Posted on behalf of Adam Smith by Khalil A. Cassimally.
Science stories do not deserve a place in the news—they must earn it. They are not even essential to magazines, websites or podcasts. In fact, no story deserves, in principle, to be covered. That’s not the point of the media.
Since moving into science reporting last September, I’ve realised that everything in the media must be fought for—column space, bandwidth, jobs, access and, yes, science coverage. The media does not automatically include anything or anyone. As a junior science journalist, I have experienced the media’s coldness with regard to my work and even myself during a nine-month “experiment” of freelancing, interning and pitching.
The media is a free market of ideas, much like the real world. Its role is to reflect the exchange of ideas happening in real time. This is grounded in news, which has the responsibility of showcasing the real world in its real state. That is why science does not de facto deserve a place—a competitive media has no time to indulge in any single topic. Science must earn its place in the media by showing how it contributes to our understanding of the world.
And, indeed, science that is relevant and useful to audiences does make the cut. Science coverage abounds. Some of it is so good that it gets people talking in wider society and politics. In fact, if you listen to a few influential people, it becomes increasingly apparent that science is not only retaining its foothold in the media, it is setting out to climb a new mountain altogether.
A book, just published in the UK and which is causing unrestricted excitement amongst science communicators, might just about inspire a new generation of optimistic science supporters. The Geek Manifesto is not half as corny as its title would suggest. Written by Mark Henderson, former science editor of the Times, the book acknowledges several instances in which fans of science, rationalism and evidence (the ‘geeks’ of the title) have influenced policy makers to great public benefit. One example includes the grass-roots support network that sprung up around science writer Simon Singh in his libel fight with the British Chiropractic Association. Singh won his case. And the geeks won a place for libel reform on the legislative agenda.
Henderson combines such isolated successes in a call to arms for geeks everywhere. He argues that they can use their respect of science and the scientific method to shape policy, save lives and improve the media.
We, science journalists, are a part of this geek movement. That’s not because we like writing about new genetics insights or space exploration. I reject the notion that journalists are science communicators whose role is merely to ‘translate’ science into English and pour it into the head of the passerby who happens to pick up a newspaper. Many scientists I’ve met seem to have this expectation, but it is elitist and misguided.
Rather, we are members of the geek lobby because we are just another kind of scientist. Most journalists are as fastidious about facts as scientists are. They know what is based on evidence and what is not. A journalist may have a lower standard than a scientist for sure, a different definition of evidence, but the point is this: I will not write something that has not been felt or observed. And my objective in doing this is to feed curiosity with discovery.
If I find that one of the principle characters in a feature about a whizz-bang new science I’m writing has an undeclared conflict of interest, I’ll follow the evidence and expose it. Would this story damage the image of science? Probably, but I shouldn’t care and I don’t. I am not a champion of science for science’s sake. I am a science journalist who aims to keep people talking about science simply because it is relevant.
That objectivity is the key criterion on which I’ll judge my work as I continue to build my career. Henderson touches on it in The Geek Manifesto, but that is all. I think it needs to be discussed more. I hope to see junior science journalists running with the notion that we can scrutinise and question science, and that this process ought to play a part in the public discussion. I strongly believe that this is the philosophy we should embrace and put into practice.
To that end, I back Henderson’s call for a geek movement. The movement is not a new political party or even a defined lobby group. It is the employment of science by the public and policymakers. Mirroring my stance as a journalist, the movement as I see it is not interested in embedding science just because science is interesting, but because science takes the rational approach we would like to see across society.
I want to play a part in achieving that goal, which is why last September I left my old job to begin covering science. I throw myself into freelance projects, unpaid internships and a master’s in science journalism. And I can draw three conclusions from this “experiment”. First, this job is damn hard. Second, the experiment was the best I could design as it has helped me to understand the challenge ahead of me. And finally, I enjoy covering this meta discussion as much as the latest tiny step forward in science. Reaching these conclusions has left me with a clear aspiration: to produce journalism that widens discussion about science and what we do with it.
To put this realisation to use, I’ve been writing a series called Talking Science to Power for the Guardian. The series is in many ways the practice of lessons learnt during my “experiment” and my interpretation of The Geek Manifesto. And it is how I’d hope to establish a place for myself in this fierce new world.
Image credits: The Geek Manifesto/Random House Group; Newsroom/Juerg Vollmer