Science journalism and science communication – the difference is more than a word

Swamped as I was with NUJ business prior to the biennial Delegate Meeting in Eastbourne this past weekend, I missed the publication in Nature of an article by former BBC Newsnight science editor Susan Watts. The subject of Watts’ piece is the difference between science journalism and science communication.

As a science journalist with experience also of PR, aka the ‘dark side’ of the communications industry, I endorse Watts’ comments. Science communication is a good thing, even when it is overdone by celebrity presenters in television documentaries. We need literate and enthusiastic people able to do science communication, as Watts defines it. However, as Watts says, science journalism it isn’t, and it cannot replace journalism.

Watts’ departure from Newsnight was a cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth within the science journalism community. Much as Newsnight anchor Jeremy Paxman is capable of critically grilling scientists, engineers and relevant policymakers, he does so in layman’s terms. Paxman and his fellow journalistic generalists cannot possibly take on the brief of science journalist. For that we require skilled, statistically numerate investigators who understand how scientific research is done, and how the system works, and occasionally doesn’t. They should also either know where the bodies are buried, or be able and willing to find out.

From what I can see, there are few science journalists working in general news media. You are more likely to find them retained by niche publications, including in the B2B (business-to-business) sector. The problem with the latter is that much of the B2B world has moved online-only, cutting corners and engaging in churnalism, or the rehashing of corporate press releases. This, when it previously employed and commissioned specialist journalists to investigate and report on science and engineering research, together with public and private-corporate policymaking. As well as under-employed journalists, the losers are investors looking for critical evaluations of emerging technologies, engineering processes and policy developments.

At the NUJ conference, one delegate spoke of the tension and potential conflict of interest experienced by science journalists who are at one and the same time poacher and gamekeeper. That is, they do journalism whenever they can, but in order to make ends meet must also engage in PR and other forms of communication work. That is not addressed by Watts in her Nature article. Now that she no longer has the Newsnight job, maybe Watts will want to consider its implications.