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The Dark Side and the Grey Side of Science Journalism

The Dark Side and the Grey Side of science Journalism

By Craig Cormick

“Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”– Peter Pan.

Let’s talk about the problems of dealing with the dark side.

Not the dark side of the moon, nor the dark side of the Force – the increasingly more worrying dark side of science journalism, where commercial interests are working to influence content – often without transparency.

Dr Susannah Eliott, the CEO of the Australian Science Media Centre in Adelaide, defined the dark side as “content that has a vested interest or that is trying to persuade the audience to think in a definite way”.

“And that is a problem when it is not being declared,” she said.

This can be seen playing out in the huge shifting imbalance between PR and science journalism. For as PR agencies grow in size and influence, and NGOs and even science agencies adopt increasing ‘spin’ tactics to promote their work, there is a converse downsizing in the numbers of science journalists working the mainstream media.

Susannah Eliott said this was often reflected in generalist reporters simply rehashing science releases.

Deborah Smith, former science journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, and now a science communication officer at the University of New South Wales, said cuts in mainstream media jobs and the pressure to file quickly and attract on-line attention, not only skews news judgement, but makes journalists more reliant on media packages.

The dark side can also be seen in the blurring of lines between advertising, journalism and advocacy in traditional and new media, with a lack of clarity over what might be independent journalism and what might not be.

Freelance science journalist and editor of The Best Australian Science Writing 2015, Bianca Nogrady, said, “For the general public, looking around on the internet, it is hard to distinguish what is written by a journalist or by somebody paid to write a piece, so it is becoming more and more murky to know who is writing that piece and who is paying for that piece to be written.”

According to Susannah Eliott, “I know of one particular example, and I don’t want to name them, where the journalist didn’t even think there was something wrong with it, when University X asked the journalist to write positive stories for them.”

The role of sponsorship can often be murky as well, with many different standards and expectations of whether a sponsor’s dollar is buying influence over content or not. The esteemed journal Scientific America was recently the subject of questions about its independence when it ran a conference on Science in the Media in the USA in March this year – sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and GMO Answers.

Described as a “branded partnership”, the event was run by Scientific America’s Custom Media division – said to be a distinct entity from the magazine – but of course using the magazine’s name and prestige, and not easily differentiated.

An article in Undark Science looking at the commercial partnerships with publications quoted AdAge magazine’s annual list of branded content, that showed that such practices grew from 1,500 cited cases in 2014, to 7,000 in 2015. They included partnerships between the Wall Street Journal and Netflix; the New York Times and GE and Wired and Nokia.

That such sponsorships exist isn’t major problem, as most media organisations are looking for new revenue streams, it’s that the influence the sponsor has is almost never disclosed.

The grey side
But there is another lesser dark side, that can even harder to discern. Let’s call it the “grey side”. It is a seemingly righteous, but sometimes dangerous, Neverland that also risks compromising science journalists, based on their inadvertent advocacy of “brand science”. It is particularly apparent when science is under attack from anti-science or fringe science supporters.

Bianca Nogrady said, “The issue is whether science journalists are a cheer squad for science.”

She also said, “I think it is a bit of dark side, and I know I’m guilty of it to some degree in having a blindness to the flaws in science and the scientific method.”

She said that like many science journalists and writers she came from a background of science that emphasises the truth of the facts of science.

“But I’ve come to understand there are no truth and no facts in science. We presume the rules that we have are pure and truthful – I think that is wrong. I think it is naïve. I’m getting to recognise it in myself.”

Having a potential blind-eye to science can also lead to becoming compromised by the efforts of those spinning a story in favour of science – sometimes even from fellow science communicators working for research organisations. It should not really come as a surprise to know that most science communicators for major public sector research institutions, working in parts of CSIRO, the CRCs or some universities, are more likely to be employed to promote their organisations’ interests, including commercial potential of discoveries, over analysing the science behind them.

Deborah Smith, however, said that she thought it was actually a good thing that former science journalists were moving into science-based agencies to work.

She said, “We we bring the ethics of science journalism into our new roles and are less likely to overstate something, and we can explain ambiguities so that reporters can’t mistakenly get it wrong.”

Yet in March this year, in a widely-shared article in the US-based Pacific Standard, Michael Schulson wrote, “In short, more than other fields, science journalists see themselves as working in partnership with their sources. As various commentators have observed, there’s probably no field of journalism that’s less sceptical, less critical, less given to investigative work, and less independent of its sources than science reporting.”

He also quoted Professor Charles Seife, science writer and academic at New York University, who said, “Today, science journalists’ motivations align very nicely with what the scientists themselves want, which is publicity for their work. This alignment creates this—almost collusion, that might even be unethical in other branches of journalism.”

Susannah Eliott said, “Science journalists can be prone to that from having to develop their sources. I think that like any other reporting round it is prone to happen.”

Deborah Smith disagreed though, stating, “I don’t think they are so much advocating for science, but advocating for getting the facts right.”

But is defending good science against the anti-science league, science sceptics and science-haters a vital task that needs to be done? Or is it advocacy? We may need to more often ask ourselves the question – do we too easily become like the Lost Boys, going into battle for the cause simply because we believe it is the right thing to do?
Susannah Eliott said, “It does risk that. I think that a really good example of this is some of the contentious issues, on things like GM (genetic modification), where there has been such a lot of nonsense and a lot of lobbyists trying to push the conversation in certain directions. I think there is a lot of danger that anyone trying to defend the science finds that anything that is a little negative needs to be brushed under the carpet to avoid it becoming an issue.”

She said, “You can get a certain species of science journalist who is a cheer leader for science, but I think in the context of science versus non-science, if you have an issue where there are a number of different perspectives, such as the Hobbit in Indonesia, you will find science journalists tend not to take sides. So taking sides between scientist is very different to taking sides between science and non-science.”

Awareness of this grey side is nothing new. Almost twenty years ago, in March 1997, Professor John Franklin of the University of Maryland gave a lecture at the University of Tennessee entitled the End of Science Writing. In it he stated, “Let me be brutally honest. Distortion began the very moment we conceived the story, as we angled our perspective to please our editors. As soon as we picked up the phone we started censoring ourselves, second-guessing the story, trying somehow to make something useful out of whatever we had. A lot of my colleagues will deny this, but I think the result speaks for itself.”

That this may happen in our work is one question for science journalists to consider – the other is the impact of it happening. For every time a science journalist is seen as being an advocate, does that risk having our readers lose their belief in both us and in science? Does another fairy fall down dead?

Consider the criticisms and defence of ABC Catalyst reporter Maryanne Demasi’s recent story on the potential dangers of WiFi as an example of a journalist being seen by critics as an advocate for a particular cause. As Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, says, we can see the faults in other people’s thinking, but almost never in our own.

Another grey area risk for science journalists, and public access to quality independent reporting, is the trend for organisations to bypass traditional media altogether and create their own media and audiences, with no one to independently appraise their information.

Susannah Eliott said, “Many research organisations have picked up many of the science journalist that left news rooms and have created their own channels, at places like the CSIRO and the University of Melbourne and so on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but they are never going to criticise themselves.”

What shape the future?
While it is certainly a difficult time to be a science journalist, with increasing economic and time pressures pushing people into dark and grey areas, often in such tiny steps that the transition might go unnoticed, there is still some hope for optimism.

Bianca Nogrady, for one, said she felt the future would be both exciting and diverse.

And new funding models, through crowd-sourcing and independent financial supporters – that still believe in resisting the dark and grey sides – may provide the space and time for more investigative and independent science journalism. Ideally more science journalist would be able to look in depth at stories, examine original published papers, and talk to several different sources – and then present the story in a way that explained the science but also gave it some context and nuance. And those stories might even be read by a wide audience that trusted the sources they came from.

It might be a different model from getting more quality science reporting not just back into the quality press, but also into the tabloid media, as was argued as crucial by Susannah Eliott – and both might seem like dreams. But surely they are both dreams worth believing in.

For to quote Peter Pan, that personification of belief in the possible, “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”

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Dr Craig Cormick is the current President of the Australian Science Communicators, and was the winner of the 2013 Unsung Hero of Science Communication. His books include editing Ned Kelly under the Microscope (CSIRO, 2014). An edited version of this piece appeared on Cosmos on 9 November 2016.