Bora Zivkovic, on his A Blog Around the Clock, recently wrote a post on the new science journalism ecosystem: new inter-species interactions, new niches. Bora’s thought-provoking post was written in response to an opinion piece that appeared in Nature last June, Science journalism: Toppling the priesthood (behind a paywall, unfortunately), in which Toby Murcott argued that science journalists need to delve deeper and be more critical in their reporting of scientific findings. Bora intended his post “to provoke discussion,” and it has. It certainly pushed some buttons for me.
Among other things, Bora suggests that the distinction many people (particularly journalists) draw between public information officers (PIOs) and professional journalists is an artificial one, and that “PIOs, many of whom have science degrees, are actually doing the brunt of science journalism these days.” In this context Bora defines science journalism as “reporting and explaining science.” He argues further that investigative science journalism is not “real” science journalism. In his book it is “just investigative journalism in which the people under scrutiny just happen accidentally to be scientists,” and as such, he says, that type of journalism does not require that the reporter understand science.
As someone who has been a scientist, a PIO, and a journalist, I must beg to differ. First, I think there is a distinction between a PIO and a science journalist. And second, I don’t think we can or should exclude or set apart investigative journalism from the broader category of science journalism.
I should note that I do agree with Bora that “we need to eliminate [the] antagonism between newsroom journalists and institutional journalists (formerly known as PIOs).” That historical antagonism, in which journalists sometimes disrespectfully refer to PIOs as flacks, is not only unkind but hypocritical, since plenty of journalists who look down their noses at PIOs get story ideas from those same (or other) PIOs in the form of news releases or story pitches.
Nevertheless, there is a difference between a science journalist and a PIO who covers science or medicine – though both may be science writers. True, the boundaries have become somewhat blurred, as some PIOs write news releases that are at least as good as a newspaper article (and certainly most television reports) in terms of explaining the science and telling a story. That’s in part because many science writers who once wrote for newspapers and other mainstream media outlets have crossed the aisle and taken jobs as PIOs, thanks to job cuts and buyouts in the MSM.
But a PIO’s main job is to represent her institution and get publicity/coverage for that institution’s research, get its message out, and get the institution’s name (or “brand” as it may be called these days) in front of the public in a positive way. A PIO may also have to help with crisis communications – for example, if something goes wrong with a clinical trial that a scientist at her institution is conducting. Whereas a science journalist covering that story would have a different goal, namely uncovering and reporting the full story, which may put the institution involved in a bad light. I’m sure that science journalists and PIOs out there could (and I hope you will) come up with other examples.
So on to my second point: Is the aforementioned journalist automatically an “investigative journalist” and not a “science journalist” because she is reporting something unpleasant that occurred in the world of research? I would say no, because that same journalist may also write more straightforward “wow, that’s neat” science stories. And an understanding of the underlying science is certainly helpful in reporting the “something smells fishy” stories as well as the “wow, that’s neat” stories. I maintain that one person can and may do both types of science reporting, so it doesn’t make sense to separate “investigative journalism” from “science journalism.”
That distinction may become even more artificial when considering science feature writing as opposed to shorter science stories on a single finding. After all, isn’t it common to discover differing opinions and even controversies when delving more deeply into a particular area of scientific research and talking to several scientists in the field? I’ve often found such controversies even though I wasn’t looking for them, simply by asking good questions. And couldn’t writing about those controversies or opinions be considered a form of investigative journalism?
Dan Ferber made some excellent points about the role of investigative journalism in reporting on science in a comment here, in a discussion thread spurred by David Dobbs’s post about the then-impending Rebooting Science Journalism session at the ScienceOnline2010 meeting that took place in January. John Timmer also made some good points about this in his thoughts on Rebooting Science Journalism.
That type of investigative science journalism is also perhaps where the line between a PIO and a science journalist becomes more distinct, as a PIO is in most cases not likely to point out that the finding described in a news release is controversial among scientists in the field. Nor will a PIO be likely to point out the weaknesses in a scientific study, whereas a journalist may interview and quote another researcher in the field who provides that perspective while still affirming the value or intriguing nature of the finding.
In the case of more in-depth, hard-hitting investigative journalism on topics involving science or medicine (e.g., the recent New York Times series on problems with radiation therapy), a science or medical journalist may very well work together with an investigative journalist on a story, since science journalists are often not trained to do hard-core investigative reporting, whereas an investigative journalist usually won’t understand the scientific nuances of the story. (I’m not sure a science reporter was involved in the NY Times series on radiation, but there are other examples out there.)
Finally, getting back to the distinction between PIOs and journalists, of course there are good PIOs and bad PIOs, including those who hype the findings, just as there are good and bad journalists. Different institutions, too, have different expectations of their PIOs. But the bottom line is that, whether we like it or not, the job descriptions for these two fields differ in some notable ways, although there is certainly overlap as well.