Blurred lines defining Canadian science ‘journalists’

In Vice, Kate Lunau writes about ‘Science Journalism’s Identity Crisis‘, in a piece that covers the fact that the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the National Association of Science Writers are considering constitutional changes that would allow people working in science PR to head these groups.

“They could be a freelance journalist who dabbles in communications work, as I briefly considered doing, and as a growing number of my colleagues do, too,” she writes.

“Of the CSWA’s 603 members, 265 currently identify as a “science journalist,” whereas 388 are “science communicators,” and 209 are in “research.” (People can choose to identify as more than one thing.) Just 159 of us, which actually seems high to me, say they strictly do science journalism.

This appears to mean that 106 (40%) out of the 265 CSWA members who self-identify as ‘science journalists’ are not exclusively engaged in independent science journalism. That echoes similar outcomes of a global survey reported elsewhere on this site.

“The classic journalist model is falling apart,” said Lougheed, a longtime freelance science writer [and incoming CSWA President]. “Journalists are trying to hold their heads up high, [but] the wheels have fallen off the bus.”

The hope is that a new constitution will strengthen protections against conflict of interest, and emphasize the role of science communication “in the public interest,” Lougheed said.”

Link: Kate’s full article.

A looming rift in science journalism?

On Undark, Aleszu Bajak paints a rather dark picture of the future of the US National Association of Science Writers. Under the headline ‘A Looming Rift in Science Journalism‘, Aleszu describes the debates of a proposed change to the NASW constitution, which would make non-journalists eligible for leadership roles.

Some money quotes:

PIOs and their supporters argue that the hard lines that used to define [the two] professions no longer pertain in the modern era, and that in any case, the number of NASW members who consider themselves journalists alone is vanishing. “You can’t define journalism and you can’t define journalist,” said Karl Bates, the director of research communications at Duke University and long-time NASW member.

“Joe Palca, a science reporter for National Public Radio, was president of NASW between 1999 and 2000, which coincided with another constitutional change — one that allowed PIOs to gain full membership in the organization in the first place. “It used to be that you were a full-fledged member if you were a science journalist and an associate member if you were a public information officer,” Palca explained. Back then, he said, “it was relatively easy to understand who was strictly a journalist and who wasn’t. But times have changed. I no longer consider it to be a professional organization of science journalists like it used to be.”

“The recent report comes amidst a larger debate that’s been roiling the scientific journalism community in recent years. At the heart of that debate is the charge that rigorous coverage of the sciences has devolved into a flabby affair in which reporters more readily minister to the interests of scientists and the institutions they represent than to the needs and interests of ordinary readers.”

Link: Aleszu’s full piece.

US survey echoes global survey on blurring lines

A committee tasked with studying a proposed change to the constitution of the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW) has filed its report. Its major finding might be that most NASW members say they are mixing the roles of ‘journalists’ and ‘public information officers’. Half of those calling themselves ‘journalists’ report (also?) working for non-media organizations.

A survey under 718 NASW members echoes the outcomes of our global survey, which had also made very clear that a large (and possibly growing) number of people who present themselves as ‘journalists’ do (also) work for organizations that have financial interests in the area that they publicly write about.

Some quotes from the report:

“The NASW membership is a heterogeneous group that includes a mix of journalists, public
information officers (PIOs), and many science writers that do not identify as either.”

“718 [NASW members taking part in a survey] answered the question “Which label or labels would you use to identify yourself?” Response options were limited to “Journalist,” “Public information officer or other media relations professional [PIO],” and ”Other.” Respondents could select as many options as they wanted.

  • 416 people (58%) label themselves as “Journalists”. Of these,
    • 278 (67%) label themselves only as journalists.
    • 61 (16%) also self-identify as PIOs
    • 138 (33%) also label themselves as PIOs, “Other,” or both.
  • 120 people (17%) label themselves only as PIOs.
  • 155 people (22%) label themselves only as “Other.”

The NASW committee writes: “The fact that such a large number of NASW members label themselves as “Other” indicates that many members do not think of themselves as either journalists or PIOs.

Many self-identified ‘journalists’ described job duties that did not involve working for independent media organizations: Of journalists (n=416), 50% write/edit for an institution such as a university, research institute or center, scientific society, nonprofit organization, museum, government agency, advocacy organization, or company.”

Vice versa, many PIOs do work for media organizations: “Of PIOs (n=212), 37% write/edit in a journalistic role for print, online, or broadcast media outlets.”

While the precise questions in the NASW survey and the global survey differed in subtle ways, they seem to paint very similar pictures.

Oddly enough, the NASW committee did not conclude from these findings that the question they were asked (‘Should non-journalists be eligible for leading roles in the NASW?’) is moot, since it is not clear at all which members really are ‘journalists’ and which ones are not.

The committee reports having received letters on the proposed changes. “Letterwriters
had varying, and sometimes inaccurate, perceptions of what PIOs do, what
freelance writers/editors do and what constitutes journalism.”

Regrettably, the committee does not specify what it saw as ‘accurate’ perceptions of these roles.

Link: the full report of the NASW Constitutional Review Ad Hoc Committee (pdf).

A request for a clear definition of science journalism

In The Guardian, Brooke Borel writes passionately about why science journalism must be about writing critically about the scientific enterprise, and laments cases in which people have obfuscated their roles ‘in the interest of science’. A few quotes:

“There is a continued misunderstanding of what science journalism is, and how it differs from other forms of science communication.”

Our media ecosystem blurs these distinctions even more, with bylines of both journalists and advocates appearing at the same media outlets.

Link: Brooke’s full piece

‘Where do science journalists draw the line?’

In the Columbia Journalism Review, Paul Thacker, a science journalist and consultant, confronts the question where science journalists draw the line when it comes to potential conflicts of interest.

Under the headline ‘Where do science journalists draw the line?‘, Thacker describes a scene in a session on ethics at the annual meeting of the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW).

“Toward the end of the session, a veteran journalist went to the microphone and posed the following scenario: You’re reporting on a new paper finding that doctors think they can’t be swayed by gifts from pharmaceutical representatives, even though research shows physicians are in fact influenced by small gratuities such as pens. As part of your reporting, you go to lunch with a pharma representative, who then offers to pick up the tab. Is that okay? Almost everyone in the room agreed that it was not.”

Thacker describes collecting conflict-of-interest and disclosure policies for journalists (and sources) from fourteen media organizations. He writes: “Some draw a bright line—preventing journalists from having financial ties to any outside sources. Others allow some expenses and speaking fees. To complicate matters further, some organizations have written rules, while others consider incidents on a case-by-case basis.”

“[..] The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) advises that members should ‘attempt to avoid’ financial conflicts of interest, while the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) draws a much brighter line: Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.”

The piece contains an interesting review of Thacker’s conversations with editors or spokespersons from mainstream US media organizations including Bloomberg, Reuters, New York Times, Science, Nature, Washington Post, National Public Radio and Discover.

Some quotes:

“Indeed, freelancers open up a whole different set of problems. Like the scientists they cover, many have streams of money that can create conflicts of interest. A spokesperson for National Public Radio wrote that it has turned down pieces from freelancers who had “some of their reporting expenses paid by groups or organizations with interests in the subjects they were covering.”

“An Editor at Discover [..] added that the NASW standards should be strengthened, especially as more freelancers combine journalism with contract writing work for universities and industry. ‘Writers must maintain professional credibility by keeping those two arenas completely separate, i.e., they can’t be writing about a specific scientist for an industry publication and turn around and sell a similar story to a consumer science magazine, all based on the reporting of that initial industry assignment.’ ”

Link: Paul’s full story

The demise of science journalism?

On the website of the Australian Science Communicators, the ‘peak body for science communicators and science journalists in Australia’, Bianca Nogrady reports on recent attempts in Australia to draw clear lines between science journalists and science communications.


“Are you a science journalist or a science communicator? For people outside the science communication sphere, this question might seem like an exercise in splitting hairs, but for those of us whose day-to-day lives are embedded in this arena, it’s actually quite important.”

“However it can be difficult to find clear, unassailable points of distinction that distinguish science journalists from science communicators. Is it who’s paying? Is it the determination of an underlying message? These seem like obvious answers but the often strong underlying agendas of publishing companies make things less clear-cut.”

“And so it was that [the Australian Science Communicators NSW branch] recently assembled a crack team of science journalists and science communicators to help find the answer.”

It turns out that the intersection between science journalism and science communication is complex and messy and –particularly in this new era of online media– more important to debate than ever.

“The reason is that science journalism –being defined as the kind of ‘objective’, critical reporting and analysis that our panel is most experienced in– is on the decline, at least in the mainstream media.”

“[A] rise in ‘native content’ – advertising content designed to match its publishing surroundings – does create some dilemmas both for publishers and journalists. [..] For journalists, particularly freelancers, it can lead to conflicts of interest if one is asked to write a critical news piece about a research organization that one also writes content for.

“The downside to [the] transition away from science journalism to science communication is that we are likely to see less of the critical, independent reporting and analysis that science – as with any other human endeavour – should be subject to.”

Link: Bianca’s full piece

‘On Science Journalism And Conflicts Of Interest’

On the blog Popular Science, Brooke Borel, a freelance journalist, writes about how modern-day freelancers like herself grapple with questions surrounding conflicts of interest in science journalism.

Navigating potential conflicts is dicey for reporters—and especially freelancers, she concluded in a subheadline.

Recalling a question asked at a session on ethics at the Annual Meeting of the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW), she writes:

“In some cases, writers may have the opportunity to do paid work for universities and companies. Is it okay for those same writers to work as journalists for media outlets? If so, under what circumstances? The answers varied. Some people argued that it is never okay to take on work like this if you want to be a journalist; others said it’s okay as long as there wasn’t overlap in the topics covered; and still others thought even that might be okay, as long as there is a clear disclosure stating the potential conflict.”

(Apparently no one said it’s okay even without disclosure, which seems to happen a lot.)

Borel then describes one of her own struggles. Invited to an all-expenses-and-more-paid, biotech industry-sponsored ‘Biotech Literacy Boot Camp’, she collected counsel from several colleagues. Summing it up, she writes: “Don’t take the honorarium. Do consider the travel money. It isn’t money going into your pocket, which limits the potential COI, and you can do some good by being there, both to present your views on the panels you sit on and to bring back valuable information for your readers. And if you ever write about the conference: Disclose that money clearly.”

Borel decided indeed to pass on the $2,000 honorarium but accept the travel expenses, accommodation and meals and disclose those in a later story on GMOs.

She writes: “None of us are capable of truly seeing our own potential [conflicts of interests], because many of us see ourselves as mostly good people who will do the right thing regardless. The problem with that assumption, though, is precisely that we are people: our psychology is messy.”

“So, my advice to other writers—and especially freelancers, who might not have obvious guidance on these potential conflicts—is to ask where money offered to you is coming from. Think about how that money may be perceived to someone else, if you were to take it. Ask yourself what you think you will do if you take that money and then want to write objectively about the people who gave it to you, or about topics they may not agree with. Talk to your editors and your peers to see what they would do.”

“And disclose, disclose, disclose.”

Link: Brooke’s full post

Kavli/WFSJ symposium seeks definition of science journalism

Last February the World Federation of Science Journalists and The Kavli Foundation organized their first Symposium on the Future of Science Journalism, with the goal of strengthening independent and critical science journalism.

At the meeting, 50 science journalists from 16 countries discussed, among other things, that “it is becoming increasingly clear that science journalism needs to better define and distinguish itself in the midst of a growing array of information sources.” From the report:

Thanks in part to suggestions from Dan Fagin from New York University, “the working group [..] recommends creating a collaborative working document that states the core values and skill competencies of science journalists and explicates what the group means when it says this is good science journalism.”

“Draft inclusions in this document are:

  1. Core Values
    1. Challenge and verify
    2. Transparency
    3. Context
    4. Use of evidence
    5. Integrity
    6. Engagement
  2. Core competencies
    1. Science literacy and numeracy
    2. Use and evaluation of experts and expertise
    3. Use of evidence and scientific augmentation
    4. Clear, entertaining presentation of scientific information
    5. Understand and pursue science and society connections
    6. Combining science storytelling/backgrounds with use of new digital and social media tools.

Link: the symposium’s full report (pdf)

Nature: independent science journalism needed

The journal Nature weighs in with an editorial about the ongoing need for independent science journalists that are ready to go beyond press releases and truly investigate scientific matters. Money quote:

Expensive, time-consuming and often unpopular with readers, this is the science journalism that is most in danger. It is the science journalism that needs to survive if the public is to be properly informed and the powerful to be held accountable.

Read the full Nature editorial.

Outcomes of global survey now available

General outcomes of the global survey on ‘blurring lines’, also sometimes referred to as ‘science journalism and other hats’, have now been published. Thanks to all 403 science journalists who took the time to answer the questions.
The survey will remain a key source of information for the discussion and will therefore continue to be available directly from the menu at the top of this website.

Here’s just one of many fascinating charts:

Do check out the full survey outcomes!