Science Journalism’s Identity Crisis

Professional journalists’ groups are at odds over who gets to represent them.

Kate Lunau

Kate Lunau

Image: Thomas8047/Flickr

In February, during a three-week window between the time when I left my last journalism job, and when I started this one, I dabbled in freelance writing.

It became clear to me pretty quickly that there is a big appetite out there for science stories, but not a lot of dollars to invest in them. At one point, I took a meeting for what looked like a lucrative gig—but it wasn't journalism.

I was being asked to produce a website, which was described to me as something like Vox meets Wired, for a major research institution (I won't say which), to profile its work. I'd be writing glossy, voicey press releases. Essentially, I'd be in marketing.

As a longtime science journalist, it would have been easy to turn my nose up at this. Communications work is essentially promotional, whereas journalism is, ideally, all about being objective. It's a division as clear as church and state. Otherwise, how will readers know that journalists are pursuing the "truth," and not simply parroting the perspective of whoever's paying them?

But I considered taking the gig, and if I find myself in a similar position in the future, freelancing and needing to put food on the table, I imagine that something like this would be a hard opportunity to turn down. I've been lucky enough to occupy staff writing jobs for most of my ten-year career. But it's impossible to ignore how my profession is changing, and the pressures, economic and otherwise, that most of us are under.

These tremors are being felt by science journalists in Canada and the US, where our professional groups—the Canadian Science Writers' Association and the National Association of Science Writers—are considering constitutional changes that, if they pass, will allow any member to be a governing officer, and our membership includes people who work in media relations. "The president [would] no longer have to be a working journalist," incoming CSWA president Tim Lougheed told me. "That was rock-clad," until now.

They could instead be a communications person for government, nonprofit, or a university, whose role involves promoting that organization to journalists and to the wider public. They could be a freelance journalist who dabbles in communications work, as I briefly considered doing, and as a growing number of my colleagues do, too.

Science journalists in Canada and the US say they're distancing themselves from these associations

The CSWA, which is holding its annual meeting starting Thursday in Guelph, Ontario, is also voting on a name change. Instead of Science Writers, if the constitution passes Sunday's vote, its members will be Canadian Science Communicators. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the CSWA, and will be speaking on a panel at the meeting on Saturday.)

Some science journalists in Canada and the US say they're distancing themselves from these associations, which exist to promote balanced reporting, among other roles. They worry the line is being blurred between PR people and journalists. But that line is already softening, with the proliferation of "content," whatever that means, and listicles and press releases masquerading as news stories, and mainstream media articles written by scientists, and tweets that pass for news, the list goes on.

It's no coincidence that the science stories we see most often today, the ones that spread like wildfire over social media, either feature splashy, over-the-top headlines about the next thing that will kill you—or are a debunking of such stories, which is becoming a subspecialty of health and science journalism in its own right. I believe that debunking pieces are generally valuable, at least in the right hands. But instead of constantly knocking down these straw men, we journalists could be focusing on larger investigations.

"Objectivity" is an aspirational term, one with less currency today than ever. And media companies have always been beholden to advertisers. But the optics matter. As writer David Dobbs argued at Undark, the New York Times wouldn't hire a public information officer to be its executive editor, because of the appearance, or reality, of bias.

So why should one sit at the head of a journalists' group?

"The classic journalist model is falling apart"

The ground was shifting long before this year. Of the CSWA's 603 members, 265 currently identify as a "science journalist," whereas 388 are "science communicators," and 209 are in "research." (People can choose to identify as more than one thing.) Just 159 of us, which actually seems high to me, say they strictly do science journalism.

Maybe "Science Communicators" is a better name for this body. If we whittled it down to the science journalists who are left, the meetings will get pretty small, pretty quickly.

"The classic journalist model is falling apart," said Lougheed, a longtime freelance science writer. "Journalists are trying to hold their heads up high, [but] the wheels have fallen off the bus."

In Canada and the US, massive layoffs have sent hundreds of journalists packing, including many of our best. Science journalism is, let's face it, a luxury. Those of us who are left are producing more content—Facebook Live videos, tweets, blogs, podcasts, to name just a few—leaving less time to do the type of work that leads to original, investigative pieces.

Meanwhile, science is experiencing a reproducibility crisis, in which scientists are finding that published results are difficult (if not impossible) to replicate, and the peer review system that it's long relied upon is falling under much-needed scrutiny.

As we take stock of science journalism and where it's going, we need to remember why this matters.

It's a system of checks and balances. In an ideal world, science journalism will make science stronger by shining a light upon it. Given how the world is changing—the pressures of climate change, the life-altering possibilities of new technologies, issues around digital privacy and more—that's more important now than ever.

Update: After concerns were raised here and elsewhere, on Sunday the Canadian Science Writers' Association went back to the drawing board with its proposed constitutional changes, including the name change. Both will now be voted on in a special meeting in November, president Tim Lougheed told Motherboard on Monday.

The hope is that a new constitution will strengthen protections against conflict of interest, and emphasize the role of science communication "in the public interest," Lougheed said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Tim Lougheed as CSWA president, when he is in fact incoming president, and is officially taking the reins of the organization on Sunday. The piece has been updated to reflect that.