I recently had a Science & Society piece published in EMBO Reports on the explosion of alternative digital forms of science journalism.
Science journalism is changing and the opportunities are as great as the pitfalls. Digital technologies, mobile devices and social media platforms are changing the communication landscape, reflecting a deeper, more general cultural shift in news production and consumption. – An Explosion of Alternatives, DOI: 10.15252/embr.201439130
As any writer knows, you often have to “kill your darlings” to get to the essence of a piece of good writing. In my case, the editors at EMBO Reports make this exceptionally easy on me, and in the process of “killing my darlings” make my writing tremendously better.
But that is where you, my reader are lucky (or unlucky?) that I have this blog to publish all the notes and quotes that didn’t make it into the final piece at EMBO Reports. So without further ado… a disjointed dialogue on what the future might hold for science journalism.
Science journalism is changing in ways we could never have predicted. Digital technologies, mobile phones and social media platforms have contributed to a changing science journalism landscape, but changes in technology also reflect deeper, cultural shifts in news production and consumption. And in the meantime, social media are less replacing than augmenting traditional science journalism practice.
“Fast-forward to the present day, and the newspaper business is collapsing, taking its science coverage with it, while scientists talk directly to the public through blogs and tweets.” – John Timmer, Considering the future of science journalism
Shortly before midnight central U.S. time, Friday March 11, 2011, an earthquake estimated at magnitude 9.0 on the Richter scale near the east coast of Japan's main island vehemently jolted the ocean bed. During the earthquake, the Asian tectonic plate that Japan is part of essentially bounced upwards, displacing a massive volume of water. This displacement triggered a devastating tsunami that reached parts of the Japanese coast just 30 minutes later.
Like many other citizens and journalists that night and the next morning, one editor at Scientific American, in New York City at the time, happened to see the first tweets coming in about the quake around three o’clock in the morning. The editor, Angela Cesaro, immediately pulled up material from Scientific American’s archives on the science of earthquakes on the ocean floor and the tsunamis, aftershocks and other impacts that could result.
“She had that information up on our website before she went to bed,” said Mariette DiChristina, Scientific American’s current Editor in Chief. “We were hours ahead of others.”
Scientific American is just one of many traditional science publications facing the pressures of immediacy in a networked world. Journalism as a whole is becoming a more immediate enterprise than ever before. But with all the digital communication tools at our disposal, we still wrestle with the problem of obtaining not just quick information, but credible quick information.
“You know, when something happens like the 2011 earthquake in Japan, you want an authoritative source to tell you what’s going on,” DiChristina said, “Our online traffic doubled, and a lot of those people kept coming back. Because they had a need, and we addressed it immediately. We could never have done that once upon a time.”
As DiChristina tells it, the journalistic principle of timeliness has always won the day, with journalists running out to cover news they heard breaking over the radio or through word of mouth just as they do today with Twitter. But other things have changed, a case in point being audience expectations.
“Now, the news is updated continuously around the clock, and that puts a certain amount of timing pressure on the press,” DiChristina said. “I remember a breaking story at one point, and people were tweeting to me, ‘hey it’s been five hours, where’s the update?’ You know, it’s like, sometimes it takes a little while to get ahold of the right expert sources. Sometimes it takes a little while to fact-check that. And certainly it takes a little while to put together a coherent explanation or narrative for people. Our expectations for instant answers is certainly much greater than is was even five years ago.”
Scientific American experienced this pressure first hand recently, when an editorial decision to take down a blog post by SciAm blogger Danielle Lee (@DNLee5), originally posted on Friday evening, October 11, 2013, sparked outrage on Twitter and criticisms of untimely response from editors. Some criticized Scientific American for not releasing a statement earlier and not republishing the blog post until Monday, October 14, 2013. Meanwhile, others acknowledged that fact-checking takes time and that what matters most is responding correctly, not necessarily rapidly.
But digital social technologies have changed more than audience demands for immediacy in the world of journalism, and for science journalism in particular. Blogs have not yet, as some predicted, successfully come to the rescue of traditional science journalism. What social platforms such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter have done, however, is blur the lines between the various players in the science news production process: the sources, such as scientists, the public relations offices, the journalists, and the readers, listeners and viewers. In the future of science journalism, it seems many of these lines will continue to be blurred. As a result, content becomes king, and news publications and audiences alike are increasingly focus on quality over quantity, specialization over all-purpose storytelling, and the journalist’s byline over the publication’s reputation.
The #Byline, not the #Publication
“I wouldn’t say there’s any one particular publication that I think is nailing it with science coverage, but I do think there’s a ton of great science writing that’s happening out there,” said Evan Hansen, senior editor at Medium.com. “I just look for great writers – Carl Zimmer, David Quammen, people like that.”
Many science writers point to the fact that science writing is widely distributed across the web, which seems to be both a strength and a weakness for the field of science journalism.
“You find a really good writer, and you follow that writer wherever she goes,” says Sharon Dunwoody, Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I think that’s going to be increasingly apparent in this new age. But that complicates my news diet, in some ways. It increases the amount of stuff I’m looking at, but I think it also enriches it. It gives me a real opportunity to focus on high quality science content.”
When asked where he sees high quality science journalism on the web, Hansen also says he looks for bylines more than publication names.
“There’s certain writers that I think are really good,” Hansen said. “They actually get distributed pretty well – you’ll see them in a variety of publications, like New Yorker, Nat Geo, places that like. Especially science magazines, I don’t subscribe anymore. It feels a little narrow to me, sometimes… I find myself grazing across a broader swatch of science writing. Science is not a subject. Science is like 100 subjects. It’s not a topic. So when people talk about science, they are really talking about this Russian egg doll, with so many things packed inside it.”
Is it #blogging? Is it #journalism? Who cares? Is it QUALITY?
Of course, there’s an entirely different class of popular science content today that has been extremely successful in digital environments – if not at making money, then certainly at bringing web traffic to the traditional media outlets that embrace it. That is, science blogging.
“It’s a nice little sidelight, and people are making a bit of money at it,” Hansen said. “It’s new, exciting and fun. It’s not peer-reviewed, so it’s not vetted in the same way, but a lot of the people writing those science blogs are scientists. So that’s super exciting, to see that there’s a ton of people who practice science who are now trying to popularize, or make it understandable. They often have a public education type of calling. A lot of people feel it – they like explaining science to average people. In some ways, we are in a better place than ever because we get a lot of explanatory science journalism, which is great. What we don’t tend to get a lot of is the investigative stuff. It’s hard. It takes expertise, and relatively few people are qualified to do it.”
DiChristina defines journalism as not just observing and reporting, but applying critical thinking to a question, problem or issue, interviewing people, gathering and analyzing data in a more traditional structure with editorial and fact-checking oversight.
Blogging on the other hand, is a very flexible format that is typically “unfiltered” in the classic sense of having a news editor or gatekeeper between the journalist and the audience. There are many reasons to have a blog: sharing personal experiences, engaging in science outreach, experimenting with content before it becomes news, news gathering or online content aggregation. A journalist can maintain a blog, and his or her blogging doesn’t make him or her any less of a journalist. But the act of blogging itself is “unfiltered,” and therefore not journalism in the classic sense.
“There is no question that I think bloggers […] can do a better job addressing misunderstanding of science on the web, and are probably more inclined and have more of the skills to do that,” says Mike Spear, director of Communications for Genome Alberta, a not-for-profit funding organization that supports a new Canadian science blogging network (http://scienceborealis.ca/).
“It’s not that mainstream can’t, or won’t, but they don’t necessarily have the mindset or the skills. The danger being, if you approach it from a journalism perspective – and it depends how you define journalism – that anybody can set up a blog,” Spear said. “And this isn’t something that you are going to regulate or have standards for – it just isn’t going to happen. The genie is out of the bottle. That’s where it becomes difficult for the average member of the public to figure out what’s the good, what’s the bad, what’s the so-so, and gee, what should I be checking every day because it’s damn good?”
“I think the big problem with science reporting in general is that the effort to make it understandable and popular really does a disservice to the science,” Evan Hansen said. “So you get a lot of baby headlines, and people leaping to crazy conclusions based on a single scientific paper. And you see this in the fact that science journalists often don’t get much respect from scientists – and I think that’s for a reason. I think the quality of science journalism is really poor, in general. But if you actually treat science with soberness and skepticism – the average person doesn’t want to follow that. So finding really gripping, but true and accurate stories around science is really hard.”
Journalists are often looking for the nut-graph that says “this is important because…” But for so much of science, Hansen says, we don’t know why it’s important yet, and many of the conclusions we draw turn out to completely wrong. But the real narrative of an iterative, error-prone scientific process is difficult for the average reader to grasp. There turns out to be a razor edge between stories that are true to the science, and stories around science that are popular in the news media.
Bobbie Johnson has always worked in a mixture of print newspapers and digital news sites. He started off at the Evening Standard, a large newspaper in London, and then moved to the Guardian, where he worked for nearly a decade as an editor and reporter across media and technology.
“It’s interesting, because the Guardian is quite a forward thinking news organization,” Johnson said. “But what was interesting to me as someone who came through that tradition, was the frustration of the constraints that news formats involve – stories not being given the depth of coverage that they need, or, even when you’re producing a successful website, that there’s no connective thread between different stories. You might be writing about the same topic, yet there is often not much sense of connection between different updates on the same topic.”
At the Guardian, Johnson began to take a critical eye to the format of news websites, where big investigative stories tend to look like everything else. In other words, a feature story is often delivered in the same way as a 100-word news story from AP – it looks the same, feels the same, reads the same. Johnson became interested in how next-generation media organizations could elevate and expand in-depth science news based on the benefits of the web, instead of working within constraints inherited from the Legacy media era. In 2010, Johnson began knocking around ideas of where science journalism could go with this idea.
“One of the big frustrations I’ve always had is that science and technology are often reported upon in a very explanatory way, or the conclusions that writers draw are often anecdotal,” Johnson said. “I love narrative storytelling – I think it’s a great way of imparting important information and helping you understand the world. We are creatures that identify with stories very closely. But, I felt like there was already plenty of great explanatory science journalism out there – there are great magazines that do it. But they are not very skeptical about the processes, and they often hedge conclusions. They get to the physical scientific understanding, but they don’t really apply that to the world. So what we thought was, is there a way to do it? Is there a way to cover science, and get the rigor and the depth and the analysis correct?”
At the same time, Johnson noticed traditional newspapers, magazines and websites all cutting back the amount of money and time spent on science and investigative journalism, while specialized spin-off sites concentrated on smaller volumes of in-depth content.
“I knew lots of people who had great stories, and they couldn’t take them anywhere,” Johnson said. “We decided that the best way to try this out was to start publishing it ourselves. And it’s been really interesting.”
Today, Matter is combining digital storytelling – because humans are creatures that identify more with stories than with lists of facts – with the rigor, depth and analysis often missing from traditional media coverage of science. In short, Matter is grand experiment to play with new forms and models of in-depth science journalism. But two things become immediately clear to any reader of Matter: 1) the web publisher focuses more on quality than quantity; 2) the objective is far more conversation than consumption.
“One of the issues about science journalism, I think, is that it’s often very random, and spread very thinly,” Johnson said. “So, you know, volume becomes the king then. ‘We’ll publish 100 things, and if one of them is a success, then that’s great.’ A print magazine is similar – ‘here’s a package of stories, here’s a package of bits of entertainment, and we think you might like a few of them.’ And that’s kind of the same deal that carries onto the web – you’re hoping for a big hit. But we just thought that that ends up spreading resources too thin. So at Matter, we try to be careful about our resources and the decisions we make, and we’re much more interested in connecting with a sizeable but engaged audience.”
“There are a couple of things that have happened over the past few years that are really important, I think,” Johnson said. “One of them is the way reporting, the way stories can be cross-examined in the public sphere is very different to how it was it the past. This is really interesting… I’m not a great believer in most-modernism, or the idea that all opinions are equally valid, but certainly in the past there has been a tendency for science journalism to act as a sequence of sermons. The scientist does the research and gives a sermon on what that means, which is then described and passed along as a sermon from the journalist, or the publication, to the reader.”
In the past, the science news production process as a “series of sermons” has been quite immutable, Johnson says. But today, digital publishing technologies and social media are blurring the distinctions between source, writer and reader. Today, readers get a say on science news content, especially for sites like Beacon Reader and other crowdfunded science journalism projects. Readers comment on and annotate science stories published by Matter at Medium.com, and give their input to journalists and bloggers through social media.
Khadijah Britton remembers vividly when the Boston Globe dropped its science section.
“I remember just being distraught, like this was the harbinger of the end, that we were really in trouble” Britton said. But as mainstream newspaper coverage of science has dropped, Britton suggests that non-profit and privately funded science journalism ventures might be the wave of the future.
“If Bill Nye the Science Guy wanted to fund, or he wanted to search out somebody who wanted to fund a really good collective of science journalists, I think that could totally change everything,” Britton said. “You could then have a partnership model that could be really effective in getting to the mainstream.”
Britton applauds science journalists who are working with University magazines, like the Harvard Science Review, to produce quality, more in-depth pieces. On the other hand, she says she never did believe that blogs could replace traditional forms of science journalism.
“They’re not journalism, I’m sorry,” Britton said. “They’re great – I read them every day, all day, and I love them. But there is a very concrete distinction between committing yourself to the rules of journalism, which are sometimes uptight, and expressing yourself and communicating about your research or research you’re passionate about…”
Britton has always thought of blogs as, essentially, opinion columns.
“Some blogs are journalism, and I think overall, those blogs don’t get near the amount of money, attention and time as they deserve,” Britton said. “You can’t do this stuff for passion – you can’t make sustainable, concrete, life-long journalism, unless you are independently wealthy, just because you love science. But science bloggers are simply not disciplined, because they don’t feel they need to be. And that’s a crisis of culture.”
To have Upworthy and Buzzfeed actually report the truth? This is the sort of “crazy concept” that science bloggers and science journalists should be striving for, Britton says.
On the other hand, Britton sees many science writers today increasingly becoming aware that their audiences are ‘anyone capable of a keyword search.’
“I think that cultural shift was made very plain by the mass response to what happened at Scientific American last year,” Britton said. “People who had never read Scientific American blogs knew that Danielle Lee was called a whore. That’s pretty mind-blowing.”
From Britton’s perspective, many science writers in the aftermath of the Scientific American event with blogger @DNLee5 became more aware of the social responsibility of their work.
“To name drop, definitely Ed Yong; in every article of his it has become more and more evident that he is thinking about the idea that everyone might be reading this,” Britton said. “Carl Zimmer, same thing; I think he’s always thought about that, but is now taking it more seriously with each passing day.”
Blog and online science news editors could perhaps be doing a better job getting great science content out to the right audiences online.
“We are just lacking editors,” Britton said. “I think there are a lot of people currently in the blogosphere who should be editors. I don’t know why they are being frozen out – they’ve done their time, and they have incredible networks of writers. I have a bunch of names to where, if someone actually gave me the money, I know who my staff would be! And that makes me sad - we could be so much further along if we were treating this as a mission, the same way we are treating reporting on the NSA.”
Without knowing exactly where the successful business model for science journalism is going in the future, Mariette DiChristina offers the following advice for science writers:
“Be valuable. Be essential for your audience as best you can. That’s always been the best ticket to a successful media business, and it continues to be so now. The difference now is, in addition to the additional work and the additional volume, you have to be very iterative in your thinking, and very adaptable in your thinking. I think for the public, in some ways, brands like Scientific American are more valuable than ever, because while there’s a tremendous volume of science-related content online, it’s really hard to tell which of that content is reliable.”
For a more coherent narrative on the future of science journalism, visit http://embor.embopress.org/content/early/2014/06/26/embr.201439130