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Home > Publications > Research Papers > > Chapter 8: Revitalizing Science Journalism for a Digital Age
Science and the Media

Chapter 8: Revitalizing Science Journalism for a Digital Age

Alfred Hermida

When a dozen U.S. newspaper science journalists gathered in New York in 1934 to form a professional association, little did they know how their vocation would change in less than a century. Since that meeting, science journalism has evolved from the “gee whiz” of early reporting to focus on the interplay between science, society, and politics. Yet science journalism must continue to evolve, and must now look beyond the print model and its inherent limitations.

Advances in information and communication technologies allow for complex and controversial issues in science to be presented in compelling and innovative forms online. With the Internet, never before have so many had access to so much, so easily, so quickly. As a result, all journalists must learn new ways to gather, distill, and communicate news. These new methods have arisen not only because the Internet is different from the forms of media that came before it, but also because the Internet has had an undisputed impact on the shape of journalism.

Online journalism is emerging from its infancy and experiencing the growing pains of its teenage years. Behind the hyperbole of the transformative potential of the Internet lies a pressing reality of how changes are taking place in the way news is produced, distributed, and consumed. Online information dissemination has transformed the way that news and science reach the public. Research shows that audiences are increasingly turning to the Internet as a source for news. Indeed, as early as 2005, Merrill Brown, founding editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com, warned of changing habits:

The future course of the news, including the basic assumptions about how we consume news and information and make decisions in a democratic society are being altered by technology-savvy young people no longer wedded to traditional news outlets or even accessing news in traditional ways.

This message is taking its time to filter into the minds of media executives wedded to years of news habits. In November 2007, Tom Curley, the CEO of the Associated Press, echoed the words of Brown when he presented research conducted for the AP on the changing habits of news consumers:

Young people the world over are hungry for news. They just don’t prefer our traditional platforms and packaging. The irony of the disrupted news economy of the 21st century is that the news is hot, but the news business is not.

Curley’s message insists that there is still a need for professional journalistic skills—sourcing, researching, storytelling, and editing—but the way these skills are used has to change to create new forms of journalism and reach new and, invariably, younger audiences. These new forms, especially those online, may be particularly important for science journalism. Horrigan (2006) found that 20 percent of all Americans, or forty million adults, turn to the Internet for most of their science news. The percentage is second only to television, cited by 41 percent of respondents, with newspapers accounting for 14 percent.

The picture changes for the generation that grew up as computers and the Internet started to occupy a prominent role in society. The Internet is the most popular source for science news and information for adults under the age of thirty who enjoy broadband at home. In this group, Horrigan found that 44 percent cited the Internet as their primary source, compared to 32 percent who cited television and just 3 percent who mentioned newspapers.

If the future is online, then the way journalism is practiced must change to take account of this new medium. The short history of online journalism shows that the adoption of new technologies is colored by the experience of past technologies. Early approaches were framed within a professional journalistic context, resulting in online practices that fit within existing newsroom norms and values.

One of the leading characteristics associated with the Internet is the notion of immediacy (Ward, 2002). This is a relatively easy concept for journalists to grasp, as it fits with the established notion of being first with the news. At the same time, it can present challenges for the traditional journalistic model. The Web creates a news environment that is always live, shifting the news business toward around-the-clock reporting. (This is, in fact, an outcome of the development of progressively faster forms of communication: the telegraph, radio, television, and, lately, the Internet.)

Online journalism can be published in real time. Breaking news can be made available on a website within seconds and updated constantly. The emergence of micro-blogging technologies such as Twitter has further accelerated the pace of news. Twitter allows for the real-time dissemination of short fragments of data from a variety of official and unofficial sources, creating what has been described as ambient journalism (Hermida, 2010).

This immediacy of news and information represents a major cultural shift for news outlets, which largely have been fixed to a specific time—the daily newspaper or the evening TV newscast, for example. With news available anytime online, audiences come to expect news when they want it, rather than when a news outlet decides to give it to them. This audience demand runs counter to established practices of science journalism, which has tended to operate like a train system: controlled by a timetable that is itself a function of the embargo system. Findings reported in the world’s premier peer-reviewed journals, such as Science and Nature, are sent to journalists under embargo ahead of publication. The system is designed to provide journalists with enough time to research a scientific paper, interview scientists, and prepare a considered article on the research. However, former Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy (quoted in Hermida, 2007a) has suggested that the embargo system is unlikely to survive in its current form for much longer. Instead, peer-reviewed research would come out in “driblets,” rather than in weekly packages for journalists.

At first glance, this change might appear to be a negative development for science reporting. But such an estimation overlooks the limitations of the embargo system. Critics charge that it encourages lazy reporting and props up poor science journalists (Kiernan, 2006; Whitehouse, 2007). The embargo system has led to a process whereby a handful of journals set the news agenda, even though there are hundreds of publications. Reporters tend to cover the same stories so as not to miss out, and, even then, their reporting is marked by Eureka moments, portraying science as a process of discoveries.

A shift away from this model may encourage a greater variety of stories and issues and may free up journalists to investigate science. The transition may be a messy process—but then the scientific process is messy rather than managed. Science reporting would become more like political or financial reporting, with breaking news first, followed by context, explanation, and analysis.

The Internet is suited to such a reporting process, providing a limitless news hole. Like immediacy, this is a characteristic of the Internet that fits with some existing newsroom norms but departs from others. The amount of content a news provider needs over the course of a publishing cycle is finite for newspapers, television, and radio. The Web, in theory, provides limitless space for content, freeing reporters from the temporal and spatial tyranny of the news hole. In practice, however, online space has been used largely as a repository for what has already been edited for print or broadcast (Paul, 2005). As newspapers shrink in size, editors may consider publishing online those science stories that did not make the cut for print.

This is a tempting solution, especially as science stories are being squeezed out of traditional media outlets because of the dwindling number of weekly science sections, staff cutbacks, or the trend toward more consumer-oriented, lifestyle features (Russell, 2007). But it would be simplistic to consider the Internet as a repository for extraneous content. Much of the discourse about online journalism centers around the idea of repurposing news content from one medium to another (Wendland, 2002; Kolodzy, 2006). But a two-thousand-word science article written for print does not transfer well to the Web, just as a TV script makes for a poor newspaper article. Instead, journalists should conceive of a story in ways that would play to the strengths of each medium.

This effort goes beyond introducing multimedia to a story. Online journalism is characterized by the ability to use multiple media to provide varying textures, combining elements from print—text and graphics—with those of broadcast: sound, music, and video. The mere presence of different media in a story, however, does not by itself create a multimedia story. A multimedia story involves a combination of text, still photographs, video clips, audio, graphics, and interactivity that makes each medium complementary, not redundant (Stevens, n.d.). For reporters, striving to avoid redundancy in an online multimedia story entails deconstructing a story into its main elements and considering the most appropriate combination of media.

Furthermore, online journalism creates a nonlinear environment that breaks significantly with traditional journalism. A print story or radio broadcast guides the audience through a linear narrative; a reader or listener can dip in and out, but they have little control over the flow of information. The hyper-linked nature of the Web makes nonlinear consumption of news more likely (Ward, 2002; Foust, 2005). Information can be constructed and displayed as related components linked together, with multiple navigation pathways and links encouraging audiences to explore multiple threads of a story.

The nonlinear nature of the Internet asks journalists to consider that audiences can construct their own narrative, with no set beginning, middle, or end. As a result, each element of a multimedia story must be understood as an entry point to a story. This freedom of choice could be an especially challenging reality for complex science stories. In a traditional, lengthy print article, a reporter attempts to guide the reader, adding layers of complexity along the story’s path. Online, a reader may jump straight into the deep end.

The answer may be the Internet itself. After all, it stores a wealth of information that can be retrieved at the click of a mouse. The vastness of the Internet and the extent of information available may intimidate audiences and cause information overload (Hall, 2001). There are also concerns about the credibility of online sources and questions about the ability of audiences to make sense of the bewildering range of scientific information on the Internet. According to some studies, only 20 to 25 percent of Americans are able to understand basic scientific concepts (Dean, 2005). Yet at the same time, the tools for searching and retrieving online data have been constantly improving, and research shows that many Americans are using the Internet to check the reliability of science news (Horrigan, 2006).

At play here is less the reliability of information online and more so the shift of power from the journalist to the audience. The Internet allows the audience to have greater control over information, in terms of where they get the news, when they get the news, and how they get the news. Online audiences are often couched as “users” to distinguish them from “readers,” “listeners,” and “viewers,” terms that reflect more passive activities (Ward, 2002). The interactive nature of the Internet gives the user the power to control the communication flow or even to alter a journalist’s original message.

Interactivity is an elusive term, with meanings that can range from providing a set of links to facilitating direct interaction with other users and/or journalists. However defined, the intrinsic interactivity of the Internet offers the public unparalleled opportunities to take an active part in the creation, dissemination, and discussion of news. Mainstream news organizations are increasingly exploring the idea of news as a conversation with the audience, offering more ways for readers to participate, such as allowing comments on stories or soliciting photos and videos from the public (Hermida & Thurman, 2008).

How much of its Web presence to open up to an audience is a dilemma for news outlets. Science news is based on expert opinion, rather than amateur bloviation (Deuze, 2003). However, if science journalists were to move away from the “we write, you read” dogma of modern journalism, they could potentially have access to hundreds of thousands of experts. At the same time, undermining that dogma could open the door to misinformed commentary on the major scientific issues of the day.

Issues surrounding the credibility of audience contribution are not unique to science journalism. Mainstream news outlets face the challenge, too, as they shift toward a model of greater engagement and participation with the public, considering ways of tapping into the wisdom of crowds (Surowiecki, 2004) while avoiding the pitfalls of mob rule. The task for journalists is to find ways of encouraging participation that add value, rather than devalue, science reporting. Perhaps a reader’s exact comment online is less important than the fact that they are taking part in a discussion and demonstrating an active interest in a scientific issue. The self-correcting nature of the Internet also means that users tend to respond to each other and point out mistakes. Providing more opportunities for user participation could have long-term benefits, as it could foster increased public engagement with science.

Blogging, in particular, is being used to engage with audiences in new ways. Blogs have been portrayed as an interactive communications technology that could create a conversation between journalists and audiences (Gillmor, 2003). The informal nature of blogs allows for a more conversational approach to science, as well as provides a platform to explore the process of science rather than just the published findings.

Science journalists who maintain blogs say feedback from readers is valuable. For example, it helps to find out how completely people understood a particular story (Hermida, 2007a). For these journalists, blogging connects them with readers in a way that was not possible before the Internet. ScienceBlogs.com, which describes itself as “the largest online community dedicated to science,” is an example of how the blogging platform is being harnessed to foster dialogue online. And there are indications that blogs are starting to be recognized as a legitimate form of journalism. At the Online News Association annual conference in October 2007, five of the twenty awards went to blogs, among them blogs from the magazine Wired and the newspaper Florida Today.

Blogs are a platform native to the Web, and thus they share one of the defining characteristics of the Internet: the use of hyperlinks. The ability to create a network of ideas through the use of links, whether in blogs or other forms of online storytelling, marks a major departure from other forms of journalism. In traditional journalism formats, such as print or broadcast, the aim is to retain audiences, to keep them reading, listening, or watching. Links in online content invite audiences to explore further and construct their own narratives. Hyperlinks shift control to the audience and are part of the nonlinear nature of the Web.

Cumulatively, these factors create a new architecture for journalism. First, the existing model of packaging news into print or broadcast products is being undermined by a digital environment where information can be packaged differently and more effectively (Bradshaw, 2008). Second, the networked nature of information on the Web casts knowledge as a process and the news as a service, rather than a product.

These developments require a fundamental rethinking of established journalism practices. News outlets are now seen as hubs in a distributed network of information, rather than as destinations. In this global network, the emphasis has shifted from a model in which audiences come to a news outlet to one in which news outlets reach out to audiences. Deuze (2003) argues that journalism is moving from a closed culture focused on the production of editorial content to an open culture focused on connecting with audiences. As a result, news outlets are making their content as widely accessible as possible, through syndication, social bookmarking, or technologies such as RSS. This variety of available routes to the news is particularly important for science journalism, since happenstance plays a key role in how people stumble across science news online. Horrigan (2006) found that two-thirds of Internet users in the United States encounter science news when they have gone online for other information.

Another key factor is convenience, cited by Americans as the main reason they go online for science news, as opposed to other factors, such as the reliability of information (Horrigan, 2006). By reaching out to audiences, news outlets create more opportunities for people to stumble across their content. This move toward outreach was part of the strategy behind the Great Turtle Race website, a project led by journalist Jane Stevens for the Leatherback Trust and Conservation International, which set out to make the online content available for people to share as widely as possible (Hermida, 2007b).

Online journalism requires much more than repurposing content, adding multimedia to a story, and publishing it online; it involves a shift in thinking and journalistic culture. Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch (2005) summed up the situation:

The peculiar challenge then, is for us digital immigrants— many of whom are in positions to determine how news is assembled and disseminated—to apply a digital mindset to a set of challenges.

More than other media, such as television or newspapers, digital platforms can offer science journalism a greater diversity of coverage and voices. The multimedia, nonlinear, and networked nature of online journalism is forcing journalists to rethink storytelling for a digital age. For science journalists, the Web offers a multiplicity of ways to delve into complex issues. The participatory potential of the Internet offers the means to engage with audiences in ways that were unthinkable when those science writers came together in the 1930s to form a professional association. Today, the potential to reimagine and revitalize science journalism for a digital world is here.

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