5:AM keynote: What’s wrong with Science journalism, and how can we fix it?

Wednesday 26th September


The first morning of the 5:AM Altmetrics Conference and the sun was shining in London! After a warm welcome from Jane Winters, Professor of Digital Humanities at the School of Advanced Study (who were kindly hosting the event at the beautiful Senate House), it was on to keynote speaker Jop de Vrieze to set the scene for the day.

An independent journalist based in the Netherlands, Jop’s talk explored the challenges facing research dissemination in the media, and the influence that services like Eurekalert and Alphagalileo now have on which stories reach the mainstream press.

A frank confession provided an interesting opening: Jop discussed his own love/hate relationship with science journalism. He posed some questions to the audience: how can we make our science journalism more relevant and more useful.

Thinking back as far as World War 2, Jop looked at how what we recognize today as science journalism has evolved over time - from the government-driven initiatives of war time to the writings of H.G. Wells and the societal challenges of the 1960’s.

Jop cited writer Rachel Carson as one of the first to introduce a more critical approach to science journalism, which took many of her contemporaries by surprise. This, Jop said, led to a shift to a much more critical industry - with science journalists really taking their role as ‘watchdogs’ seriously.

With things not always what they seem (in our politically-driven ‘post-truth ‘era), journalists today now focus on trying to be more critical in what they write - but still face significant barriers to doing so.

As the medium of our journalism has changed from print to online, so to have the gatekeepers of the news, with University and publisher press officers now playing a significant role in what is released and can be published.

The exponent of this dynamic, Jop positioned, is Eurekalert. With over 5,000 press officers connected to the platform (but not those from Nature, due to the platform being run by AAAS) the influence they have over what reaches the wires and is circulated widely is substantial.

Recent research studies have explored the impacts of this - examining the relationships between the original university press releases and the resulting news item. Describing the ‘science news cycle’, Jop demonstrated how what begins as your research study can flow through through the mechanisms and end up with your Grandma in a panic at the supposed impending doom that your results have been interpreted to evidence!

Showcasing ‘the fat whisperer’ and some rather comical shrinking sheep, one clip Jop played gave a crash course in ‘things you need to get your research into the news’:

  1. Global warming
  2. ‘Squirty things’
  3. A claim for cancer (top tip - never, ever use Facebook!)

On a more serious note, the negative impacts of science PR were highlighted, including the over-simplistification or overstating of findings, and selective reporting that leads to an unrealistic understanding of science and the world around us.

All of this has led, posed Jop, to a ‘uniformity of science’. A 2016 period of down-time left journalists thinking ‘oh, what now?!’, exemplifying the extent to which their coverage took a cookie cutter approach.

So where do altmetrics fit into this cycle? Looking at the top 10 articles from the Altmetric 2017 Top 100, Jop explored the impact that science news workflows have on society. If journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed (in the words of George Orwell), then is all we are reading PR?

We need to find new, constructive narratives to make science for the people again, says Jop. With effective science journalism, we can all benefit.

So how could we achieve this? Demonstrating a realistic image of the scientific process and findings, facilitating the debate amongst scientists and with the wider public, and offering interpretation and context are key pieces of this picture.

Jop concluded by saying that we have the opportunity over the next few days to explore this issue further, and to think critically and openly about our own role in this dynamic.

And with that, we went on to the rest of the day…