Preliminary conclusions about journalists and RRI

The NUCLEUS project is all about implementing RRI (Responsible Research and Innovation) at research institutions. But what does that imply for journalists? Here’s some conclusions from surveys and workshops performed […]

The NUCLEUS project is all about implementing RRI (Responsible Research and Innovation) at research institutions. But what does that imply for journalists? Here’s some conclusions from surveys and workshops performed during 2017 by the EUSJA team

Journalists are seen as an important stakeholder in RRI. Journalists can reach out to communities and approach different groups in society – leaders, business people, NGO’s and lay people – and open their eyes to the research’s potential perspectives for society. Good perspectives as well as bad ones.

Surveys

What do journalists themselves think about RRI? During 2017, the EUSJA/NUCLEUS team has helped collecting data about journalist’s knowledge and thoughts about RRI. The first investigation consisted of a focus group session with 7 science journalists each representing one country, 20 in-depth telephone interviews with science journalists from ten countries (half of them also partly working as communicators) and a survey asking 61 science journalists three short questions. Apart from the interviews, all data was collected at the 4th European Conference for Science Journalists (ECSJ2017) in Copenhagen. These are the main conclusions that we can draw from the investigation:

  • Only few journalists have heard about RRI.
  • When explained what RRI is, the journalists are divided into two almost equally large groups: The first group feel responsible for informing the public about the scientific research that is going on. The second group insist on picking their stories on the basis of whatever criteria they consider important and feel no obligation to inform about certain topics.
  • No matter what group, storytelling is seen as a very important part of science journalism.
  • Journalists in media generally see themselves as watchdogs whereas journalists working in communication see themselves as educators.
  • Autonomy is part of the journalistic DNA, so scientists and research institutions should be careful not to expect journalists to pass on a certain view.
  • Journalists find that scientist have too little knowledge of the premises for journalism in today’s media.

Workshop

To test and elaborate on the main conclusions in this first investigation the EUSJA/NUCLEUS team arranged an informal workshop at the 10th World Conference for Science Journalists. This workshop was formed as guided conversations among groups of science journalists – all working mainly in journalism and not communication.

The workshop concentrated on four topics: Storytelling or education, choice of story, science and society, and conflict of interest.

Storytelling or education
Storytelling was mentioned by a lot of science journalists in the investigation, and the workshop confirmed that storytelling is seen as a very important part of science journalism in order to engage audiences. The journalists in the workshop all seemed to agree that journalism does not equal science education, rather journalism should inform audiences in an attempt to democratise science.

Choice of story
When confronted with what has most importance when choosing a story – impact on society or personal interest – it was clear that the participating journalists put more emphasis on personal interest as the driver to cover a subject. This may include format and narrative style.

Science and society
Even if personal interest was seen as the biggest driver, the impact on society was seen as more important when reporting on science than the science itself. Sometimes it can be acceptable to just focus on explaining the science, but ideally the impact on society should always be discussed. If a study does not have any immediate relevance on society, the journalist could make perspectives of the impact in the future.

Conflict of interest
A large number of journalists do not have the time or finances to participate in events which do not have an exact output in form of a commission. Sometimes journalists will be offered to have expenses covered by external interest.

This was a difficult topic to discuss and also the question where the participants had a hard time reaching consensus. The general conclusion is that it depends on the case and the concrete situation. But to give a general advice on where to draw a line is difficult.

One thing that seemed to be consensus about was that journalists should generally avoid getting in situations where the audience can get a suspicion that the reporting is biased because of the journalist is being “bought”. If some of the journalist’s expenses are covered (lunch, travel, time), the publication should secure a visible disclaimer.

Reflections

The investigations and workshop pinpointed some obstacles for RRI when it comes to journalists. Mainly that journalists are reluctant to be seen as a stakeholder within the academic circles. Journalists prefer to see themselves as autonomous outsiders that are free to choose subject and angle without any external interests – even well intended as RRI.

The strong opinions on independence and autonomous reporting, can also be an advantage when it comes to initiate debates and engage different parties in discussions about research’s impact on society.

Next step in the NUCLEUS project from the journalist perspective is to work on finding ways for journalists to understand the concepts of RRI and to develop guidelines and methods for journalists who covers research and innovation.

About Berit Viuf

Berit Viuf has an academic background in Social science & Technology and has worked as a freelance journalist for 8 years. She writes about scientific topics for several major papers and magazines in Denmark. Her experience also covers audio and video production as well as planning of conferences and workshops.