a growing percentage of their time mentoring these non-journalist subject-matter experts and editing their work”.

To train non-journalists in this will be a future field of engagement of journalism schools. At NYU, Fagin stated, more than 400 PhD students and post-docs were trained over the last six years across the science disciplines as well as medical students in the fundamentals of effective, ethical science storytelling. For this purpose special Science Communication Workshops have been organized at the university.

Fagin’s closing remark was an appeal to fight for the values of journalism and at the same time not to be too rigid and experiment with new forms: “We have to try everything to find a sustainable future for science journalism, so we are. Bold, relentless experimentation, carried out with integrity and transparency, is going to have to be the lodestar for our journey.  In the end, what matters is not which or even whether newspapers or magazines or television broadcasts survive, but whether the values of journalism survive.

WCSJ 2015 Seoul

WCSJ 2015 Seoul

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Full text:

I’m grateful to Estrella Burgos, University Autonomous Mexico, editor Como ves and WCSJ 2015 Seoul Programm Committee for having this important session brought to my attention.

Conference website with pictures of the event:


About Wolfgang C. Goede

Wolfgang C. Goede is a science journalist based in Munich, Germany. He is a board member of the German Association of Science Writers TELI.