Thursday 13 September 2012

ALPSP Conference Day 1: News of the World - Science Journalism Demystified

Sian Harris: science journalism insight 

Sian Harris, editor of Research Information, provided an introduction to the work of - and case for - science journalists.

Specialist journalists act as a bridge between research and readers. They aid public understanding and help researchers to deal with information overload. But there are challenges with the flow of information. Expert journalists play an essential role in decoding science and finding out what it means for everyone. That’s not to say that it can’t go wrong (e.g. MMR vaccination controversy), but there are good examples including extensive coverage of the Higgs Boson experiments.

What kind of people are science and technology journalists? They generally have a science or engineering background. They are pedantic about grammar and scientific accuracy. They work to tight deadlines. There are some differences between journalists in the mainstream press and specialist press.

What are their sources? Press releases are a common primary starting point. These might be from direct from journal or publisher PR and marketing departments, from research institutions, companies or distributed by PR news services.

Scientific papers are often the source of stories and these can be used in two main ways: 1) for a news story about a new piece of research, or 2) source of background and researcher contacts for a bigger article about a research area.

Other sources include conferences – a brilliant resource for a whole range of material and contacts - personal communication, patents, corporate news or other journalist articles.

There are limitations with press releases. They may be subject to spin or a particular bias. Often, they are not comprehensive enough and there can be a reluctance to share further detail behind the story.

Another limitation can be access: where access to a particular journal’s content is not available. An Athens type login would be ideal to get beyond seeing only the abstract of research papers. Unfortunately, this can inadvertently bring in a level of bias towards research that is freely available.

Discoverability can also be a major barrier to accessing research for articles. Citation databases behind paywalls present a challenge and while free search engines can be a great source, you can miss things or bring up spurious results.

To a certain extent there is a geographical bias: it is easiest to find stories from the USA, UK, rest of Europe (especially Germany), and other English-speaking countries.

There are limitations with researcher communication skills.  They may be inexperienced with dealing with journalists, not reply to emails or calls or may not be able to explain clearly.

Sometimes journalists struggle with media embargoes: they are fine when they give you time to interview and prepare the piece, but they are rarely relevant. Often it should be a case of either release the information or don’t bother.

It was interesting to hear that the challenge of information overload applies to journalists as much as researchers, publishers or librarians.  While Sian acknowledged that news journalists use Twitter and other social media channels widely, the journalists that Sian spoke to didn’t, and most felt that perhaps they should use it more. They felt that it wasn’t the most efficient use of time, but acknowledge that it has provided some great leads.

Sian’s suggestions for publishers when dealing with journalists are:

  • distribute more releases
  • send to all who expressed interest
  • make it clear who to contact
  • make headline clear in subject
  • enable easier access
  • simple discovery
  • make it possible to search corporate info on publishers website
  • provide images without lots of red tape.

Her suggestions for universities and researchers are:

  • provide training in communication
  • don’t be frightened of journalists
  • feel free to ask if you can check facts and quotes (but bear in mind they may say no due to deadlines)
  • use opportunity to talk at conferences.

She believes that there is a need to work together and to have better communication and understanding. If the red tape around press access can be broken down and some sort of authenticated content and access tool for accredited journalists can be developed, it will lead to better coverage for research.

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