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Science reporting in the electronic embrace of the internet

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4.2
Science reporting in the electronic
embrace of the internet
Brian Trench
Science reporting and the internet
Scientists and journalists were among the professional groups most thoroughly affected
by developments in information and communication technologies in the latter part of
the 20th century. The need to share information between researchers drove each succes-
sive phase of the development of the internet from the 1970s up to the emergence of the
World Wide Web to wider publics from its birth in a European particle physics laboratory,
CERN. For at least two decades, internet communication in various forms has become
naturalised in science.
Over a similar period, journalists have experienced rapid and disruptive technological
change. In the lifetimes of many individual journalists, newspaper production moved
from technologies largely unchanged for almost a century to technologies that facilitate
global information-sharing and simultaneous publication in several countries or regions.
A wide range of facilities previously provided on separate platforms and sometimes
mediated through other groups of professionals have become available on journalists’
desktop computers.
From around 2000, e-mail and web-searching became effectively universalized in
professional journalism. The use of online resources by US newspaper journalists in
news-gathering in general grew from 57 per cent of survey respondents in 1994 to 92 per
cent in 1999 and reported daily use of online resources grew from 27 per cent to 63 per
cent (Garrison 2001). Over the same period, the internet and web moved from sixth
position among online resources used—behind data bases such as Dialog and Nexis UK,
and bulletin boards—to clear first position.
The internet is the primary means by which scientific information is shared within
scientific communities. It connects to repositories of information accumulated over several
decades. It is the means by which projects are established, conferences are organized, rela-
tionships are struck up and, increasingly, scientific findings are formally disseminated.
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SCIENCE REPORTING AND THE INTERNET 167
For researchers, web-mediated data bases of journals and other publications are a primary
resource. For research centres, a web presence is essential—without it, the centre in some
sense does not exist. For anybody regularly looking for information about science in a
professional capacity or otherwise the internet is likely to be the first recourse.
The technological shifts in the professional communities of science and of journalism
have created overlapping information and communication spaces in which both com-
munities have a significant presence. Very few other areas of media interest inhabit
electronic spaces that enclose the worlds of both media sources and media producers
so completely. In politics, sport, arts, law, maybe business, media are required to a greater
extent to observe events and interact directly with sources in order to perform their
routine tasks.
Journalists specializing in science were earlier than most in becoming comfortable
and competent in the use of internet technologies, in part reflecting their closeness to
their source communities and in part down to their curiosity about and disposition to
new developments. Science journalism was becoming established as a specialism in the
same period (the 1970s onwards) as journalism and science were experiencing successive
waves of technological change, and science journalists were at the leading edge of these
developments. Between 1994 and 1999 e-mail use increased nearly fourfold among
journalist members of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) in the United
States; in 1994, many science journalists had contacted scientific sources by e-mail and by
1999, nearly all had done so and nearly all had used information from the web in their
reports (Trumbo et al. 2001).
Among journalists beyond science and beyond the United States such widespread use
was slower in coming. But a 2006 survey of Italian journalists found that 60 per cent con-
nected online more than ten times a day (Fortunati et al. 2006). Search engines, personal
e-mail, news web sites and web sites of sources were ranked third to sixth among the
most important means of communication in newsrooms, behind face-to-face and phone
conversations. The surveyed journalists agreed strongly that the use of the internet was
making journalism more of a ‘desktop job’, and slightly less strongly with the propositions
that internet use was getting more information and a wider range of sources into stories.
A related survey of Greek journalists found that over two-thirds of Greek journalists use
the internet as a research medium and information medium to a very large or large extent
(Panagiotarea and Dimitrakopoulou 2006).
The increasing attention being paid from the 1980s in many scientific communities to
promoting scientific literacy influenced how information and communication technologies
were applied in communicating science. Across the developed world—and, increasingly,
in the developing world—the concern with scientific literacy, awareness and understanding
spawned government initiatives, actions by professional societies, schools’ programmes
and media campaigns, and from the mid 1990s the web and e-mail emerged as important
platforms for these efforts.
Internet technologies have simultaneously provided a means for scientific institutions
and communities to communicate more effectively with media but also directly with
publics, without the mediation of journalists. Also, many of the services introduced on
the web with media as primary targets are accessible to all internet users. A former press
obcer with the Royal Society notes that:
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168 SCIENCE REPORTING IN THE ELECTRONIC EMBRACE OF THE INTERNET
. . . web sites are becoming an increasingly important public relations tool for disseminating
messages, and are competing with and affecting media coverage.
Ward (2007, p. 171)
The coexistence of competition and influence is just one of the several paradoxes that
have characterized the web’s development in science communication generally and in the
reporting of science in the media. I have developed this observation elsewhere (Trench
2007a, 2008), but here I shall outline some of the resources and strategies put in place
with the aid of internet technologies to support or ‘subsidise’ media reporting of science.
Source strategies and subsidies
As already indicated, the use of internet technologies in communicating science and
communicating between science and media, in particular, is shaped by social as much
as technological factors. From the 1980s, universities, research institutes, research fund-
ing agencies, professional societies and scientific publishers have increasingly adopted
corporate public relations strategies, as they competed for students, researchers, sub-
scribers, political support, research funding, media attention and commercial relations.
In this, they followed other institutions, where:
. . . the employment of public relations practitioners (PRPs) . . . has recently expanded at a
significantly higher rate than most studies have acknowledged.
Davis (2000, p. 39)
Among non-government and voluntary organisations too ‘a much larger range . . .
have begun employing PR strategies and personnel’ (Davis 2000). Those with a stake in
science, particularly environmental activists (Hansen 1993; Anderson 2003), became
notable exponents of various facets of PR, including technology-assisted PR, from the
1980s onwards.
Whereas some accounts described the developing role of science information obcers in
relatively benign terms (Rogers 1986), Nelkin tellingly titled her seminal work on science
and media Selling Science—How the Press Covers Science and Technology (Nelkin 1987, 1995)
and between the two editions increased the emphasis on the place of science public
relations. By the early 1990s those working in science PR in Britain were plentiful enough
to warrant forming a professional network, Stempra (science, technology, engineering
and medicine public relations association), to ‘share information and expertise’.1
Driven by the changing social contexts of knowledge production and facilitated by
online and other digital media technologies, many higher education and research organ-
izations have employed teams of information obcers, science writers, webmasters and
others, to boost their media (and broader public) profile. Following the lead of American
universities, higher education institutions in Europe are putting together communication
units of eight, ten and more staff, several of these focused on media relations and gener-
ally one or two on development and maintenance of web sites.
1. http://www.stempra.org.uk.
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SOURCE STRATEGIES AND SUBSIDIES 169
This adoption of corporate PR approaches in science also acknowledges what became
widely accepted in institutional and corporate public relations in recent years, namely
that there is greater value in providing information that is easy and inexpensive to use,
and credible, than in seeking explicitly or covertly (e.g. through ‘spin’) to persuade media
and publics. Whereas the internet can be used to provide information in timely and
user-friendly fashion, it cannot readily be used for spin: there is always another source
just a click or two away that will reveal the subterfuge.
Within public relations the practical uses of the internet have been much discussed
in the professional literature (e.g. Witmer 2000; Phillips 2001; Kelleher 2007) and the
internet has been seen as contributing to a ‘revolution’ (Philips 2001) or ‘transformation’
in PR (Gregory 2004). The web is, for example, ‘the first controlled mass medium’, in
that those providing information have control over how it reaches end-users (White and
Raman 2000). Similarly:
. . . the press obcer is no longer the only means for access by a journalist. Corporate information
is also available on company, government, media, academic and personal web sites.
Phillips (2001, p. 3)
Rethinking the corporate communication strategy has not come naturally, however.
Several studies have been critical of the web sites of higher education and research
institutions, saying, for example, that information about research at these institutions
was not prominently featured in home pages and:
. . . the institutions are more interested in obtaining money from alumni than attracting new
students or providing services to current students, faculty and staff, parents and family, or
visitors.
Will and Callison (2006, p. 182)
A study of US university web sites found that some were weak in ‘relational commun-
ication’ (Kang and Norton 2006). Yet others demonstrated how universities in European
countries and European public research institutions were failing to realize the research
communication possibilities of the web (Lederbogen and Trebbe 2003; Jaskowska 2004;
Massoli 2007; Trench 2007b).
The application of e-mail and e-mail–web combinations to media relations has been
more consistent. Technological changes have facilitated the supply of information directly
to the desktops of individual news editors, section editors, picture editors and reporters
in forms that allow its direct transfer to the media production process. Callison (2003),
noting the ways in which US journalists use companies’ web sites, looking for personnel
information, PR contacts, press releases and corporate profiles, underlines to PR profes-
sionals the value to journalists of materials that can be easily found, can be downloaded
and ‘can be quickly edited and type-set’ without needing to be re-keyed.
A survey in 2000 of PR practitioners among the membership of the NASW showed
that nearly three-quarters considered e-mail ‘essential’ in their media relations work,
with 40 per cent ‘routinely’ sending releases out by e-mail (Duke 2002). Over two-thirds
thought e-mail use and web use—with very similar numbers in both cases—had ‘somewhat
increased’ or ‘greatly increased’ media coverage of their organization; 91 per cent were
‘routinely’ posting their releases to the organization’s web site.
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170 SCIENCE REPORTING IN THE ELECTRONIC EMBRACE OF THE INTERNET
Interviews with journalist members of the NASW on their uses of e-mail and web
established that these journalists found communication easier with sources, including for
checking-back on information or interpretation, and helped expand the range of possible
sources (Dumlao and Duke 2003). Several reporters referred to the convenience of having
releases or alerts sent directly, one interviewee commending some sources as ‘amazing at
getting coverage of their stuff, simply because they have such a great e-mail alert system’
(Dumlao and Duke 2003, p. 293). A prominently mentioned use of the web was that of
tracking down individuals for contact by e-mail; the interviewees were generally more
sceptical about the value of this technology for information-gathering, except where the
sources are known and trusted, in which case they may be checked routinely.
A survey of media professionals published by the European Commission (2007) showed
that the sources most used for information about science and research were ‘scientific and
peer-reviewed journals’ (62 per cent of respondents), ‘internet, including search engines’
(54 per cent), ‘news agencies’ (40 per cent) and ‘personal contacts with researchers’
(37 per cent). Assuming that some, even most, of the contact with journals, and with
other named sources such as newspapers, public research organization and European
institutions, is mediated through the internet, the real result for the internet, more broadly
defined, could be the highest, and by a wide margin.
The reported impact of supply of information by e-mail on the levels of coverage may
be taken to demonstrate the increased value of PR practitioners’ ‘information subsidies’
in communicating science. This influential concept refers to the supports given to media
to facilitate transfer of information into media spaces. The defining elaboration of the
concept (Gandy 1982) was preceded by a study that focused on the supply of informa-
tion subsidies by interests in health and medical sciences (Gandy 1980) and which
suggested that:
. . . success in providing information subsidies to one’s chosen targets is closely tied to the
resources available to the subsidy giver, since considerable resources are necessary for the creation
of pseudo-events.
(Gandy 1980, p. 106)
Internet technologies have given subsidy-givers more resources while diminished
resources on the part of subsidy-receivers have further tilted the balance. The ability of
PR practitioners to influence news production ‘has been given added impetus by a rapid
decline in editorial resources and a growing media dependency on sources’ (Davis, 2000,
p. 39). Journalists interviewed about their relations with scientist-sources referred to the
impact of organizational and technological factors, specifically shortening deadlines, on
their information-gathering (Reed 2001). In these circumstances the market for informa-
tion subsidies has expanded ‘and sources are increasingly employing PRPs to supply this
market with their own individualised brands of subsidy’ (Davis 2000, p. 44).
It has been claimed, independently of technological considerations, that ‘science
journalism tends to be source driven and source framed’, though few studies have looked
at ‘processes of contestation and negotiation among news sources that impact upon
science coverage’ (Anderson et al. 2005). One of the few such detailed studies, on a case
in psychology, charted the ‘natural history’ of a news item on false memory syndrome,
focusing on a framing contest between the British Psychological Society and the British
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INTERNET SERVICES FOR MEDIA SCIENCE 171
False Memory Society (Deacon et al. 1999). That study’s authors concluded that it demon-
strated the influence on the media of sources that were given privileged access.
Evidence for the source-driven character of science journalism also comes from pro-
fessionals in the field. Wilkie (1996) describes journalists covering medical science as
‘trawling regularly’ the top general-science and medical science journals and refers to
press releases and news agency stories as generating ‘an electronic deluge of information
every day’. The electronic deluge has become increasingly targeted as more recent tech-
nologies provided the means to improve the availability and accessibility of scientific
and higher education organizations, to provide information in many formats and in
media-friendly, even ready-to-go, forms and to filter information according to the needs
of media professionals.
Internet services for media science
A vast array of services is offered via the internet to subsidise media reporting of science.
Some of these represent modifications of services previously offered by other means
(phone, fax, post, courier, etc.) and others are specific to the internet. The universal
usage of e-mail by journalists reporting science makes e-mail a primary means of bring-
ing science ‘news’ to the media’s attention. HTML-formatted e-mails that mimic the
on-screen or on-paper look of printed or electronically published magazines and journals
make the bridge between e-mail and other platforms.
Scientific journals and popular science magazines provide to media and, in many
cases, also to prospective subscribers, e-mail alerts on forthcoming stories and reports;
online ‘specials’ outside of the normal publishing cycle; news services on web sites
updated several times daily in order to keep visitors returning to the sites; e-zines sent by
e-mail that present some of the print publication’s content in magazine layout, some
of it available in full text; electronic tables of content (eTOCs), presenting the content of
the next edition in a series of headlines, some or all of these—depending on the publica-
tion, and with variations in the levels of immediate access—linked to the full text of
the items.
Many journals and press release services supply updates from their web sites by RSS
(really simple syndication), meaning that updates matching the registered users’ stated
interests will display directly on the users’ screens, rather than having to be sought in
the e-mail inbox. Some journals offer short audio clips in podcast form and short video
packages through the web site YouTube.
The most ‘traditional’ of such information subsidies is the press release sent under
embargo several days in advance of publication, giving notice of selected items in the
next edition. The European Respiratory Journal (ERJ), for example, provides by e-mail a
press release with journalistic versions of a half-dozen selected items from the latest
edition of the journal. These summaries are ready-to-use but also include all the contact
details for nominated authors to facilitate media interviews. The full article can be
requested by e-mail. In the ERJ ‘press pack’ for the December 2007 edition of the journal,
a summary of an article was provided under the heading, ‘Vaccinate everyone against
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172 SCIENCE REPORTING IN THE ELECTRONIC EMBRACE OF THE INTERNET
influenza?’ This referred to a journal article entitled, ‘Influenza- and respiratory syncytial
virus-associated mortality and hospitalisations’. The press release for the January 2008
edition offered ‘Improved outcome of experimental lung transplantation’ as a version
of the journal article, ‘Keratinocyte growth factor prevents intra-alveolar oedema in
experimental lung isografts’.
What these two examples among many thousands of possible examples from a wide
range of journals illustrate is that one of the important information subsidies is in the
provision of vernacular terms and everyday references to ease the passage of the formal
scientific information into the general media. Science journalists interviewed on their
interactions with scientists (Reed 2001) referred to the value of metaphors and analogies
in improving accessibility to scientific information. Nature’s press releases often provide
masterly demonstrations of this service; that journal’s press releases will be considered in
more detail in the following section.
Common to the practices of many journals is the prominent inclusion of an embargo
date and/or time. The mere presence of the embargo represents a kind of information
subsidy: it provides a ‘news peg’, it creates an ‘event’ where none previously existed, the
publication ‘today’ of material that may have been several years in gestation (Kiernan
2003). But the embargoes of Nature and Science also contribute to:
...a remarkably predictable rhythm in the weekly science news cycle. Every Thursday and Friday,
newspaper and web sites nearly always feature articles about scientific research published in those
journals—news coverage that’s carefully orchestrated by the journals’ publishers.
Peterson (2001, p. 252)
Kiernan (2003, p. 917) concludes his study by commenting that:
. . . when it comes to breaking news about scientific research, newspapers try to make sure they
cover the stories that other newspapers cover. The goal is not to be different, but to be the same.
The web sites of scientific institutions, including journals, also provide services that
are particularly targeted at the media. These include ‘press room’ services, sometimes for
registered media representatives only, and sometimes open to all web users, where press
releases may be posted at the same time as they are distributed directly to media, and an
archive of releases is maintained. Images may be made available for download in such
press room facilities—the NASA web sites, for example, provide a range of multimedia
content for use in print and broadcast media.2Other scientific institutions provide
‘briefings’ on selected topics that are in the news, such as the Royal Society’s guide to
‘Facts and fictions about climate change’.3The unlimited storage space on the web
means that these briefings can be kept accessible for later use when the topic comes back
into the news.
‘News’ pages with journalistic accounts of current or recently completed research and
selections of stories culled from the mass media about such research are common features
on the web sites of scientific institutions. An increasing number of such institutions
provide audio or video interviews with the researchers involved. These may not be of a
2. http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/index.html.
3. http://royalsociety.org/page.asp?id=4761.
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THE CASES OF NATURE AND ALPHAGALILEO 173
standard to make them directly transferable to the broadcast media but may alert these
media to the ability of the researchers to undertake an interview on camera.
Other media services that have grown up on the internet provide intermediation
between journalists and scientists and their institutions. The AAAS established EurekAlert!
as a means for researchers to make their media releases very widely available. Among the
other web-based services channelling press releases from (mainly US) universities and
research centres to the media and wider publics are Science Daily4and Newswise.5
The Royal Institution in Britain took the initiative in 2001 of setting up the Science
Media Centre, intended as a resource to support better coverage of science in the media,
or, in its own terms, ‘first and foremost a press obce for science when science hits the
headlines’.6This initiative corresponded to the suggestion made by Reed’s (2001) inter-
viewees for a central ‘meeting point’ for scientists and journalists, enabled by technological
developments and supplementing the services of public relations professionals. But
the Science Media Centre also sees itself as ‘pro-active’ in facilitating ‘more scientists to
engage with the media when their subjects hit the headlines’.7Much of that engagement
is direct, e.g. through face-to-face briefings, but the centre’s guides to scientific subjects
‘in a nutshell’ and its press releases are published over the web.
Professional societies that are also journal publishers use their web sites not only to
support their members and to build public awareness of and support for their area of
scientific interest but also to promote their journals by encouraging media reporting
of their content. The Institute of Physics (IOP) in Britain maintains a news service8that
often features items based on material in IOP-published journals. According to Peterson
(2001, p. 252):
. . . much [US] media coverage of physics concerns papers in the journal Physical Review Letters that
were highlighted [on the web] by public affairs staff at the American Institute of Physics.
The cases of Nature and AlphaGalileo
The Nature press service and AlphaGalileo, a multilingual distributor of releases from
European scientific institutions to the media, are among a small number of services high-
lighted as ‘resources’ on the web sites of several professional groups, such as the NASW,
the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science
Journalists and the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations.
The Nature press release is perhaps one of the best-known examples of a science media
service. It long pre-dates the web but its operation has become more sophisticated still
through the use of e-mail and the web. In the 1990s, when fax was a principal medium
4. http://www.sciencedaily.com.
5. http://www.newswise.com.
6. http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/.
7. http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/.
8. http://physicsworld.com.
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174 SCIENCE REPORTING IN THE ELECTRONIC EMBRACE OF THE INTERNET
of communicating releases to the media, Nature’s system allowed journalists receiving
their releases to retrieve selected items of journal content through a fax-connected data
base, using discrete codes for individual items.
The Nature release is sent by e-mail to 4000 registered press service subscribers around
the world on the Friday before publication of the following week’s edition of the journal.
It refers the recipient to a subscriber-restricted web site where the papers and articles
to which the release refers (plus those from a further 20 Nature subject-specific journals)
may be accessed.
The Nature release states prominently, and repeatedly, the restrictions on usage of the
journal material to which the registered users have access. Information on the embargo
hour—18:00 GMT on the evening (Wednesday) before formal publication of the print
edition—is given in relation to several global time zones. There is detailed information on
the times from which the journal’s contents may be accessed from the Nature press site.
The release itself is declared to be Nature’s copyright, and there is a prominent plea that
it should not be redistributed. All of these injunctions underline the privilege that the
journalist enjoys in receiving the release.
The release presents selected items of the journal’s content in 100–200 words each,
written in a journalism style with headlines and with vernacular phrasing that suggest ways
in which the content might be made more accessible to general readers. Thus, an item on
a study of North Sea and North Atlantic fish stocks was summarized under the heading,
‘Herring buoyant, but cod still in its plaice’ (for edition of 24 August 2000), and, in the same
release an item on the ‘noble’ gas, argon, was headed, ‘A noble cause’. For many years, the
Nature release has often introduced its last item with the phrase, ‘and finally’, mimicking
a feature of British television news that marks the last item as lighter or quirkier.
The release also crucially contains details on how to contact the author(s), often with
mobile phone numbers, and may, in cases where an item is considered worthy of special
attention, give details of a press conference by the author(s). Here too internet techno-
logies have strengthened Naturesoffering: press conferences may be relayed over the
internet, allowing journalists in several continents to participate without having to leave
the obce.
Science, the main rival to Nature as a general-science reference journal, operates a
similar media service. Both journals also run web-based news services—News@Nature and
Science News—with frequent daily updates. These also provide a resource to general media
in their coverage of science.
AlphaGalileo was established initially with the support of British scientific institutions
and subsequently of institutions across Europe to provide a means for higher education
and research institutes in the continent to distribute their releases to media across the
world. It was conceived as a complement to EurekAlert! and is seen by its backers as:
. . . an essential ingredient not only in the dissemination of European research news but also in
enabling wider engagement and dialogue between researchers and civil society—a process that
rests, at least in part, on the provision of high quality information through the popular media.
SIRC (2006, p. 6)
As well as media releases from research organizations—the core of the service—
AlphaGalileo provides a calendar of events, book announcements, expert data base and
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IMPLICATIONS FOR SCIENCE JOURNALISM 175
image library, as well as other resources to support media reporting of research. At the
time of writing ( January 2008), the service has 6000 registered users who can contribute
or download media releases; these invariably contain relevant contact details and some-
times include hyperlinks to further material such as the reports or papers on which the
release is based. In the final quarter of 2007, the average monthly figure for media releases
posted on the service was 650. Thus, using no other means of gathering information for
reporting science but AlphaGalileo, a journalist could have over 20 potential story leads
daily. Notice of releases posted on topics for which journalist users have registered comes
directly through e-mail alerts. AlphaGalileo sends out 60,000 e-mails per week, meaning
that most users are getting several e-mails daily drawing their attention to something on
the web site. A minority of users also receive notice of updates through RSS feeds.
AlphaGalileo provides a high level of technical and other supports to its users, report-
ing in periodic newsletters9on additions to its staff and services, including the increased
number of languages in which news releases are provided.
A survey of service users showed that e-mail alerts and RSS feeds, on the one hand,
and browsing of the site for research news, on the other, were used at approximately equal
levels—nearly 90 per cent of users in both cases (SIRC 2006). Ninety per cent of survey
respondents, of whom 60 per cent were journalists, subscribed to the site’s science
section, over three times or four times, respectively, the subscription levels for society and
humanities. Reflecting the synergistic use of internet-mediated services, AlphaGalileo
users reported that they also used EurekaAlert! (47 per cent), Nature services (37 per cent),
the Reuters news agency services (28 per cent) and Cordis, the European Commission’s
web-based information service on funded research (18 per cent), with a range of other
internet-mediated services named as having lower levels of usage. Ease of use, ease of
understanding and timeliness were among the positive attributes of AlphaGalileo’s
information provision mentioned most by journalist and editor users. Over 80 per cent of
all survey respondents rated the releases as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ (SIRC 2006).
Implications for science journalism
We still do not have precise accounts of how, in the making of individual stories, journalists
reporting science use the internet as a resource. In relation to a single story, such use might
include accessing a press release, following a link to sending an e-mail seeking contact
or clarification, searching the web or journal data bases for others working on the same
topic, using the staff directory at a university site to get a phone number, and more.
This assumed procedure draws attention to one significant implication of internet
usage: the increasingly desk-bound character of journalism in general, and of science
journalism in particular (Holliman 2000). At the European Forum on Science Journalism,
held in Barcelona in December 2007, Tim Radford, former science editor of the elite
UK newspaper The Guardian, reflected on this phenomenon by recounting a story of a
9. http://www.alphagalileo.org/en/about-us/AlphaGalileo-eNews.
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176 SCIENCE REPORTING IN THE ELECTRONIC EMBRACE OF THE INTERNET
visit he made to the Natural History Museum in London to interview an individual on
a particular topic, but that led indirectly to encounters with several other researchers at
the museum and thus to further stories.10
Nothing can trump the value—so the implied moral of the story—of the face-to-face
meeting. On the other hand, being desk-bound, but with access to a wide range of sources
on and through the internet, can add another kind of value to the journalistic enterprise.
Already in the early 1990s, before the web caused the internet to become ubiquitous, the
available resources for electronic information-gathering—including scientific, techno-
logical and business data bases, bulletin boards and news groups—were considered the
possible basis for a rebalancing of relations between reporters and sources and the
provision of news in a ‘critical and more balanced context’ (Koch 1991, p. 310).
More recent reflections on the impact of such practices on professional roles of the
journalist have included the argument that:
. . . journalists [will] be less gatekeepers and more cartographers pointing out interesting news
paths online rather than filtering and packing a closed news product.
Santamaria (2004)
Greek journalists surveyed considered that the roles of ‘information specialist’ and ‘critical
analyst’ would be much more important than that of ‘neutral information broker’, or the
traditional reporting role (Panagiotarea and Dimitrakopoulou 2006).
Perhaps rather more than with other subject specialisms in journalism, the practice of
science journalism has conformed to a transmission model, that is, a faithful relaying of
information from privileged sources to diverse publics. In politics and arts, for example,
the specialist journalist is expected to be a critic and interpreter, to put new develop-
ments into relevant contexts and to assess how well stated or presumed aims have been
achieved. In science, with the pervasive use of the internet in all aspects of commun-
ication within scientific communities, between these communities and between the
scientific world and other worlds, journalists have materials at their desktops that allow
them to perform these roles: on more or less any item that passes a ‘newsworthiness
test’ (see Allan, Chapter 4.1 this volume), they may be able to find further scientific
publications, conference presentations or research reports beyond the one at hand,
details of the research programme of which it is part, biographies of the people involved,
personal web pages of some of these and discussions of the topic among interested
parties, including dissenting parties.
Crucially, these possibilities are also open to other web users who have the compet-
ence and the motivation to explore behind the news contained in a media release or
news item posted on an institutional web site. Access to the web has opened up many
aspects of scientific research previously hidden from the general public (Peterson 2001).
Members of interested, but non-specialist, publics have access to information prepared
by professional organizations primarily for consumption by professionals. Parts or all of
sites maintained by scholarly societies and scientific journals are open-access or require
only that users register by name. Online discussion forums, personal web pages, blogs,
10. Author’s notes of the panel discussion: ‘Privileged? Brutalised? Beleaguered? Are science journalists
needed any more?’ At the European Forum on Science Journalism, Barcelona, 3 December 2007.
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REFERENCES 177
open-access publications, pre-print servers, are just some of the generally accessible means
by which we can retrace some of the steps scientists take in their backstage preparation,
and explore how uncertainties are negotiated in doing science.
The continuing proliferation of these information sources is changing the environment
for science reporting in the mainstream media and for reception of such coverage. But
science journalism’s adaptation to these conditions has been very limited. Tim Radford,
in the discussion mentioned above, described it as ‘the curse of science journalism [to]
spend all day recycling material that is already available’. The success of the privileged
institutional sources in expanding their electronic embrace of the media may have
reinforced the deference of science journalism to those sources. Meanwhile, reflexive
scientists have for some time argued the need for a more critical press (e.g. Goldsmith
1986; Lévy-Leblond 1996; Rose 2004), and the internet provides important means to
elaborate that critique.
In relatively early days of the discussion about public understanding of science and
scientific literacy in Britain, John Durant (1993), one of the founding figures in the
academic study of these issues, distinguished between three kinds of knowledge members
of the public may or may not have about science: knowledge about essential facts; know-
ledge of how science works; and knowledge of how science really works. Using strategies
of story-telling, rather than fact-downloading, and using the resources available to them,
journalists reporting science could help throw light on how science really works, showing
the continuing struggle with the uncertainties of science and, in this way, giving media
audiences a stronger sense of the limitations and of the achievements of science.
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Web by science writers. Science Communication,22(4), 347–78.
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nFURTHER READING
Allan, S. (2006). Online News—Journalism and the Internet. Open University Press, Maidenhead.
Although not specifically focused on the reporting of science, this book provides a
wide-ranging analysis of online news, and the factors affecting contemporary journalism.
The book includes a discussion of citizen journalism, drawing on evidence from reporting
of the recent South Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
Bauer, M. and Bucchi, M. (eds) (2007). Journalism, Science and Society: Science Communication
Between News and Public Relations. Routledge, London. This collection includes contributions
from media professionals, both in science reporting and in science public relations, and
from media analysts. Some journalists recount their dibculties in telling certain kinds
of science stories; they and several of the academic contributors reflect on the source
dependence of science reporting and on the historical shift of the balance between
journalists and PR.
Cottle, S. (ed.) (2003). News, Public Relations and Power. Sage, London. This edited collection
examines a number of issues relevant to the strategic management of news, in particular
the promotion of source material to newsrooms and how this is affecting news production.
The chapter by Anderson examines the strategies used by environmental activists to gain
access to newsrooms with the aim of securing media representation.
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180 SCIENCE REPORTING IN THE ELECTRONIC EMBRACE OF THE INTERNET
nUSEFUL WEB SITES
AlphaGalileo: http://www.alphagalileo.org/; EurekaAlert!: http://www.eurekalert.org/. These
two web sites represent the two foremost online news centres/hubs, connecting research
institutions, government agencies, journals, news media, journalists, individual researchers
and the public. AlphaGalileo, operated by the independent not-for-profit AlphaGalileo
Foundation, is the online news centre for European research in science, medicine,
technology, the arts, humanities and social sciences. EurekAlert! is an online, global news
service operated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net): http://www.scidev.net/. This multilingual
web site seeks to provide reliable information resources ‘to help both individuals and
organisations in developing countries make informed decisions about how science and
technology can improve economic and social development’. Separate web pages are devoted
to news, editorials, features and opinions, as well as regional gateways and dossiers. The
‘E-guide to Science Communication’ provides links to original material, including practical
guidance on topics such as ‘reporting on science’, ‘dealing with the media’, ‘interacting with
policymakers’, and so forth. Extensive contacts, as well as e-mail lists, are also available.
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... Como se ha referido anteriormente, navegar por el mundo digital requiere ciertas competencias y habilidades tanto para los profesionales de la comunicación como para los propios consumidores (Horning Priest, 2009;Holliman, 2007). Pese a que los periodistas científicos fueron los primeros en las redacciones en utilizar las nuevas tecnologías de forma competente, mostrando su curiosidad por las mismas y su disposición a los nuevos desarrollos (Trench, 2009)-respondiendo así a la propia naturaleza de los temas que cubren (ciencia, tecnología e innovación)-, han tenido que reciclarse y sus funciones y roles se han diversificado. Fahy y Nisbet (2011) identifican siete prácticas y roles del periodista científico en el entorno digital a partir de entrevistas en profundidad con profesionales de medios de comunicación de Estados Unidos y Reino Unido: 1. ...
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... Un aspecto que puede tener una parte positiva para la labor diaria de los periodistas científicos pero que puede ser negativa para el Periodismo en general, por sus implicaciones en la ética profesional (Trench, 2009), es que el 67% de los periodistas científicos considera evidente o muy evidente que las TIC han servido para reducir el tiempo dedicado a la búsqueda y gestión de temas (Pont Sorribes et al., 2013), dejando de estar obligados a realizar trabajo " a pie de calle " , es decir, de desplazarse a los laboratorios para conocer de primera mano el trabajo que realizan los científicos y del que se va a informar (Trench, 2009), fomentando un periodismo " perezoso " (Cullen, 2013). En esta línea, Fernández de Lis (2013) alude a la sobresaturación de los periodistas científicos e ilustra la situación de trabajo rutinaria que se encuentran estos profesionales en España, lo que podría estar motivando esa dependencia informativa de fuentes organizadas: ...
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... The number of PR professionals within research organisations has grown significantly since the 1980s (Davis 2002;Göpfert 2007;Peters et al. 2008;Trench 2009;Borchelt and Nielsen 2014;Weingart and Guenther 2016). Today, most universities and science councils have well-staffed media (or marketing) offices who employ sophisticated PR tools to maximise the public visibility of their institutions nationally and internationally, as well as comprehensive media and social media metrics to track their media impacts (Autzen 2018;Heyl, Joubert, and Guenther 2020). ...
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Rich in scholarly foundations combined with actual practice, Public Relations Online: Lasting Concepts for Changing Media connects the social and technological forces that are changing public relations. Using plain-talk discussion of theory and research, this book helps readers identify how lasting concepts for effective public relations can be applied in a changing media environment, and how a changing media environment affects the practice of effective public relations.
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The World Wide Web has provided the general public with access to massive amounts of information that was often previously difficult to find or perhaps even inaccessible. Sorting through the scientific and medical information that is now available on the Web, however, is a daunting task. It is often difficult to assess the credibility of a source of information or the reliability of the information itself. This article provides an overview of a variety of science-related Web sites.
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This paper proposes a model of the processes of the social construction of news by newspapers of studies reported in scientific and medical journals, through the use of embargoed access to the journals by the journalists. Substantial support for the model was found in data from a content analysis of 46,108 coverage decisions by newspapers for studies reported in four elite scholarly journals from June 1997 through May 1998. Associated Press coverage of a journal article was the principal direct influence on newspaper coverage of the journal article, with press releases and the proximity of the research having lesser direct influence.
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This article aims to draw attention to the rising influence of professional public relations on the process of national news production in Britain and to discuss how this influence is affecting existing media-source relations. It notes that a wide range of organizations have begun adopting public relations as a means of achieving particular goals through media coverage. At the same time media institutions, operating under tighter editorial budgets, have become more dependent on information supplied by external sources. The two trends have resulted in the sudden growth of the professional public relations sector and changes to existing patterns of source access. How such trends are affecting various sources in their attempts to gain and manage media access is the debate that therefore takes up most of this piece. Is public relations simply another means by which institutional and corporate organizations are managing to secure access advantages, or is it providing new means whereby non-official sources can gain media access which was hitherto denied them?
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Using open-ended interviews, researchers identified twelve themes concerning Web and e-mail use by science writers. The Web and e-mail “speed information” between sources, reporters, editors, and audiences. “Skepticism” about information quality leads science writers to urge practices of “good judgment” by Web users. A diagram illustrates ways “speeds information” is changing journalistic work. Suggestions concerning future research on diffusion of information are offered.