Changing times

Glut of online news is reorganizing the spaces and roles of science journalism

088-090_jornalismos cientifico_236Nelson ProvaziIn February 2012, the Spanish newspaper Público suspended publication of its print edition, maintaining only its online presence.  One of the 126 people let go was Science Editor, Patrícia Fernández de Lis who went about shaping an alternative she had long been contemplating.  Seeing that science news attracted many readers, she put together a team, got some sponsors and established the website Materia launched in July 2012, which carried firsthand news about science and technology.  Within a year, there were 1.5 million unique visitors to the site, and content republication agreements had been reached with nearly 200 Spanish-language newspapers.  In September 2014, El País, Spain’s most widely circulated newspaper, began to republish news from Materia on an exclusive basis, and Lis took on the job of Editor in Chief for Science and Technology content at the paper she had worked for before going to Público.

The trajectory of Materia exemplifies the Internet’s impact on news, not just with regard to science,  but to other fields as well.  Now, through the not so new online media – websites, blogs and social networks – news is being published almost instantaneously, written by journalists as well as by scientists and others with an interest in science.  Hans Peters, a science journalism professor at the Free University of Berlin, noted in an article in the magazine Metode Science Studies Journal that the online world has left behind the classic model of mass communication, whereby a piece of information is transmitted by a single sender, in this case, the researcher, through journalists to the public, which is no longer entirely passive.  The Internet allows readers to disseminate, comment or correct news promptly after reading it.

Spaces once devoted to journalists are losing out as part of the global crisis facing traditional journalism – dozens of publications in Brazil, Latin America, the United States and Europe have eliminated their print versions and with them, their science sections, as result of readers’ migration to online publications.  Other spaces have emerged however.  Science journals such as Science, Nature, and Lancet now have their own blogs and devote more space to reports in journalistic format that cite several sources of information and offer a general overview of the topic.  In 2015, the weekly Nature began publishing a daily newsletter with links to reports published in other magazines and newspapers.

Research institutions in turn are placing increased value on direct communication with the public, using their own sites and social networks, dispensing with the involvement of journalists from non-institutional newspapers, journals and websites.  In the United States more so than in Brazil, universities, funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation and research centers such as NASA, are distributing news, videos, images and teaching material to the academic and non-academic public.  In April and May of 2015, British scientists at the Royal Society, the British science academy, discussed their strategies for communicating science news through journals that publish articles (rather than reports) and presentations directed as much towards the general public as towards scientists.

The expansion of online media suggests that now anyone can write about science—in Brazil, the total number of science blogs ranges from 105, according to a survey conducted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais, to 210, the number obtained from Google data, blogging sites, and journalist registrations online—and promote an expanded role for journalists.  In giving shape to Materia, Patrícia Lis had to do something she had never done before: use her professional reputation to attract sponsors, negotiate online content republication agreements and manage resources in order to maintain the site and publish five daily reports, as it does today.  In looking back at her experience, she told Pesquisa FAPESP that “putting together the right team, with people she trusted to produce high quality information” was the key to achieving credibility and visibility.

To promote or to monitor?
In 2013, the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists, organized by the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ), held in Helsinki, Finland, accentuated the need for journalists to remain flexible, master the tools for producing online content and work more closely with other science communicators to create new models of science journalism (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 211).  At the June 2015 conference held in South Korea, one of the discussions involved the role of science journalists: should they promote scientific research or monitor the work of scientists?  As if in a courtroom, each group defended a point of view and audience participants changed sides as they became convinced one way or the other.  No consensus was reached, but the conclusion that garnered the most supporters was that “what scientists present cannot be accepted without questioning,” says Bernardo Esteves, a science reporter from the journal Piauí who took part in the debate.

“Researchers generally see journalists as their spokespeople, but we need to make more room for healthy disagreement and a more critical appreciation of study findings,” notes Esteves.  It is the same view as that of journalist Susan Watts, science editor on a BBC television program in the United Kingdom, dismissed in November 2013 when her job was eliminated.  “We need science journalism in order to weigh the virtues and vices of science,” she wrote in an April 2014 issue of the journal Nature.  She says news reports should offer a critical and well-informed view about what society wants from science, without getting carried inordinately away by the wonder of the discoveries.

Peters, from the Free University of Berlin, admits that even though scientists and the readers themselves are now producing and reproducing news, it is unlikely that journalism will die, since its primary mission of objective reporting cannot easily be performed by other forms of public communication.  He says that self-publishing science, through blogs written by scientists and institutions, is no substitute for the credibility of journalism as an outside observer of science.

Scientific articles
PETERS, H.P. The two cultures: scientists and journalists, not an outdated relationshipMetode Science Studies Journal. V. 4, p. 163-9, 2014.
WATTs, S. Society needs more than wonder to respect scienceNature. V. 208, p. 151, 10 April 2014.