Science, Journalism and Media Logic

Article by Iris Korthagen on news media logic and the role of science journalism

In October 2015, the Science section of NRC Handelsblad, a Dutch  daily newspaper, sent out the following tweet:“Red meat as carcinogenic as plutonium and asbestos” (ouch). Dutch public television’s evening news soon picked up on the story, warning viewers in its lead and final items that eating hamburgers, bacon, hot dogs and other processed meat products increases the risk of cancer. The way the news was presented made it sound like the latest health scare. Hart van Nederland, a popular nightly news and entertainment show, also ran with the story, announcing that Frankfurters were “more damaging to health than asbestos” (cringe). And these are just two of numerous examples of misinterpretations of the World Health Organization’s research findings. 

Luckily, Aliëtte Jonkers and others set the record straight on the actual findings of the WHO research in several blogs, tweets, which critically commented on the news items that had appeared in the media. The WHO and its press release did not get off lightly either: Jonkers argued that, instead of presenting an ominous-sounding – and more media-friendly – percentage, the organisation should have used absolute numbers to explain the risks associated with consuming red and processed meats.

Science articles that appear in the mass media tend to follow what we might call a “news media logic”. News is concerned strictly with the here and now, it tends to focus more on negative developments than positive ones. Also, news often highlights people and their emotions, since it’s hard to resist a good human-interest story. Some other popular frames include conflicts and the failures of public authorities. Take, for example, topics such as shale gas, radiation emitted by transmission towers, and climate change.

I have been investigating the topic of news media logic for roughly six years: previously as part of my PhD research and currently in my capacity as a researcher at the Rathenau Instituut, where I focus on digital democracy and science journalism. The Rathenau Instituut is engaged in the study of the interaction between science, politics and society. In our report exploring science journalism, we reflect on how science journalism can contribute to the dialogue between the scientific community, the general public and the government: what are some of the key social functions of science journalism and to what extent are these functions being fulfilled? Various changes are afoot that have an impact on science journalism, such as new players and new formats entering the media landscape and alternative communication strategies implemented by scientists and their institutions. This makes it relevant for us to explore science journalism and its future.

A selection of the research findings

As part of our report on the future of science journalism, we conducted a survey which was completed by a total of 100 respondents. All those surveyed were engaged in science journalism in some capacity or other (either as their main career or as a sideline) at the time of the survey. The report provides an interesting impression of the field (which obviously should not be interpreted as hard evidence). We noted that of these 100 respondents, half indicated they were also involved in fields other than science journalism. Some working as copywriters and journalists in other areas and others being employed in public relations, communications, and related fields.

Just over half (54%) of the 100 respondents agreed with the statement that “I feel science journalism has a bright future”. The respondents attributed their sense of optimism to the importance of science journalism to society, the interest from the public at large and the fact that media organisations are also becoming increasingly aware of the significance of science journalism. Concerns from respondents who disagreed with the statement (45 respondents altogether, a slightly smaller number) were related mainly to the funding for science journalism, which broke down into concerns about their personal income, uncertain revenue models, and job cuts at various publications. Some respondents also expressed concern about a blurring line between science PR and actual science journalism.

Another noteworthy finding was that of the 100 science journalists who completed our survey, only 16 hold journalism degrees – significantly less than is generally the case in other forms of journalism. Yet many science writers do have STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) backgrounds.

Moreover, the survey seemed to suggest that the science journalists have different ideas about their responsibilities than journalists in other areas. When it comes to informing the public, the science journalists agreed with their non-scientific counterparts, with around 90% viewing this as an important duty of both science writers and other types of journalists. We also note that relatively few – 41 out of 100 – of the science journalists who completed our survey regard “being science watchdogs” as being part of their “mission”. While we cannot compare the data on a one-on-one basis on account of the different methodologies used, it is telling that fewer than half of the science journalists view themselves as watchdogs, versus more than 75% of journalists in general.

This finding from the survey was highlighted in the background study conducted by Alexander Pleijter and Linda Duits, who made an impression of the media landscape for science journalism for us. Publications ranging from newspapers to women’s magazines contain a wide variety of information on scientific research, as well as drawing on the expertise of scientists. Yet they found relatively few articles that take a critical look at scientific research or examine the inner workings of science. Journalists presenting research findings often neglect to check first whether these findings are endorsed by other researchers. It would appear that most editors do not routinely verify the accuracy of scientific journalism, as noted by Tonie Mudde, the science editor for the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant.

Public duties of science journalism and science communication

The Rathenau Instituut thinks journalism and communications professionals who are concerned with science have a number of important public roles. Although other organizations also do have their part in some of these public roles (such as  museums, debate forums, forums for intellectual exchange, science festivals), science journalism reaches such a wide public that the stakes are high. In our analysis, we identify three key public functions that help improve relationships between science, society and the political community.

  1. Informing the public on scientific research involves more than merely presenting the findings: it also extends to notions about the research process and the contextualisation of findings based on research conducted by other scientists.
  2. Specific insights from scientific research can be used as topics for debating on social, economic and political issues, with scientists serving as experts in these debates.
  3. Thirdly, I would like to highlight the importance of critical observation. Sjoerd de Jong, the ombudsman for NRC Handelsblad, held an impassioned plea at the anniversary symposium of the Dutch Association of Science Journalists (VWN) for a greater focus in science journalism on process, interests and research funding. Indeed, research will play an important role in our future society, and this calls for people who have the ability to take a critical look at science. This role may take on any number of forms, including filtering out any “junk science” (i.e. bogus reports on unreliable research) and addressing unethical research practices or flaws in scientific systems.

I would like to focus on this latter function in particular, as there have not been many journalists in general who have embraced it to date, and it would appear that a large number of those engaged in science journalism are not naturally inclined to do so either.

A look into the future of science journalism

Having briefly touched on the current situation, I would like to look ahead. I would like to draw attention to an emerging movement. This movement includes journalists and journalism researchers who fight against the dominance of the news media logic. The publications listed a plead for constructive journalism, knowledge-based journalism, advocacy journalism, and slow journalism.

These alternative approaches to journalism arose as a counterreaction to:

  • the speed with which news items are presented and their fragmentation,
  • the preference for highlighting negative aspects in news stories
  • false balance in news reporting; and
  • questions challenging the notion of objective journalism

Knowledge-based journalism, as advocated by the likes of Thomas Patterson , Matthew Nisbet and Declan Fahy, involves the contextualisation and critical evaluation of experts’ knowledge. It attempts to overcome entrenched ideological differences in the public debate and to discuss various policy alternatives.

Advocates of constructive journalism include Cathrine Gyldensted, who, based on her background in positive psychology, sees an alternative in adopting a positive approach to reality and in proposing potential solutions. Her approach represents a counterreaction to the practice of highlighting negative aspects in many news items. Constructive journalism does more than just inform the public; it also inspires readers to reflect on change.

Advocacy journalism provides an alternative to the overly rigid idealisation of objectivity in journalism, and false balance. Taco Rijssemus , media director for the Dutch public media organisation KRO/NCRV, states in his PhD thesis that advocacy journalism does not equate to poor-quality journalism, as others argue. Advocacy journalism highlights the importance of dealing conscientiously with factual information and of operating independently of political and economic interests, but at the same time claims that journalism could steer the public debate in a specific direction based on the information available. Based on the knowledge and experience acquired by journalists themselves this would certainly be acceptable as a journalistic style beside other style, although it is desirable journalists are transparent about their own ideals. Communications expert Yves Pepermans states (within the context of the climate debate) that advocacy journalism could provide an alternative to a technocratic debate, in which values are implicit and tend to fall by the wayside.

Slow journalism, for its part, is a counterreaction to the speed with which the news is presented and to the focus on what is current and topical. The alternative offered by slow journalism is an in-depth form of reporting that is concerned with what is “relevant”. This form of journalism is characterised by an investigative approach, drawing extensively on the expertise of others. Data journalism could potentially be a way to define research carried out by practitioners of slow journalism.

Alternative forms of journalism: what is their impact on science journalism?

I personally feel a great need for more in-depth reporting that looks beyond the headlines: journalism which focuses more on positive aspects and potential solutions, such as constructive journalism and knowledge-based journalism, along with journalism that takes a more investigative approach, such as slow journalism or advocacy journalism, which can help us to avoid an overly technocratic debate.

While I do, of course, want to be kept up-to-date on the latest news and of new trends and developments in the world of science, I also want to spend time reading more background reports: articles that contain astute analysis and are backed up by facts, while at the same time comparing and contrasting different points of view. I would like to see more stories that make me think, and that, I think, is the added value provided by journalism.

However, what impact does these journalistic movements have on science journalism? In any case, journalism that looks beyond the headlines tends to draw on scientific research and the expertise of scientific experts more often. In the late summer of 2015, the Rathenau Instituut hosted a symposium where guests were given the opportunity to discuss science journalism. One of these guests, Ernst-Jan Pfauth, stated that journalists writing for the Dutch online journalistic platform De Correspondent are required to be knowledgeable about the entire professional field relating to the topic they are covering, and he stated that this naturally includes experts and scientific research.

Maarten Keulemans challenged this point of view, rebutting that journalists with general training lack the understanding required of science: since they lack specialist knowledge, they do not adopt a critical enough approach to findings from scientific research and experts’ views. Several journalists writing for De Correspondent recently concluded that “We have a tendency to make incorrect use of science in our articles”. This ended up sparking a lively debate.

I am very pleased with the plea for science writers to adopt a critical attitude, and this was precisely what was wrong with the report on the dangers of red and processed meat. Confirmation comes from  a letter to the editor in de Volkskrant from a GP who writes: “My consultation room is filled with what we sometimes call the ‘worried well’: educated hypochondriacs who are in perfectly good health but who fear every possible type of food because they are believed to potentially cause cancer, high blood pressure, strokes, and cardiac arrest.”

Yet I also recognise that, once the hysteria around the news about red and processed meat had died down, a number of rebuttals  were published that corrected previous interpretations of the WHO reports. This demonstrates that sound science journalism definitely exists in our media landscape. I also welcome the trend I have observed of science being more naturally integrated into journalistic articles. Indeed, this befits our society in which many “regular” topics have a scientific component, as noted by Piet Hagen back in 2002 on the presentation of an honorary doctorate to Karel Knip[1].

I believe specialised science journalists can play an important role in driving and experimenting with new forms of journalism such as slow journalism, knowledge-based journalism, constructive or advocacy journalism. I would note that there are already fine examples available that look beyond items on new scientific articles, such as the Ware wetenschap (“True Science”) series published by de Volkskrant, NRC’s science specials, along with fact-checking and a number of inspiring blogs. Another positive development is that we are seeing more thoughtful responses to journalistic choices, including in ombudsman columns. These responses contribute to the contextualisation of the public’s media knowledge and media wisdom.

Science journalism and science communications based on the public interest

Through these alternative forms of journalism, those engaged in science journalism can also boost the public functions of science journalism. As noted, public functions in the relationships between science, the public and government are not restricted to science journalism. Communication about science also contributes to the public functions of informing the public about science, connecting scientific research to issues within the public debate and the ‘science watchdog function’: directly, through its relationships with the public, and through science journalism.

Science communication can serve as a basis for science journalism, e.g. filtering out news that does not seem worthy of  even a press release. Other alternatives are to safeguard the quality of the information disseminated on  research, i.e. by being alert to “media-friendly” percentages (as we have seen in the case involving the WHO report) and to take a proactive approach in communicating about the research process so as to ensure that findings can be properly assessed by journalists and the public. Communication about science needs to find a good balance between the public value and functions of science communication and the need of the research institution for media attention. Anyone employed in the communications department of a research institution will be able to remember cases where there was a tangible conflict between PR goals and the public interest in presenting quality data. Which of these interests ended up winning out?

Social function of science news and science communication

I would like to add one more note in concluding this discussion about the public interest of high-quality science journalism and communication, and put it into perspective. Alexander Pleijter and Linda Duits added ‘nice to know’- facts and novelties in a fourth, social function to the public function model discussed. They are justified in doing so because this form of science journalism and science communication has an important public function as well, which is a fundamental part of our social lives. Case in point: even I, as a vegetarian, ended up having a discussion with my colleagues at the water cooler at work about the dangers of eating red meat.

This article is based on a series of lectures held by Iris Korthagen at the VWN anniversary symposium and at a gathering at Scicom.


[1] Hagen, P. (2002). Hagen, P. (2002). De kritische functie van alledaagse wetenschapsjournalistiek. Taken from: Lindhout, R. & J. Willems (Ed.) Wetenschapsjournalistiek. Is de optiek van wetenschapsjournalistiek te beperkt? Amsterdam: VU University Amsterdam Communications department, pp 38