Social media to the rescue for RRI in China?

Science journalism in China suffers from both lack of interest and a top-down approach, with a focus on science literacy rather than public involvement. While traditional science journalism declines, the blooming of new online outlets has brought novel, promising ways to report on science

By Berit Viuf

Words like accuracy, independence, objectivity, impartiality and fairness pop up when journalists discuss ethics in their profession. In most western countries, there seems to be consensus about what is considered responsible journalism. But when we look to continents with other cultural heritages, the concept of responsible journalism doesn’t necessarily have the same interpretation.

Thus, media in different political landscapes will differ, and good ethical science journalism might be perceived in a variety of ways.

The last of the NUCLEUS study trips took place in Beijing, China, and the outcomes can be found in the Field Trip Report: Beijing RRI & Public Engagement (cell 2). One of the main findings was that RRI is a difficult concept to grasp, and that science communication in general is viewed very differently in China than in western countries, and that scientists are not as strongly encouraged to share their knowledge with the public. When talking about popularization in China, the focus is on scientific literacy rather than debate.

Science coverage is diminishing

When it comes to media coverage of science, there is even more pessimism. Even though science contributed to 20 percent of the Chinese economy in 2007, according to Xu Xiuhua, former science editor of People’s Daily (one of the largest newspapers in China), the coverage of science was negligible. And it seems like this tendency has not changed in the last 10 years.

In China, the biggest media outlets are controlled by the government, and therefore communication about science is also part of science policy. Thus, science coverage in media tend to be dominated by news stories that celebrates new technology discoveries and portraits of famous scientists. At least that is the impression you get, when talking to journalists working in China.

– The propaganda-styled science journalism remains dominating in state media, though professionalism has grown in commercial media, says Hepeng Jia, a leading Chinese science journalist now a doctoral candidate studying science communication at Cornell University in USA.

More commercial and independent media does not prioritise science, as it is not considered interesting to laypeople – and therefore not to advertisers. It’s much more likely to find coverage on commerce, fashion and entertainment. The exception is found in stories that have a direct influence on people like air pollution and food safety.

There are several scientific papers that enjoy some popularity in China. However, they are not targeted to the ordinary Chinese person, but mainly other scientists.

Social media to the rescue

The growing social media might be the future source for science journalism and science communication. Increasingly, research institutes like the state-approved NGO China Research Institute for Science Popularization (CRISP) are analysing data from online tools such as Baidu (the Chinese version of Google) to identify the scientific topics and information for which people are searching. This analysis is used by CRISP for arranging monthly meetings with stakeholders (which could be journalists) to inform about these topics.

Social media also offers young scientists the opportunity to debate their research, both with each other as well as the public. However, institutions have to be supportive of this kind of communication, and a lot of research institutions are still conservative, with a tradition of having very restricted communication channels. Even so, various types of new media, from blogs to Weibo to WeChat, goes behind the formal mechanisms. And there is reason for optimism, says Hepeng Jia:

– Digital media, particularly low-cost mobile media, liberate many working scientists who want to do science communication to get involved. Also, they help change the marginalization of science news desks in many traditional media. Thirdly, social media and their networking function connect science media and those more honest readers; It is always an unrealizable dream to get a majority of the public become enthusiastic readers of science.

The rise of online media also creates new opportunities for investigative journalism.

– Science and technology controversies spread widely thanks to the rising use of the Internet. And the public increasingly refuses the official scientific explanations in fields varying from GM crops, trash burning and construction of chemical plants to food safety, Heping Jia says.

The downside of the digital media is that – like in the West – it has seriously affected the economic model of print media, Hepeng Jia adds. It leaves very few opportunities to do investigative science journalism, so what is presently reported is primarily in-depth interpretation of science events.

Adding up to this is the strong censorship seen in China where social media is monitored. Social media might be a way to debate, but maybe not too critically.

RRI a foreign concept

In an environment like this, RRI is not a familiar concept. During the NUCLEUS field trip 27 representatives from science and science communication communities in Beijing was interviewed, and even though a few had heard of RRI, it remained a theoretical term. To the rest, it was a completely new term, which – much like in Western countries – was hard to grasp.

– I haven’t heard of the term RRI before, but I am familiar with scientific literacy and media ethics”, one of the interviewees said, while another representative explained “I don’t think we have the same term in China, but I think what we have is similar. We promote science and convey positive messages around it.

Especially the last statement shows that the interpretation of RRI differs very much from what is understood in most Western countries, but it does reveal, that China recognises a need for educating the public on scientific topics.

The problem of lack of time – and confidence

While research institutions in the EU and many European countries have built-in requirements for communication, with resources allocated, Chinese scientists are not blessed with such incentives. There is no motivation for them to go out and spend valuable time on talking with the public or with journalists, and there are no career progression incentives connected to communication skills. On the contrary, there is an immense pressure to perform and deliver results. Spending time on extra activities is often not an option, and is not looked upon as important or desirable. And also, there is the issue of literacy.

– Many Chinese scientists believe that the general public is not scientifically qualified to interactively discuss science and technology issues. As a result, when science and technology controversies arise, the science community either evades answering the public’s inquiries, or largely talks about the case in jargon with professional arrogance, says Hepeng Jia.

Another hurdle is the fact that Chinese scientists are not used to talking to the press. It is unusual to receive a call from a journalist, and many scientists are not used to presenting their research to laymen and fear they will be misunderstood. This is an important obstacle to overcome, if RRI shall have a chance to develop in China.

CRISP – which is also affiliated with the China Science Writers Association (CSWA) is working on facilitating some of these obstacles by offering media training and developing guidelines to scientists on how to speak to journalists.