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Mapping the Field: Specialist science news journalism in the UK national media

Award Holder: Dr Andy Williams

Funder: Science and the Media Expert Group (Department of Business, Innovation and Skills)

There has been much debate about the quality of UK science news in recent years. But too many discussions have failed to take into account the fact that news is produced by reporters working under significant economic and institutional constraints.

Science news is not formed in a social, economic, or cultural vacuum. It is written by people at news organisations which are cutting staff, investing fewer resources into news production than ever before, and in most cases publishing or broadcasting for a dwindling audience.

We believe any discussion of science news in the UK national media must be situated in the context of the economic and political conditions under which news is made, as well as the more particular political economy of specialist science journalism. Put simply, the ability of specialist journalists to produce independent news of a high quality is inseparably linked to the ability (or willingness) of news organisations to adequately resource their newsgathering activities.

This report is based on: 42 internet survey responses from UK national science, health, environment, and technology news journalists (we attained a response rate of 43%); 47 interviews with current and former UK national science, health, and environment news journalists; and five interviews with senior editors at BBC News, ITN, and The Times newspape

Headline Findings:

Numbers of science journalists over time:

The period between 1989 and 2005 saw an unprecedented rise in the numbers of science, health, and environment journalists in the UK national news media (numbers almost doubled from 43 to 82.5). However, most of this historic increase occurred in the '90s, and since 2005 there has been a period of slight decline on the broad science beat.

Increasing prestige and growing appetite for science stories:

Long-term increases in the human resources devoted to covering science have developed alongside an increasing respect for science specialists within newsrooms: many report the appetite for science news is high, and that they are often asked to contribute specialist editorial advice.

Increasing workloads:

On the other hand, however, workload increases have been widespread and in many cases are becoming problematic. Whilst the number of journalists employed on the science beat has not risen in the last five years, reporters state that workloads have increased significantly. More than half of our survey respondents (53%) said workloads had increased a lot in the last five years, 35% said they had increased somewhat, 8% reported workloads as stable, and not one journalist was able to say their workload had fallen. Most of these workload rises can be attributed to increasing cross-platform and multi-media journalism and the rise of internet news.

The problem of "pack journalism":

A major consequence of increasingly resource-strapped newsrooms is that specialist reporters complain they are expected to rely too much on "diary stories", and are not given enough time for independent journalistic work. In many news outlets, we were told, this leads to a centralised news-desk-driven homogenisation of science news coverage.

Time for checking facts and researching stories:

Workload pressures have led to a number of detrimental effects on how many specialist science news journalists work. Almost half (46%) of our survey respondents report they now have less time to research and fact-check stories than previously, and one fifth (22%) say they no longer have enough time to sufficiently fact-check the stories they put their names to.

The dominance of the diary:

Many news journalists told us they do not have enough time for "original journalism" and that their work was too dominated by the science news diary: one journalist referred to diary-based press releases as "low-hanging fruit" because they are "easy stuff to turn around". Only 23% of respondents said most of their stories originated with their own active journalistic investigation; 46% say they are more usually the passive recipients of news story ideas from sources.

The rise of science public relations:

Whilst the extent of the influence of public relations varies widely between different news outlets, there is a general sense that PR has become an increasingly important and unavoidable presence over the last decade. A significant minority, 23%, believe science specialists rely on PR too much, and 25% of respondents said they now use more PR than previously. Many interviewees complain that a lot of their time is spent trying to convince news desks not to run poor-quality "bad science" stories they have seen on the news wires and/or in eye-catching press releases.

The future of specialist science news in the UK national news media:

Despite the gloomy picture painted by many, most specialists do not believe their beat is under serious long-term threat. Most do not think that science news has been hit any harder than other specialist patches. 56% of survey respondents disagreed that science specialists are a dying breed in the UK (although 53% also disagreed that there would be more science journalists in the UK in ten years' time).

Research Outputs:

Mapping Science Journalism Final Report PDF [967 KB]