Dilemmas at work – NUCLEUS workshop in Manchester

The EU project NUCLEUS is attempting to implement RRI (Responsible Research and Innovation) in research institutions around the world. It is still a question though, whether science journalists have a responsibility when it comes to RRI, and – if we do – how we can ensure RRI in our research and reporting. By Berit Viuf and Gorm Palmgren

The participants discussed eagerly the dilemmas they encounter in their daily life as science journalists

The participants discussed eagerly the dilemmas they encounter in their daily life as science journalists. © Gorm Palmgren

Journalists can roughly fill two roles in connection to RRI: the watchdog of research and the bridge builder to the public. The watchdog stands outside and report on how well scientists are doing RRI, while the bridge builder works within the system, and makes sure that the public understands what goes on inside the lab, so ordinary people can participate in the debate of how relevant a certain line of research is for society.

As EUSJA’s representatives in the NUCLEUS project, we wanted to know some of the dilemmas that journalists face working in a new media landscape. Before we can work on guidelines that can help journalists navigate in science and RRI, we need to narrow down the most common challenges for science reporting.

In Manchester, UK, at the 3rd European Conference for Science Journalists, we led a workshop to discuss this with fellow science journalists, with the intention that everybody should have a chance to exchange experiences. Based on what we have chosen to call a “Conversation Menu”, we let the participants discuss at their tables before presenting one dilemma to a panel. In the panel was a freelance science journalist (Elisabetta Curzel, Italy), a science editor at BBC Radio (Deborah Cohen, England) and a scientist at EuroScience (Jean-Pierre Alix, France). The panel then commented and gave advice on how to deal with the dilemmas.

These are some of the topics that came up:

How do we manage as science journalists, when there is an editorial pressure for always being entertaining and fascinating, but sometimes there is also a serious and dark side to science?
It seems unlikely to pitch stories to an editor about how science failed to deliver in some way. Yet that is happening all the time. How do we deal with that as science writers?
There is too much talk about the watchdog role, and not so much of the importance of the scientific process and the society in science journalism. When you are very critical about science, you lose the positive aspects for society.
We are faced with a lot of problems in the media industry: crises, double standards, bias, too little time and money. So, journalists often make use of press releases and struggle to be objective. How can we do good science journalism when we depend so much on communication officers?
Science journalism often exaggerates and personalises messages to the audience and distorts the accuracy of the science. It has a big impact on the news, and it seems like nobody in the newsroom cares about how reliable a science story is. Don’t journalists have a responsibility of any sort?

In the panel was from front to back Deborah Cohen (science editor at BBC Radio), Jean-Pierre Alix (scientist and board member of EuroScience) and Elisabetta Curzel (freelance science journalist). © Gorm Palmgren

In the panel was from front to back Deborah Cohen (science editor at BBC Radio), Jean-Pierre Alix (scientist and board member of EuroScience) and Elisabetta Curzel (freelance science journalist). © Gorm Palmgren

The main purpose at this stage of the NUCLEUS Science journalist network was to put into words the frustrations journalists can feel when reality obstructs their ambitions. But it was also interesting to hear the responses from three different stakeholders in the science media industry.

The biggest frustration seemed to be that the pressure on the industry makes it difficult to tell the stories that journalists would really like to report about. As a result, reports easily become pretty, superficial and dependent on press releases. The panel seemed to agree on many of the problems raised, but also had some important input:

“It is that balance of telling the audience about science. We do try to help people understand that science is a process. So part of what we do is to explain that. Another part is being a watchdog. Essentially we want to explain what scientists are doing, what makes them tick, because people in general don’t see a human face to science,” Deborah Cohen explained.

“You can tell everything, because it really all depends on the story. Also when science fails to deliver. If I just say that Cinderella stayed home, there is no story. But if I tell the background for why she stayed home, it becomes very interesting,” Elisabetta Curzel elaborated.

“We need journalists to translate science to a broad audience. If we just take information that was built in a scientific context and uses special wording and send it to the public, it will not work. The public do not have the level and vocabulary necessary to understand. So we need dissemination, and that dissemination needs to target different cultures in society. Good journalism should know how words are received in different cultures,” Jean-Pierre Alix stated.

About Gorm Palmgren

Gorm Palmgren holds a PhD in cell biology and has been working as full time freelance science journalist since 2001. He writes extensively for an international popular science magazine (Science Illustrated) and other media and is experienced in website management, newsletter production and layout.