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Do Science Journalists Need to Focus More Upstream in Their Coverage?

The most interesting and important things about science often go uncovered in the news media. Journalists and editors–especially in today’s world of cutbacks–have always tended to define what’s newsworthy in science around the release of a scientific study, in the process rarely covering scientific knowledge as it happens, ignoring the uncertainties, ideologies, personalities, and politics that define laboratories, universities, fields, and funding agencies. There’s a strong economy to this tendency among journalists: The news releases provided by universities and journals literally “subsidize” the newsmaking process, making it easier for journalists to decide what’s newsworthy and reducing the time and expertise needed to file a story quickly and in 600 words.

The best journalists go beyond the news release, interviewing other experts in order to provide context on the quality of the study and the uncertainties in the research. There’s even sometimes a quote from an ethicist to round out the news report.

But only at outlets that still allow longform journalism and that invest in veteran reporters, such as the New York Times, the Guardian, or The New Yorker, or at trade magazines such as The Scientist, or in the occasional book, do journalists begin to shift towards what science communication scholar Alice Bell in a recent blog post calls “upstream science journalism.”

Her term derives from the upstream movement in public engagement more generally. Similar to initiatives designed to increase public participation in decisions about the direction of scientific research in emerging fields such as nanotechnology, “upstream journalism” would focus on the politics, personalities, and social factors that drive decisions in a field such as nanotechnology, in realtime, as they are happening.  The emphasis is on taking the public “back stage,” behind the curtains and the theater that frame the finished product of science.  Bell’s post is well worth a careful read. Below I add a few additional thoughts to her analysis.

What Would Upstream Science Journalism Look Like?

If the goal is to increase public participation in policy and research decisions, then the news media is essential to achieving this goal, providing the context and the information that communicates the social, ethical, political, and personal relevance of a scientific issue.  Without news coverage providing context, the hope and the promise of an upstream engagement movement in science is unattainable.

In order to provide this necessary context, science coverage and journalist norms need to change.  Gone would be the standard science journalism narrative of an individual hero scientist (or team) struggling against the complexity and uncertainty of a problem and the personal costs of his/her work.  In its place would be a broader, more thematic view of science not as a collection of a few individuals and personalities, but as an institution, with coverage examining research and policy decisions as they are embedded within a social and cultural context that is shaped by norms, economic factors, ideology, and culture. Adapting a phrase from Bruno Latour, as Alice Bell puts it: “Science journalism should follow scientists all the way through society.”

This “new science journalism” would require a major cultural shift among not only journalists but also scientific institutions, which would have to live up to their statements about the need for greater public engagement by increasing transparency and access to information about research and policy decisions, and which would need to shift in their marketing away from an emphasis on the hero scientist generating great discoveries to focus on how their institutions interact with communities, decision-makers, and the public around science. (For more on this cultural shift, see this post.)

Strong examples of upstream science journalism exist in several books, perhaps most notably in John Horgan’s End of Science and Daniel Greenberg’s Science, Money, and Politics. Another relevant example is Chris Mooney’s Stormworld.

Perhaps the best example appears not in print but as the CBC radio documentary How to Think about Science. Blogging has also emerged as a major medium for upstream science journalism, with Andrew Revkin’s coverage at the NYTimes’ Dot Earth as a leading example. [More on blogging in a follow-up post.]

The Benefits of Upstream Science Journalism

There are many likely benefits to an upstream shift in science journalism, the most notable is the increased public understanding and trust that would come with an enhanced societal realism about how science works.

It probably strikes scientists and their institutions as odd that examining the human and social flaws in what they do would improve public perceptions. And it would also mean letting go of a fear of losing control of information, a fear that is problematic in an age of digital and social media. 

Yet consider that one of the reasons there was so much shock, attention, and controversy over the Korean cloning fraud, the leaked emails in the “climategate” affair, or the Harvard inquiry into Marc Hauser, is that scientific institutions and journalists have for the most part always portrayed science as far too certain and scientists as far too infallible.

A more thematic realism rather than an episodic  framing of science in news coverage would shift public attributions when these types of events happen. Instead of viewing one incident as indicting all of science or a particular field, the public with a greater realism about the uncertainties and social side of science, would be less surprised or alarmed about a single incident of scandal.  They would understand that scientific research can be socially constructed but also true. In fact, the public would be more likely to view these incidents as scientists do: concerned but not really that surprised that scientists have big egos or are prone to bias, with several norms in science designed to correct for these bad habits of personality and mind.

As Alice Bell observes, there are also similar benefits to journalists:

I also think science journalism would be served well by taking itself upstream, not only working to show how science is made, but making its own workings more visible too. Upstream engagement was, after all, designed to deal with a crisis in trust. Perhaps a bit more upstream communication would help  science journalists to gain trust from their audiences, and from the scientific community. This would include openness, but also involving their audiences (upstream, and meaningfully, not only letting them comment at the end of the process).

What do readers think? Should journalists focus more on the upstream side of science? Are there are other strong examples of upstream science journalism? What role can science blogging play?

Note: Bell’s post is based on remarks she gave at London’s ScienceOnline 2010 conference. Video of her panel on “Rebooting Science Journalism” which also included Ed Yong, David Dobbs, and Martin Robbins can be viewed at Yong’s blog Not Exactly Rocket Science.

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