Am I A Science Journalist?

OK, a busy day, mostly offline, so here’s another provocation for you to trash in the comments 😉
There are several different aspects of science communication. If we classify them, somewhat artificially, by who is the sender and who is the receiver of information, we can have something like this:
A) Scientists to scientists – mainly via scientific journals, also conferences, and recently via blogs and social networks.
B) Scientists to traditional media – mainly via institutional press releases, now also blogs and social networks.
C) Traditional media to interested (“pull” method) lay audience – in newspapers, magazines, on radio and TV, also movies and plays.
D) Scientists to (probably) uninterested (“push” method) lay audience – in the classroom, for credit and grades required for graduation, these days often using the Web as a classroom tool.
E) Scientists to interested (“pull” method) lay audiences – in popular science books and recently via blogs and social networks
F) Scientists to highly interested and involved lay audiences – offline via Citizen Science projects, also museums, science cafes, public lectures, unconferences, and online on blogs, computer games, and social networks.
For a very brief period in history, roughly six decades from 1940 to 2000, the term “journalism” was assigned, for technological and business reasons, only to the C above (not ‘since Gutenberg’ – it took 150 years from Gutenberg to the first newspaper, and not until early 20th century was there anything resembling the broadcast-only, one-to-many, corporate media ecosystem we are all familiar with and some people erroneously assume is “the norm”). This is unnecessarily narrow. For several centuries before this period science journalism was, and the last decade or so after this brief aberration in history is again, essentially equal to ‘science communication’, thus, “all of the above” applies, not just C.
If anything, that C is the weakest link – the worst form of science communication of all of the above choices as it is the only one performed by people who are unlikely (yes, I know, there are some fantastic but rare exceptions) to have sufficient expertise to understand and explain the science. Journalism requires expertise in the topic, and science journalism is a prime example of this requirement.
It has been only a couple of decades that it has become a norm to become a journalist by going through a journalism program in college – before that, science journalists tended to come from science backgrounds. Such science journalists had the ability to understand the science news and to translate them into lay language. Of course, science news was never reported only by specialized science reporters – there are examples throughout the history of media of regular beat reporters and op-ed writers covering science, usually quite disastrously.
Now back to the self-centeredness from the title of this post….
I try to be as complete a science communicator as I can be, trying my hand at all of the above as much as I can:
A) I have published several scientific papers, including one quite recently (and still have enough unpublished material for four manuscripts) and presented at a number of meetings.
B) As a blogger for PLoS, I often highlight some of PLoS ONE papers, distilling them for lay audience, mainly for the benefit of the media.
C) I have never attempted to publish in traditional media, a priori frustrated by length limits, headline writers, and potentially ignorant editors. But I am willing to try. And I am also an outside advisor to the PRI/BBC/World experiment in connecting science stories on the radio to the Web.
D) I teach Biology 101 to non-science majors in non-traditional education at college level.
E) I write this blog (yes, including real science posts) for which I am paid. I write for ScienceInTheTriangle blog, for which I am paid. I post interesting science links on Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook and am ready to answer questions from non-scientific audience on such platforms. I try to practice the new journalistic workflow. And people think I am not that bad at it. And I edit and guide the collection and production of Open Laboratory anthologies.
F) I am very interested in getting involved in these kinds of “engage, don’t lecture” projects in the future. And organizing ScienceOnline conferences is one of the ways to engage.
And I read, think and write a lot about the current changes in the world of journalism.
So, am I a science journalist, in a 21st century sense of that word? I think I am (and there is also an undisclosed business reason why I am claiming this, but that is peripheral), and if not a journalist at least a ‘science writer’, but people who internalized by osmosis the 20th century ideas about journalism may beg to differ.
Are you a science journalist?


29 responses to “Am I A Science Journalist?

  1. i also do nearly all of the tasks on your list but i do not consider myself a science journalist. this is partially because i did not go to journalism school — a fact that i am reminded of every damned time that i am rejected for a science journalism job by the MSM. however, considering the general level of stupidity about science among typical science journalists, i have no desire whatsoever to be insulted by being labeled as a “science journalist.” however, that said, i don’t see what is wrong with people defining themselves according to their employment history. but in your case, i think you are much more than a mere “science journalist.” … maybe a “science communicator”?

  2. In my view, the media are the worst possible avenue for actually informing people about anything, and the reason for that is that the media are a vehicle for imparting attitudes, not information. So while I think science journalism has some value in getting those who already have a pro-science attitude interested in various topics, it will never, I repeat never, change the general populational view of science, or educate them on any matter whatsoever.

  3. I’ve just recently started calling myself a “science journalist” when I meet people at cocktail parties, etc. To my mind it’s the quickest way to let people know what I actually do.
    However, I’m not sure any of my work actually qualifies as “C” above. With the possible exception of a radio interview, none of my science writing has been in traditional print or broadcast media.
    When I tell people I write for Seed Magazine, people perk up and say “Oh, what’s that?” and when I tell them it’s an online science magazine, that’s pretty much a conversation-ender. Clearly I’m not a “real” journalist, even though I have editors and deadlines, and even though I run a science website with 19 editors and over 1,000 contributors.
    There’s something about the internet that’s not “real” to the general public, despite the fact that most of the people I’m talking to in these cases haven’t held a “real” newspaper for years.

  4. In my experience, among policy folks and journalists, I’m a wonky ‘scientist.’ Among scientists, I’m usually a ‘policy person,’ ‘writer,’ or ‘communicator.’
    Labels don’t really matter.

  5. I think many of us are “science writers” — but “science journalist” is a monastic title that few of us earn.
    In all of the debates on bloggers vs. journalists, I think the bottom line is still two things: ethics and voice.
    By ethics, I mean impartiality with a dose of objective judgment. Bloggers too often write with a pundit’s mind and drive — instinctively adding objective AND subjective opinion to the news at hand. Bloggers enjoy this platform to say what normally can’t be said in peer-reviewed pieces, adding personal reflections or hints of emotion. Bloggers are more commentators and edutainers — more of the Colberts and deGrasse Tysons of the communicative spectrum than the Cronkites and Murrows.
    The best Research Blogging posts avoid this, and serve as a simple translation of the discovery, with a dose of objective review for context: Here’s what happened, and given the past history of this research, here’s why it is (or isn’t) important based on the spectrum of existing, accepted findings, leaving all personal politics and bias aside.
    It’s one thing to be impartial and objective in your critical reasoning, but it’s also vastly important to write in a VOICE of impartiality. Just as we use a certain jargon in academic writing, so too are we accustomed to a particular voice in journalism — the third person. A journalistic piece should never begin with “I” and follow with “think” “believe” etc. Listen to Katie Couric when she switched from entertainer to news anchor. Listen how E.J. Dionne speaks versus how Robert Siegel speaks on NPR. Read any piece of writing and discern whether you feel it carries an air of impartiality.
    Conversely, you can write like a journalist but not follow that creed, making you a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Think of the examples out there of mainstream outlets that selectively deliver facts, yet do so in that journalistic voice.
    So, to appear as a journalist, you must not only walk like one, but also quack like one, and with reputation, you’ll earn that mantle from the trusting public and other journalists. You must take an oath of ethical judgment, and speak in a selfless voice. Monastic, indeed.
    That is not to say there is room in between. The Economist is a mainstream publication we all agree as journalistic, yet most reports are rendered with an opinion that aligns with its institutional slant. But it does a good job of compartmentalizing fact and judgment — the latter almost always in the final paragraph — and most of us read it with that context in mind. Not to mention they have a hell of a lot of fun writing their headlines and cutlines.
    And some manage to carve room for commentary. If you read Cronkite’s autobiography, he wrestled with how to keep his broadcaster role separate from his weekend editorial role. Not to mention his famous Vietnam War verdict — but that one dose of opinion meant a whole lot more, given the air of respected impartiality he had cultivated.
    Which brings me back to why science bloggers should be plenty satisfied with NOT being considered journalists. Bloggers can afford to be excited and passionate about their science. They can be that first responder who raises the red flag and calls BS on bad research or poor journalism, following their academic code of ethics. They can be that inviting, intellectual salon where anyone with a love for science can enter and not be judged for lacking a PhD, but embraced for their common joy in discovery.
    Good bloggers do great public service — making science accessible to curious minds; giving other academics a needed setting to engage in professional dialog while letting your hair down; and serving as an educated chorus on the pulse of scientific discourse that helps practicing journalists make sense of science.

  6. Karl Leif Bates

    In my day, real journalists called themselves Reporters. The J-word has always connoted a self-important blowhard. Call youself a science writer now and rest easy.

  7. Very interesting. You may be changing my mind about some things. For now, a couple of pedestrian observations: PING

  8. @”GrrlScientist” : thank you for reminding us that the word ‘journalist’ is almost a slur these days, a profession ranking down with the politicians and lawyers as one of the most despised in public eyes, and that we should shun it and use better terms instead. ‘Writer’ sounds nice, and ‘Communicator’ sounds really good – remember how ole’ Ronnie was dubbed The Great Communicator by both the people who adored him and by people who hated him but begrudgingly acknowledged he was really good at coining memorable and persuasive (though Orwellian) phrases.
    @John S. Wilkins: I am assuming you are referring to C when you talk about science journalism (and I agree that this is the least helpful medium for actually changing people’s minds on science). But if you broaden it to A-F, is all of that still unpersuasive?
    @Dave Munger: I have been mentioned, quoted and sometimes interviewed at length in newspapers, on radio and on TV, but since I did not write or produce any of that – I was a guest or interviewee, not interviewer – I do not count this as my involvement in journalism. The feeling of concreteness is interesting, and cannot be just easily dismissed as something only late adopters feel. When my interview showed up in Charlotte and Raleigh Observers on Monday, I read it online but was also curious to see how it looks on paper so I stole that section from my mother-in-law and, even for someone like me, it feels more “real” than the online version. I wonder if our kids and their kids will feel differently and think we’re weird.
    @Sheril R. Kirshenbaum: Interesting how each group wants to relegate you to the status of “the other” – price of being a gadfly? Narrowing their own definitions of their own professions in ORDER to exlude you from their circles?
    @Ben Young Landis: The need to appear impartial leads to the “View From Nowhere” – this link is old but is a must-read:
    Also, I think it is uneccessary to narrow the definition of journalist to reporter – this is the time for expansion of the definition, not its narrowing. Person reporting the breaking news, or reporting from a meeting, or person crunching the data, or person explaining the information to the lay audience, or person opining on it all – they are all journalists (including the photographer, videographer, statistician, fact-checker and the person who developed the interactive computer game designed to explain the complex concept – e.g., what happens to your taxes if a bill passes in the Congress – by letting users play with its parameters and watch the outcomes).
    @Karl Leif Bates: Thank you – I guess I am a writer 😉
    @Greg Laden: That is an interesting post! You made me look up the exact use of synchronic and diachronic by linguists! I always try to include diachronic as I think a historical context is essential for understanding a lot of stuff (and converse, not taking history into account leads to some silly arguments). You also touch on something that makes traditional journalists scream – the purpose of journalism is to educate. The reader, after finishing the article (or radio/TV clip) should know more and better (i.e., be better educated) than s/he was before reading it. Readers are looking up to media to state clearly what is the truth, who is telling it, who is lying. Which is why various fact-checking outfits are suddenly all the rage. Which is also why journalists are held in such contempt – HeSaidSheSaid stenography and “we report, you decide” are absolutelly maddening to the audience who felt betrayed – they just wasted their time hoping to get informed and all they got was equivocation.

  9. When I hear the word “journalist” I think of the SPJ ethical code. If you don’t try to follow this code, to me you’re not a journalist.
    Like most of the commenters I don’t care about labels – I care about what you do and why it matters. Nomenclature has some value, but a rose by any other name…

  10. Dave Munger

    Re “writer”:
    I’ve found that most people assume a writer is someone who writes books. If you say you’re a writer and you’re really a journalist, that comes across as more pretentious than just calling yourself a journalist.

  11. Interesting. I guess Communicator it is.
    Of course, platform does not matter. The same exact article published on a blog and then reprinted in a magazine is still the same exact article – there is no reason to call the magazine version journalism and the blog version not.
    Also, this post is partially written in frustration that so much discussion is still about the definition of “journalist” (as someone paid by a media company, or someone publishing on paper, or someone publishing in a place where each piece is approved by an editor), instead of the definition of the “act of journalism” which anyone can do, usually occasionally and accidentally (as eye-witness to an event).
    For example – this blog is self-published, right? I do not have an editor approving each post, or editing it. But I am on – I get paid to blog, even though I am given complete editorial freedom. And is not Blogger or WordPress, it is a platform to which editors choose who to invite (how many? 80 or so people? While getting something like seven applications per day since the platform started in 2006?!). Instead of approving each of our posts, they approve us and trust us to know what we’re doing. If that is not journalism, even in the old-style definition of the word, I don’t know what is.

  12. But why would I want to trash your provocation when your argument is strong nd I agree? 😉
    I reckon I’m a science writer who more often than not, but not always, practices journalism.
    I also like the 6-part classification scheme according to speaker and audience. Also nice to see you saying you’re willing to try C Bora, because sometimes, it’s noticeable that that’s the one that (arguably) you have least experience in but criticise the most 😉
    While we’re talking about definitions, what’s a “scientist”? Am I one?

  13. Oh and I still like my “triple-reassortant science writer” description, covering blogger, journalist and PIO.

  14. Once a scientist, always a scientist. Because science is a worldview and a method of thinking, not just a profession (does that also hold for journalists?).

  15. I agree with Bora@15: science is a way of engaging with the world, not a thing you necessarily get paid to do. So I’d certainly consider people like Ed, who is by profession a writer, as well as Sheril, who is by profession a writer or “policy person,” as scientists without a doubt.
    To some extent, and I know this certainly doesn’t capture all the variation, but I wonder if “journalists” tend to write about things that most others want to know about; perhaps “writers” write about things that *they* think others should want to know about?
    I think about the kinds of things I like to write about – most people, arguably, don’t care whether or not octopuses have spatial memory or whether fish can count. I think they should.

  16. While I don’t understand the reason for the adjective in there, it doesn’t apply to me, I agree with the observation:

    I think many of us are “science writers” — but “science journalist” is a monastic title that few of us earn.

    I even have a definition of how the two professions differ. But I won’t bore anyone with it here.
    The distinction does not appear in the taxonomy described in the original post from a blogger who may be a fine science writer but does not seem to have done any journalism, which is more to do with the way that you garner information, and the subjects that you choose to write about, than where your words surface.
    Hint, one way to tell a journalist from a writer is that many journalist are dreadful writers. They need picky news editors and fine subeditors, which is one reason why this is an endangered species.

  17. @8: It’s a function of the bandwdth of the media; insufficient carrying capacity to get actual arguments and ideas across. So yes, I extend it across all aspects of the media, thus excluding A and offline F. And even with F, popular science books do little but give you the “facts” (assertions) nearly all the time, and they mislead to some degree. But they are much better than the ephemeral media.
    Nothing beats a guided education from someone who already knows.

  18. @John S. Wilkins: I agree. Following the logic to the end, this means that the best journalism is…..graduate school!

  19. Not a scientist or a journalist; I am a blogger, which is lower on the totem pole than any of the things you listed. But I still try to communicate science to an audience. I link to ScienceBlogs pretty regularly at various blogs. Yet I know my limits and I try my best to get people interested enough to come over here and read what real experts have to say about it. I think there is a place for communicators like me.

  20. @Jason G. Goldman and @Michael Kenward: I agree that there is some difference in the choice of topics. An independent, self-publishing (or “Citizen”) journalist/writer can write whatever comes to mind or ignites passion. A freelancer writes on the topic one is hired for. A staffer has freedom directly tied to one’s place in the hierarchy – young beat reporters write what they’re told, Big Guns have much more choice.
    Also, media is very much driven by immediacy, thus topic is likely to be the latest paper. An independent journalist can afford to cover a broader area, older research, to place stuff in historical, philosophical, theoretical and methodological context, which makes the story much more interesting, as well as much more educational.
    See: future of context, e.g.,

  21. @Miss Cellania: Totem pole? That’s an anachronism. Today, one builds reputation by the quality of one’s work, not by the brand-recognition of the outlet one writes for.

  22. @Michael Kenward: You write:

    The distinction does not appear in the taxonomy described in the original post from a blogger who may be a fine science writer but does not seem to have done any journalism, which is more to do with the way that you garner information, and the subjects that you choose to write about, than where your words surface.

    First, “not have done any journalism” depends on one’s definition of it, which is the topic of this post, right? If you assume it’s just C, then you are right about me, but you are out-dated on the definition of journalism.
    Also, this quote is very similar to those made by many curmudgeonly journalists who use the word “blogger” in a sneering, “putting you down in your place”, self-importance-inflating manner. You did not mean that, right? If you have followed these discussions over the past 13 years or so, you know that being a blogger is not lower, and is often higher, in the quality of reporting than MSM, if a totem-pole hierarchy is even a right way to think about it.
    Finally, I agree with you that an important difference (though not the only one) is “the way that you garner information”. Expert writers garner information by digging through the documents, reading scientific literature to exhaustion, reanalyzing the data, even when necessary asking the question directly of Nature via experiment. On the other hand, a journalist gathers information by interviewing people, asking them for their opinion, reporting their words (by misquoting) and adamantly refusing to assign Truth-values to statements, i.e., determining who is lying and who is not.

    Hint, one way to tell a journalist from a writer is that many journalist are dreadful writers. They need picky news editors and fine subeditors, which is one reason why this is an endangered species.

    Funny you say that. Because in many, many discussion threads on this topic, when all the journalistic strawmen that curmudgeons throw out get debunked one by one, the last thing they still have as an argument is “but at least we, unlike bloggers, can write well”. ROFL.

  23. Interesting comments. But you can’t just call yourself “Communicator” dude. That is just not sufficient. Let’s make it “Multimediary Polychronic Communicator Extraordinaire” 🙂

  24. For years I have mostly performed version F, though not as a working scientist, at the online forums of a medical nonprofit. With a population highly motivated to understand what the heck just happened, and hence seeking explanation, but not necessarily in possession of the sorts of filters that allow them to adopt only accurate explanations, careful science communication is a necessity. Well, it is if avoiding the sorts of wootastic explanations that can result in dangerous care choices is your goal. My job is to explain the thinking behind the current explanations, why the research strategies are what they are, and clinically what’s held up to test.
    They alternate between assigning the titles “science writer”, “science coordinator”, and “staff philosopher with a certification in combat epistemology” (h/t Charles Stross)

  25. @arvind and @Caryn: Both Brilliant: “Multimediary Polychronic Communicator Extraordinaire” and “Staff philosopher with a certification in combat epistemology”. I need to remember (or write down) these for future use 😉
    BTW, I could also classify my communication efforts in other ways, e.g,. by speed and length. There is fast/short communication on Twitter, FrindFeed, Facebook and here on the blog, usually filtering links to useful information to people who consider me a trusted filter. Or providing lighter fare, e.g., quotes (which people LOVE), videos, etc. Then there is medium speed/length, which includes most of my science posts, but also Q&As with participants at ScienceOnline, book reviews, event reports, etc. And then there are long/slow essays (usually about journalism/media) for which I am famous, including one that, when printed out in LaTeX-modified book format (thus text filling the page in relatively small font) turned out to be 32 pages long! And then the Open Lab anthologies are actual, hardcopy books.
    It is also important to note that several of the aspects of my involvement in science communication are not solitary efforts, but as part of bigger groups. PLoS has a whole bunch of people participating online in some ways – on the PLoS blog, on individual journals’ community blogs, on internal forums, on social networks etc. The same goes for PRI/TheWorld – there is a big team involved. ScienceInTheTriangle is also a communal effort – a bunch of us are producing it as a team. Open Laboratory is an example of a semi-democratic, crowdsourced method of building a book that everybody loves. ScienceOnline is not just mine – Anton and I rely on many of you for help, including in building the Program each year. ScienceInTheTriangle, Open Laboratory and ScienceOnline are also three parts of a unified effort by more-or-less same group of people trying to combine online and offline communication in various ways. So, just as I myself try to do many things, I am also a part of several teams that try to do many things and combine various communication methods into a single, coherent whole.

  26. You’re missing something in C there. More often than not in my experience there’s a university or company PR person stuck squarely between the scientist and the reporter. If scientists talked directly to reporters – or PR people understood the science they were spinning – C wouldn’t be half the problem it currently is.

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