Science news has evolved into a uniform and predictable pr-machine, tightly controlled by press offices and dominated by services such as Eurekalert!. Here’s why this is a problem and how we can fix it.
Let me start with a confession: I have a love hate relationship with science news. Yes, I do like to read about science, and I like to be the first person to read new papers, discuss the methods and findings with the authors and other scientists. And yes, I have produced science news on a regular base for several years and still do occasionally.
But as I hope to show you in this article, science news has become one of the least creative and timely divisions of science journalism and of journalism in general. I will show you how press offices of institutions and journals started dominating the science news, and how services such as Eurekalert! have catalyzed this. I will also sketch how I think science news can be made more relevant, both from a journalism and from a societal perspective.
The early days of science writing
But let me first go back into time, to tell you about the history of science journalism and science news as we know it. Meet William Laurence, science journalist of the New York Times. This picture was taken in 1945 just before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was on the plane when the second bomb was dropped and wrote an eyewitness piece about this.
Laurence was one of the first science writers in the United States, and he co-founded the national association for science writers in his country. He received much praised for his work.
But there was something strange going on. During the war, Laurence did not just work on assignment by the NYT. He was invited, as the only journalist, by the American government, to cover the Manhattan Project, the development of the atomic bomb. And it’s even stranger: it was no secret that he was also paid to write press releases for the government.
How could this be? There was a simple reason: in Laurence’ era, being a science writer was far from equivalent to being a journalist. Science writers were supposed to translate scientific findings and knowledge to inform a broader audience and to increase the trust in science. It just wasn’t Laurence job to doubt the motives of his government, the scientists involved in the Manhattan project or the impact of their technology, as journalists would do.
At that time, science journalism was a relatively young field. It is often said that the first science journalist was H. G. Wells, who lived from 1866 until 1946 and published a book about the mechanical revolution in 1901. When he wasn’t writing science fiction such as The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, he wrote newspaper articles on real scientific findings. He found that there was a need for writers to translate scientists’ jargon and use writing techniques to engage non-specialists.
In the early 20th century, the work of most science reporters consisted largely of translating jargon and explaining the statements of scientists and medical leaders. More than that, according to Bruce Lewenstein, a historian of science journalism at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, science journalists at newspapers in the 1930s and 1940s believed that it was their job to persuade the public to accept science as the ‘salvation of society’. The relationship between scientists and science journalists was one of ‘trust and respect’.
No wonder that no one frowned about the two hats of William Laurence. He was even awarded the Pulitzer prize in 1946, the highest honor for a journalist.
Science writing becomes science journalism
This climate of uncritical science writing was maintained during the post war decade, but would soon change dramatically. It was the age of the Cold War and the war in Vietnam. Of visible and widespread environmental pollution, with governments and scientists doing little about it.
An important event that made a real difference was the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which portrayed a documented the adverse effects on the environment of the indiscriminate use of pesticides.
Carson was not a science writer but a biologist and activist. Carson was highly critical of the pesticides, but even more of the industries selling and applying it and their marketing tactics to spread disinformation about the effects. This put her diametrically opposed to science writers of the time, who based their writings on the scientific literature, which she argued was distorted by the industry.
Many of those science writers criticized her for misinterpreting the facts and to a certain extent they were later proven right, but she did have relevant points. With her book and advocacy she managed to force a ban on DDT for agricultural use in the US and planted the seed for the foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Her work can also be regarded as the starting point of a new type of journalism, focusing mainly on the environment, criticizing the power triangle of industry, government and science. During the seventies, this critical type of science journalism continued to grow in importance, no longer focusing just on discoveries, but taking into account the social, environmental and political implications of those discoveries.
Science writing turned into science journalism and these journalists started taking their role as watchdogs seriously, in particular towards governments and industry and how they influence scientists and the science itself.
A war on science
During the seventies, another type of critique came up as well: the postmodern critique, with proponents such as Jacques Derrida and Bruno Latour (although he claims to never have been a postmodernist), inspired by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Thus far, scientific facts and theories had been regarded as absolute truths, for which there was no reason to doubt for outsiders. But anthropologists, philosophers and other ‘left wing’ academics argued that the scientific endeavor was a human endeavor and truth is, in many cases, temporary and relative. Their critique streamlined will into the broader social critique of the power triangle of government, industry and science, that also addressed the position of women, minorities and non-western countries.
This postmodern and cultural critique was effectively countered by so-called ‘realists’ such as Alan Sokal and Gross & Levitt, who spoke of a ‘war against science’ and used straw men to ridicule the postmodernists, feminists and environmentalists. They were right that some of the postmodernists had kind of lost their mind, but that certainly was not the case for all of them.
While they managed to make the critique disappear off the radar for a while, it never fully disappeared. Nowadays, we have a phenomenon called ‘post truth’ that some say is a result of the postmodernist critique (I will not go any deeper into that) and we are in the middle of a new wave of the science war: now it ‘s mainly psychologists and other meta-scientists pointing at the weaknesses of the scientific method and the scientific enterprise. They focus mainly on the replication crisis, the incentive structure and the lack of funding and career opportunities, leading to a decrease in the quality of science.
The age of science propaganda
But while one would expect this to improve the quality of (critical) science reporting in the mainstream media, it’s vice versa. Science journalism as science propaganda’ has never fully disappeared, and we could say it is more alive than ever.
This is because since the eighties we’ve entered the era of neoliberalism. Universities and other institutions have become more like corporations: more professional, more goal and reputation oriented. The dissemination of science is, by many, not regarded as a service to society, but a way to build the reputation of the institute and to prove its value in order to secure subsidies. There is a growing impact of PR offices, which in many cases no longer allow scientists to have direct contact with journalists (without notifying the PR office) and tightly control the communication.
Journalism in itself has changed as well, mainly because of the shift from paper to online. The old, advertisement based business model has come under pressure, editorial budgets decreased, leaving less time for thorough news reporting while at the same time, page views show that the more fun and sensational news scores a lot better than serious, critical and nuanced articles.
Adding to this situation is the fact that many freelance journalists have been forced to combine their journalism with PR assignments for academic institutions and industry, creating a conflict of interest and diffusion between the journalists and the scientists or companies they are supposed to critically follow and the scientific enterprise they should be reflecting on.
But even fully independent freelancers and staff writers are strongly impacted by the growing influence of PR offices of institutes and journals. This has certain benefits: journalists no longer have to do some of the hard parts of their work: finding the most interesting publications in the scientific literature, translate the findings into comprehensible language for a non-scientific audience. One would say this saves time, leaving more for other parts of their job. Press officers can also help journalists find the right scientists and train those to communicate in a comprehensible way.
But science communication is no science journalism. No matter how well-meant, it does not represent society, as journalism is supposed to do, but the scientific enterprise. And in many cases, this institution-pushed science communication should rather be called ‘science PR’: it is not about serving society but raising attention and generating impact.
The domination of Eurekalert!
The exponent of this curated stream of ever more exciting science news is a web portal called Eurekalert! Eurekalert! is a service set up by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1998, an editorially independent, non-profit news release distribution service covering all areas of science, medicine and technology. Both institutions and (high impact) journals distribute their press/news releases through this portal.
What Google is for searching and Amazon for online shopping, is Eurekalert! For press and news releases. (By the way: in 1998, European science organizations countered Eurekalert! with a press release distribution service AlphaGalileo but that portal’s impact bears no relation to the impact of Eurekalert.)
At first sight, Eurekalert! is a walhalla for every science journalist: it gives you the opportunity to access the latest studies before publication and obtain embargoed information. More than 5,000 active public information officers from 2,300 universities, academic journals, government agencies, and medical centers are credentialed to provide new releases to reporters and the public through the system. But don’t expect to find scoops: by early 2018, more than 14,000 reporters from more than 90 countries have registered for free access to embargoed materials. And they’re all fishing in the same pool.
Essentially, Eurekalert! is a market place where ever more catchy and astonishing scientific findings are screaming for attention. A place where it’s not about rigor and nuance, but about click bate.
This has impact on the content of the items produced. A 2014 study by British scientists, later replicated by Dutch colleagues, showed that in many cases, scientific findings are oversimplified and exaggerated in press releases, even more than they are in the stage after: the press officer does the job for the sensation-loving journalist.
Those exaggerations are not just ‘annoying, as the ‘science news cycle shows’.
And while ideally, science would be covered by well trained science journalists, in reality this is not the case, news reporters often lack the knowledge and skills to critically assess research and its findings and are very eager to hype scientists’ conclusions. This video shows the effect of that.
The effects of science PR
Science PR leads to oversimplification, over-interpretation of results and overstating of evidence, a bias towards sexy and controversial findings, which could eventually result in a distorted image of science and the world around us and potentially a decrease of trust in science.
And while surveys show that science and scientists in general are still trusted (in particularly compared to journalists…), some fields where this constant oversimplification and exaggeration has been going on, are suffering the consequences. Nutrition science is the most important example. Dutch sociologist of science Bart Penders recently argued that the distrust in nutrition science makes sense, and metascientist John Ioannidis argued the field should reform drastically to regain credibility.
Some websites such as Science Daily directly copy these press or news releases. Essentially this is churnalism, a term invented by the British journalist Nick Davies, author of the bestselling book Flat Earth News, published in 2009. Many online media do something very similar: just rewrite and sometimes even further simplify these chunks of pop science into easy to read news articles.
Most respected media take their task more seriously and do critically review the findings, often by consulting independent scientists and ideally putting the findings into a broader perspective.
But in many cases, this process is far from creative and critical. I can speak from experience. As a news writer for the #1 Dutch news website, Nu.nl, I developed a gut feeling for popular news. Sex, weird organs, differences between males and females… Sci-clickbait, indeed.
It was part of my routine to check the Eurekalert! page of the high impact journals (Science, PNAS, the Lancet, Cell…) that would be released on the days that I would be on duty. Preferably I selected topics I already was familiar with, or topics that are relatively easy to digest.
I always read the full paper and ideally, tried to email the authors of the paper and ideally I would consult one independent scientist, but being paid less than 50 euros per item, I didn’t have much choice. The news website just didn’t care about quality and when I asked for more money, they decided to replace me by a freelancer who just copied BBC news.
The newspaper I am now publishing news articles for occasionally, de Volkskrant, does a better job. It has actually setup a protocol stating one should always consult an external expert. When covering a publication for the news website of Science Magazine I usually speak to the original authors and at least two other experts. This is what most serious science journalists do when reporting on academic publications.
The uniformity of science news
Even then, this tightly controlled, curated news stream has an impact: almost everyone followed the same agenda and covered the same news, making it highly predictable. That became clear in september 2016, when Eurekalert! Closed down for a week because of privacy issues.
That shutdown triggered a debate on embargoes as well. It’s kind of artificial, right? We present findings as ‘news’ that have been produced months ago, preserved to be orchestrated by the journal at the right time. In a recent blog, Dutch colleague science journalist Arno van ‘t Hoog called it ‘embargo discipline’. He compared the preservation of findings with celebrating a party baking deep frozen pizzas.
Having analyzed all this, one wonders what the impact is of altmetrics, which mainly focuses on measuring online impact in media and social media of papers. Are we rewarding the right things to stimulate good science?
Here is how to fix it
So, how can the scientific community as a whole and scientific institutions get impact and serve society at the same time? What science needs is being represented in a realistic way. Crucial to that, I think, is journalism. High quality science journalism.
A good science journalist has a dual role: one is to reflect on society with a scientific perspective, the other is to reflect on science with a societal perspective.
A good example of the first would be a thorough analysis of what causes cancer and what we can do about it or if there is indeed an increase in natural disasters because of climate change, an example of the second would be how artificial intelligence could disrupt our society, or how the industry is trying to manipulate medical research. An example of the latter is an article I myself recently wrote about ‘meta wars’ — when meta-analyses become part of a scientific controversy.
Broadly speaking, science journalism tends to follow one of three narratives (as described in this PNAS paper): quest discovery (like in most PR and the way scientists like to portray themselves) counterfeit quest (some scientists are cheating and gaming the system) and systematic problems (science is broken). But what if none of those is complete and realistic? I think they are, which means we have to find new, critical constructive narratives.
The scientific institutions that are now bombarding us with snippets of quest discoveries, might be reluctant to stimulate downright criticism (although this would be great), but at least something they can do: stimulate constructive journalism in stead of ‘eureka journalism’. Constructive journalism zooms in on problems and developments, but doesn’t stop there and starts looking for answers and solutions too.
So, how then can we fix science news? How can we, as science journalists, science communicators and scientists, as well as their institutions, increase the impact and relevance of science and scientists in the media? First of all, science news should not be produced by journalists who lack the skills and knowledge to critically assess the content of the research papers.
We should focus less on short term attention and on single scientific papers. We should paint a more realistic picture of the scientific process and findings — we call this scientific literacy 2.0 — explaining how science works and what it can and cannot deliver. We should facilitate the debate, both among scientists of different disciplines and the public.
The last two suggestions I have will require a different mindset for scientist and science press officers in particular: don’t just push journal publications and dissertations, but bring attention to broader developments, both within science and society. Just as important will be to anticipate current events: offer interpretation and context to news and day to day issues, thereby increasing science coverage and making the news more evidence based.
Science news should sketch the horizon based on developments in science and society, delivering potential solutions and interpretation of complex issues and facilitate the public debate on those issues and on the progress and limitations of science.
A role for altmetrics
Can altmetrics help us to achieve this? I think they might. Measuring impact of science by counting more than just citations, which is essentially what altmetrics promise to do, creates an opportunity. But it will be up to the community to find the (qualitative?) metrics that don’t just reward the attention raised by the most controversial and fancy papers, but foster relevant science with a utility for society, not just superficial conversation pieces and chunks of entertainment.
And William Laurence? In 2004, activists Amy and David Goodman tried to strip him off his Pullitzer prize, because he was on payroll of the war department and disputed the notion that radiation sickness was killing people. Their request was not granted. Laurence was a child of his time, but the ethical debate continues. Let’s learn our lessons and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes.
This article is a adaption of a keynote lecture given at the 5AM Conference on altmetrics in London, 26 September 2018
Also published on Jop’s Medium.