Following up on our study analyzing the shifting roles and emerging practices of science journalists, Declan Fahy contributed a valuable discussion to the news site of the British Association of Science Writers.  Lede below. Also see Fahy’s article at CJR.org and a more detailed discussion with PDF of the study.

Now that science reporters have seen their historical position as the primary conveyors of scientific information to non-specialists eroded, what roles are left for them to play?

That’s a central issue that myself and my American University colleague Matt Nisbet explored in an article published recently in Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, which reported the views of eleven science journalists, in the United States and the United Kingdom, about how their professional roles and working practices have been changing in the digital age.

We argued that journalists are now operating in what we called a new “science-media ecosystem” where organizations that were previously sources of science news — including scientific publishers and societies, scientists, science centers and science interest groups –  are now producing original content, often using journalistic methods of presentation, directly for non-specialist audiences.

In this digital space, the functions and practices of science reporters have shifted, a shift driven also by the wider economic and organizational pressures on journalism generally, a shift that can be seen in four emerging practices for science reporters.

First, they are shifting from a transmission view of science reporting, their specialist work becoming somewhat analogous to the roles of literary and artistic criticism. This interpretative function is important because, as researchers from the fields of science communication and science studies have shown, traditional notions of scientific authority, of the presentation of scientific certainty, and of science being the supreme method of understanding the world have been increasingly questioned.

Second, instead of being transmitters of scientific information, a more suitable metaphor for describing the work of science reporters is as cartographers, who guide readers through scientific information, mapping the territory of an issue, and highlighting notable news. Third, science reporters, rather than reporting only the end product of science, are examining the process of science. Researcher Donald Matheson noted in an article in New Media & Society that, for digital journalism, instead of the traditional idea of being first with the news, a new kind of credibility and authority has arisen for reporters, “one of knowing more, knowing better, knowing comprehensively, and knowing in as much depth or extent as readers would wish”. The editor of the Columbia Journalism Review’s The Observatory column, Curtis Brainard, told us: “Some of the best science journalists are going . . . upstream of scientific findings, looking at how research institutions, academic or otherwise, develop research projects, how they conceive of experiments. They’re looking at science as a process . . .  not just as a collection of findings.”

Fourth, authority online is no longer held solely by professional journalists. Authority now lies in cross-referenced, interactive conversations between journalists and their audiences. James Randerson, the Guardian’s environment and science news editor, noted that the paper encourages its reporters to see reader interactivity “as part of the journalistic process, not as a kind of add-on”. The paper’s reporting of the released climate scientist emails at the University of East Anglia offered what it called peer-review journalism, where the story’s protagonists could annotate the online coverage, to produce what Randerson called “a better account, a deeper account, a broader account” of the story…

Read the rest of the post at the site of the Association of British Science Writers.

CITATION FOR STUDY:

Fahy, D., & Nisbet, M. (2011). The science journalist online: Shifting roles and emerging practices Journalism, 12(7), 778-793 DOI: 10.1177/1464884911412697

ABSTRACT

Science reporters today work within an evolving science media ecosystem that is pluralistic, participatory and social. It is a mostly online environment that has challenged the historically dominant and exceptional role of science reporters as privileged conveyers of specialist information to general audiences.  We map this science media environment, drawing on interviews with journalists and writers from nationally prominent US and UK media organizations, describing the shifting roles and emerging practices of science journalists online. Compared to a decade ago, this occupational group, driven by economic imperatives and technological changes, is performing a wider plurality of roles, including those of curator, convener, public intellectual and civic educator, in addition to more traditional journalistic roles of reporter, conduit, watchdog and agenda-setter.  Online science journalists have a more collaborative relationship with their audiences and sources and are generally adopting a more critical and interpretative stance towards the scientific community, industry, and policy-oriented organizations.