The Evolving Role of Journalists in the New Science-Media Ecosystem

The Evolving Role of Journalists in the New Science-Media Ecosystem

Following up on our study analyzing the shifting roles and emerging practices of science journalists in the digital age, Declan Fahy contributed a valuable discussion to the news site of the British Association of Science Writers which I have reposted below. Also see Fahy's article at and a detailed summary of the study with open-access PDF.

Now that science reporters have seen their historical position as the primary conveyors of scientific information to non-specialists eroded, what roles are left for them to play?

That's a central issue that myself and my American University colleague Matt Nisbet explored in an article published recently in Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, which reported the views of eleven science journalists, in the United States and the United Kingdom, about how their professional roles and working practices have been changing in the digital age.

We argued that journalists are now operating in what we called a new "science-media ecosystem" where organizations that were previously sources of science news -- including scientific publishers and societies, scientists, science centers and science interest groups --  are now producing original content, often using journalistic methods of presentation, directly for non-specialist audiences.

In this digital space, the functions and practices of science reporters have shifted, a shift driven also by the wider economic and organizational pressures on journalism generally, a shift that can be seen in four emerging practices for science reporters.

First, they are shifting from a transmission view of science reporting, their specialist work becoming somewhat analogous to the roles of literary and artistic criticism. This interpretative function is important because, as researchers from the fields of science communication and science studies have shown, traditional notions of scientific authority, of the presentation of scientific certainty, and of science being the supreme method of understanding the world have been increasingly questioned.

Second, instead of being transmitters of scientific information, a more suitable metaphor for describing the work of science reporters is as cartographers, who guide readers through scientific information, mapping the territory of an issue, and highlighting notable news.

Third, science reporters, rather than reporting only the end product of science, are examining the process of science. Researcher Donald Matheson noted in an article in New Media & Society that, for digital journalism, instead of the traditional idea of being first with the news, a new kind of credibility and authority has arisen for reporters, "one of knowing more, knowing better, knowing comprehensively, and knowing in as much depth or extent as readers would wish".

The editor of the Columbia Journalism Review's The Observatory column, Curtis Brainard, told us: "Some of the best science journalists are going . . . upstream of scientific findings, looking at how research institutions, academic or otherwise, develop research projects, how they conceive of experiments. They're looking at science as a process . . .  not just as a collection of findings."

Fourth, authority online is no longer held solely by professional journalists. Authority now lies in cross-referenced, interactive conversations between journalists and their audiences.

James Randerson, the Guardian's environment and science news editor, noted that the paper encourages its reporters to see reader interactivity "as part of the journalistic process, not as a kind of add-on". The paper's reporting of the released climate scientist emails at the University of East Anglia offered what it called peer-review journalism, where the story's protagonists could annotate the online coverage, to produce what Randerson called "a better account, a deeper account, a broader account" of the story.

Against these four emerging practices, what are the professional roles of science journalists? From our interviews and synthesis of recent scholarly writings on journalism, we created a typology of role categories, roles that we found to frequently overlap. As well as undertaking the traditional journalistic roles of watchdogs over scientific elites and acting as agenda-setters who are able to project issues on to political agendas, some prominent roles being undertaken by digital science reporters are:

Curators. Science journalists must be proficient at sifting through and evaluating the vast amount of science-related content online. But curation is more than aggregation -- it's informed aggregation that tells audiences why this information is important.

Explainers. Even though economic pressures and the increasing amount of content providers in the science-media-ecosystem has meant reporters have had to diversify their roles, the journalists we interviewed said that reporting new findings remained a cornerstone of their work. Charles Petit, a veteran science reporter and lead writer for MIT's Knight Science Journalism Tracker, said that the reporting role was previously "much more dominant among science writers" and "it remains important".

Public Intellectuals. Reporters in this role are similar to traditional newspaper commentators or columnists, moving frequently between specialized topics that they present from their distinctive worldview. As an example, John Horgan, who writes the Cross-check blog for Scientific American, and who contributes to science magazines and writes popular science books, classified himself as a "critical debunker" of "exaggerated or erronous scientific claims". He told us: "I convinced myself that that was actually a good thing to do because science had become such an authority that there was a need for a scientific critic . . . I just enjoy that form of journalism myself. It's a paradox: it's using subjectivity to ultimately get a more clear, objective picture of things."

Civic Educators. While science journalists have traditionally been resistant to viewing their work as education, some of those we interviewed noted that the limitless availability of space online allowed reporters to fulfill more an educational role. Ed Yong, who writes the Not Exactly Rocket Science blog for Discover magazine, said this educational role involves not only writing about scientific achievements, but also reporting "where scientists disagree, areas where controversies are going on, because that's part of science, that’s an inescapable part of the scientific process . . . it shows people scientists are human and that science is a human process."

Convenors. Science journalists in this role connect scientists with various audiences, either online or in person. For example, Andrew Revkin, who writes the Dot Earth blog at the New York Timestold us: "A big subset of posts that I do are along those lines. When I go places to speak, quite often I'll be in the role of moderator or kind of convener . . . where I am on stage with four or five scientists or technologists or engineers or academics and challenging them in the same way as I do on the blog".

In summary, we argued in our paper that journalists in the digital age are now performing an increasingly plurality of roles that involve diverse and interactive ways of telling science news. And this plurality is likely to be central to the future work of science reporters. As Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and professor at the University of Wisconsin Deborah Blum told us: "A science journalist wears a lot of hats, the way I do. . .  I write books, I do magazine articles, I teach – [this] is much more the 21st century version of a journalist."

Declan Fahy, PhD, is assistant professor of health, science and environmental journalism in the School of Communication, American University, Washington, D.C.

Read the original post and comments at the site of the Association of British Science Writers.


Fahy, D., & Nisbet, M. (2011). The science journalist online: Shifting roles and emerging practices Journalism, 12(7), 778-793 DOI: 10.1177/1464884911412697


Science reporters today work within an evolving science media ecosystem that is pluralistic, participatory and social. It is a mostly online environment that has challenged the historically dominant and exceptional role of science reporters as privileged conveyers of specialist information to general audiences.  We map this science media environment, drawing on interviews with journalists and writers from nationally prominent US and UK media organizations, describing the shifting roles and emerging practices of science journalists online. Compared to a decade ago, this occupational group, driven by economic imperatives and technological changes, is performing a wider plurality of roles, including those of curator, convener, public intellectual and civic educator, in addition to more traditional journalistic roles of reporter, conduit, watchdog and agenda-setter.  Online science journalists have a more collaborative relationship with their audiences and sources and are generally adopting a more critical and interpretative stance towards the scientific community, industry, and policy-oriented organizations.

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Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
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