World Federation of Science Journalists

A Plan for Science Journalism

April 26, 2010

‘In rude health’ but ‘under threat’. This is the state of science journalism in Britain, according to the January 2010 report ‘Science and the Media: Securing the Future’.

Rude Health

At the request of the ‘Science and the Media Expert Group’ which produced the report, a survey of 94 science journalists confirmed an unprecedented increase in their numbers, nearly doubling from 43 in 1989, to 83 in 1995, in the main British media -- though BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) created 28 of these new positions. Now, the journalists say the situation has stabilized since 2005. Two thirds believe that employment is at best stagnating but most probably declining.

During the same period, UK science journalists’ standing in the newsrooms improved greatly: “A fallow period in the 1980s and early 1990s when many specialists found it difficult to “sell” stories to editors has now ended, and most report a continuing and constant demand for stories.”

The point of view of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW)

ABSW speaks for the British science journalists. The ABSW submission to the Expert Group should be read in parallel with the ‘Science and the Media’ report.

The ABSW submission present a sober and realistic situation of the constraints threatening the quality of science journalism: decline in newspaper sales, squeezed budgets for newsgathering, cuts to staffing levels and reduced advertising revenue. “This situation, says the ABSW, suits organisations that have the capacity to deliver complete stories and packages to journalists, thus setting the agenda for much of what we write.”
To facilitated access to information, ABSW makes its own recommendations:
  • Institutions should do more web-based briefings for journalists
  • Allow freelance science journalists free access to the scientific literature
  • Crate awards for the best science reporting
  • Create fellowships to encourage investigative science reporting
  • Support fellowships to allow journalist to take time away to work alongside scientists
  • Examine the UK libel law’s chilling effect on science reporting.
One paragraph of the ABSW submission (p.5) offers a striking overview of the situation facing science journalism. First, it recognizes that the UK Science Media Centre has been extremely effective at highlighting important science. Then it adds. “We are opposed to an expansion of the role of the SMC because we feel that the organisation already has sufficient dominance over the science news agenda. This demonstrates what an effective organisation the SMC has been and also highlights the weaknesses in science reporting.”
Another encouraging development: previous studies supported the view that once a story unearthed and covered by a science journalist became front page material, it would inevitably be handed over to a generalist or a more senior reporter. Now, there is “no evidence that this practice (known as “bigfooting”) persists today”, says the Report. On the contrary: “We also found that some specialists are valued advisors in newsrooms.”

The increasing recognition of the potential contribution of science journalists in the newsroom coincides with a tough situation that all journalists are experiencing.

More than half answered the survey saying that they now have to work much harder than 5 years ago. In fact, the workload increased just as the number of journalists specializing in health and environment was increasing. The main cause of the increased workload is the need to contribute also to a web site, to a blog or some other form of new media. Many of the journalists said that they are worried they are not given enough time to find the right information and check facts, even with the incredibly efficient means of modern communications and the internet.

A plan for generalists

Presided by Fiona Fox, Director of the UK’s Science Media Centre, the Expert Group was made of some 15 leading figures of science communication and science journalism, in the United Kingdom.

Following their analysis of the survey and interviews with journalists and communications officers, the Expert Group makes several recommendations, aimed as well at scientists, journalists and science communicators. Altogether, these recommendations constitute a kind of comprehensive plan for science journalism, full of ideas and lessons for all the countries that care about communicating science to the public.

‘Science and the Media: Securing the Future’ recommends an increase in the offer of training in science reporting, particularly for the journalists who are generalists, see box Training. To make its impact last, the Group asks for the creation of a National Coordinator for Science Journalism Training. The Group is optimistic about this proposal since it observed an interest for such training at the BBC, at Reuters and at the Press Association.

The Experts were surprised to see that only a small number of schools of journalism offer diplomas in science journalism -- three at the master’s level – while there are eight master’s and three undergraduate programs for degrees in science communication (for those who will work in universities, research institutions and governments in media relations or as communication officers).

The blurring of journalism and communication

This supports the increasing blurring of the difference between journalism and communication that the Expert Group observed; more and more scientists or communicators use journalistic approaches and techniques. “The new opportunities offered by the web have allowed scientific institutions to embark on their own journalistic projects.” This move is the strongest in the United States.

The Report’s Annex 4 presents some of these journalistic projects. ‘Futurity’ is a web site where former science journalists disseminate information of the scientific research activities of 40 Unites States universities. ‘Quest’ is another website dedicated to environmental issues supported by several foundations including the US National Science Foundation. ‘MinnPost’, also fed by professional journalists, focuses on scientific research in the State of Minnesota and relays information from the Institute of Physics. This Annex is one of several extremely interesting annexes that complement the report and are worth a visit.

‘Science and the Media’ underlines the importance of television and radio in the coverage of science: 67% of Britons say they have watched at least one science program on television during the previous 12 months, and 17% a radio program. Building on this strong appetite for science, the Wellcome Trust is exploring the establishment of a special fund dedicated to the production of science programs.

Finally, the Report presents a series of different initiatives that would support science journalism: new scholarships, new training programs, and watchdogs dedicated to observe the health of science reporting. ‘Science and the Media’ is a must for all those interested in the future of science journalism.


‘Science and the Media: Securing the Future’ includes a list of what training packages for generalists interested in improving their skills at science reporting should include:
  • Statistics and epidemiology
  • Perceptions of risk
  • Science publishing and peer review, how to access science
  • Main types of scientific study – random, controlled, double blind, case-control
  • How to read and analyse a scientific research paper
  • Key issues in current scientific research and thinking
  • Ethics, science and society
  • Science in government
  • Putting scientific debate into a historical context.