Is there a future for science journalism? by Joost van Kasteren

posted on behalf of Joost van Kasteren
President of the Dutch Association of Science Journalists
Candidate for President of EUSJA at the 2014 elections

A few weeks ago my wife, who does the bookkeeping, told me matter-of-factly that my turnover in 2013 was about half of what it had been the year before. Only then it really hit me that we are confronted with a crisis in science journalism. Until then I had been coping by pitching more stories, making longer hours and doing more than a bit of consultancy in science communication on the side. It was then I realised that the newspapers and magazines for which I write had not raised their freelancers’ fees for the past ten years and that the competition had become a lot fiercer.

Schermata 2014-02-25 alle 19.56.58As you can imagine it was with more than passing interest that I accepted the invitation to participate in the Kavli-symposium on the future of science journalism. The epic winter conditions (mountains of snow and the freezing temperatures) of mid-February Chicago did not hugely add to the appeal, but the program and the other attendants more than compensated for this lack of comfort. Among them were Robert Lee Hotz and Ron Winslow from the Wall Street Journal, Pallab Gosh from the BBC, Geoffry Carr from the Economist, Mariette di Christina from Scientific American, Ivan Oransky from Retraction Watch, David Sassoon from Inside Climate News and Rosie Mestel from Nature plus about thirty others from all over the world.

After a lot of discussion it turned out that there is indeed a future for science journalism (phew), provided that we get our act together. First of all it is necessary to define – or re-define – our type of journalism as a specialism separate from both general journalism and science communication. Instead of trying to come up with an elaborate mission statement, our breakout session decided to define science journalism in terms of core values and core competences, so advised by Dan Fagin from New York University (did I mention there were also a few scholars among the participants?).

There are several core competences that distinguish science journalists from other journalists, the main ones of which are scientific literacy and numeracy. These competences allow us to find the right experts and to critically evaluate their expertise. They allow us also to assess the risks and to put science stories in a political, economical, social and moral context. On the other hand, it allows us to put a scientific perspective on any kind of story and incorporate arguments based on facts and on sound reasoning. In my view scientific literacy also includes a bit more than elementary knowledge of the philosophy, history and sociology of science to put things in perspective, but, as usual, I only thought of that afterwards.

Then there are values that distinguish us from other players in the field of science communication. Our first loyalty as (science) journalists is towards the truth or – as truth is a moving target – to our aspiration to depict reality to the best of our capability. Our second loyalty is towards our audience. That does not mean that we write or broadcast what they want, but that we write/broadcast from their perspective with the aim to empower them. Both loyalties demand integrity. We should be aware of the danger of ‘going native’ and become cheerleaders for science. Another important value is transparency: let the audience know where you come from, who has paid you and how you made your story.

Just before I went to Chicago I had a very interesting conversation with Hans-Peter Peters, who does research and teaching on science journalism both at the Research Center Julich in Germany and the Free University of Berlin. He told me that as a science journalist you apply perspectives to science that are external to science i.e. the perspective of politics, economics, education and so on. In this way the (science) journalist links the perspectives of different subsystems in our society – political, economical, moral et cetera. Hence independent science journalists are different from other science communicators, like scientists themselves or PIO’s and even NGO’s, because the latter are all stakeholders, meaning they have a vested interest in the matter at hand.

A PR-officer from a university always keeps in mind the interest of the university. And a scientist will always keep in mind the interest of his project or his career. Scientists and hired science writers can only simulate journalism, but cannot replace it, the difference being that a journalist is not tied to any of these posts. He is independent. Because our values distinguish us from science communicators, we should be very clear about which hat we are wearing when we combine our journalism with other forms of science communication.

To sum up there is still very much a need for independent science journalism. The big question is who is willing to pay for it as the audiences of traditional media are dwindling and free information has become the norm on Internet. At the Kavli-symposium several business models were discussed. One option is to raise money from foundations or rich individuals for independent (science) journalism. Examples are ‘Inside Climate News’ and Pro Publica. Instead of funding organisations you could also apply to government or funding agencies, as independent science journalism is both important for democracy and for science itself. But this can only work if it is very clear that there are no strings attached.

Another option is to erect pay walls from premium articles as has been done – quite successfully it seems – by the Wall Street Journal. And then there are initiatives like “Matter on Medium” which used to have an iTunes-model (99 ct per article), but recently tore down even this pay wall. What their business model now is, remained a bit unclear; they were given three years by their new partner to figure it out.

So there are lots of options, but what we need now is a catalogue of business models – or rather, reader engagement models – that both have worked or failed. Based on that the WFSJ should compile a field guide, “Science writing and publishing for dummies”, to help start-ups. Even an incubator was mentioned for start-ups in science writing and publishing, including seed money, office spaces and a network of consultants. Part of the ‘incubation’ should be geared towards new types of journalism like Big Data investigative journalism or crowd sourcing by engaging local or interested audiences in writing your story.

Alex Pentland, director of the MIT Medialab and godfather of ‘Social Physics’ took an – alarming – step further by telling us over dinner that we should stop thinking in terms of audiences and ask ourselves ‘to which business we are key to’. Who is willing to pay for our efforts because we bring them the information that is necessary for their survival, be it companies, government agencies, universities or research institutes? No more broadcasting to vaguely defined audiences, but meticulously mapping the information needs of different groups and then provide them with the information at a price they are willing to pay.

Would that still be journalism? I doubt it, because it does not recognize the role of journalism as a controller of the powers that be, at least in a democracy. That is also true for science journalists as science and technology are major forces in shaping our society. But it might still be a good idea to aim for more specific audiences and inform them a bit more on the ‘need to know’ basis than just tell stories that are ‘nice to know’.

About Fabio Turone

Fabio Turone directs the Agency Zoe of scientific and medical information. He is President of Science Writers in Italy, Course Director of the International School of Science Journalism based in Erice, Sicily, and works with UNESCO at the Balkan School of Science Journalism.