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The Evolving Role of Journalists in the New Science-Media Ecosystem

Following up on our study analyzing the shifting roles and emerging practices of science journalists in the digital age, Declan Fahy contributed a valuable discussion to the news site of the British Association of Science Writers which I have reposted below. Also see Fahy’s article at and a detailed summary of the study with open-access PDF.

Now that science reporters have seen their historical position as the primary conveyors of scientific information to non-specialists eroded, what roles are left for them to play?

That’s a central issue that myself and my American University colleague Matt Nisbet explored in an article published recently in Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, which reported the views of eleven science journalists, in the United States and the United Kingdom, about how their professional roles and working practices have been changing in the digital age.

We argued that journalists are now operating in what we called a new “science-media ecosystem” where organizations that were previously sources of science news — including scientific publishers and societies, scientists, science centers and science interest groups —  are now producing original content, often using journalistic methods of presentation, directly for non-specialist audiences.

In this digital space, the functions and practices of science reporters have shifted, a shift driven also by the wider economic and organizational pressures on journalism generally, a shift that can be seen in four emerging practices for science reporters.

First, they are shifting from a transmission view of science reporting, their specialist work becoming somewhat analogous to the roles of literary and artistic criticism. This interpretative function is important because, as researchers from the fields of science communication and science studies have shown, traditional notions of scientific authority, of the presentation of scientific certainty, and of science being the supreme method of understanding the world have been increasingly questioned.

Second, instead of being transmitters of scientific information, a more suitable metaphor for describing the work of science reporters is as cartographers, who guide readers through scientific information, mapping the territory of an issue, and highlighting notable news.

Third, science reporters, rather than reporting only the end product of science, are examining the process of science. Researcher Donald Matheson noted in an article in New Media & Society that, for digital journalism, instead of the traditional idea of being first with the news, a new kind of credibility and authority has arisen for reporters, “one of knowing more, knowing better, knowing comprehensively, and knowing in as much depth or extent as readers would wish”.

The editor of the Columbia Journalism Review’s The Observatory column, Curtis Brainard, told us: “Some of the best science journalists are going . . . upstream of scientific findings, looking at how research institutions, academic or otherwise, develop research projects, how they conceive of experiments. They’re looking at science as a process . . .  not just as a collection of findings.”

Fourth, authority online is no longer held solely by professional journalists. Authority now lies in cross-referenced, interactive conversations between journalists and their audiences.

James Randerson, the Guardian’s environment and science news editor, noted that the paper encourages its reporters to see reader interactivity “as part of the journalistic process, not as a kind of add-on”. The paper’s reporting of the released climate scientist emails at the University of East Anglia offered what it called peer-review journalism, where the story’s protagonists could annotate the online coverage, to produce what Randerson called “a better account, a deeper account, a broader account” of the story.

Against these four emerging practices, what are the professional roles of science journalists? From our interviews and synthesis of recent scholarly writings on journalism, we created a typology of role categories, roles that we found to frequently overlap. As well as undertaking the traditional journalistic roles of watchdogs over scientific elites and acting as agenda-setters who are able to project issues on to political agendas, some prominent roles being undertaken by digital science reporters are:

Curators. Science journalists must be proficient at sifting through and evaluating the vast amount of science-related content online. But curation is more than aggregation — it’s informed aggregation that tells audiences why this information is important.

Explainers. Even though economic pressures and the increasing amount of content providers in the science-media-ecosystem has meant reporters have had to diversify their roles, the journalists we interviewed said that reporting new findings remained a cornerstone of their work. Charles Petit, a veteran science reporter and lead writer for MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker, said that the reporting role was previously “much more dominant among science writers” and “it remains important”.

Public Intellectuals. Reporters in this role are similar to traditional newspaper commentators or columnists, moving frequently between specialized topics that they present from their distinctive worldview. As an example, John Horgan, who writes the Cross-check blog for Scientific American, and who contributes to science magazines and writes popular science books, classified himself as a “critical debunker” of “exaggerated or erronous scientific claims”. He told us: “I convinced myself that that was actually a good thing to do because science had become such an authority that there was a need for a scientific critic . . . I just enjoy that form of journalism myself. It’s a paradox: it’s using subjectivity to ultimately get a more clear, objective picture of things.”

Civic Educators. While science journalists have traditionally been resistant to viewing their work as education, some of those we interviewed noted that the limitless availability of space online allowed reporters to fulfill more an educational role. Ed Yong, who writes the Not Exactly Rocket Science blog for Discover magazine, said this educational role involves not only writing about scientific achievements, but also reporting “where scientists disagree, areas where controversies are going on, because that’s part of science, that’s an inescapable part of the scientific process . . . it shows people scientists are human and that science is a human process.”

Convenors. Science journalists in this role connect scientists with various audiences, either online or in person. For example, Andrew Revkin, who writes the Dot Earth blog at the New York Timestold us: “A big subset of posts that I do are along those lines. When I go places to speak, quite often I’ll be in the role of moderator or kind of convener . . . where I am on stage with four or five scientists or technologists or engineers or academics and challenging them in the same way as I do on the blog”.

In summary, we argued in our paper that journalists in the digital age are now performing an increasingly plurality of roles that involve diverse and interactive ways of telling science news. And this plurality is likely to be central to the future work of science reporters. As Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and professor at the University of Wisconsin Deborah Blum told us: “A science journalist wears a lot of hats, the way I do. . .  I write books, I do magazine articles, I teach – [this] is much more the 21st century version of a journalist.”

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Declan Fahy, PhD, is assistant professor of health, science and environmental journalism in the School of Communication, American University, Washington, D.C.

Read the original post and comments at the site of the Association of British Science Writers.


Fahy, D., & Nisbet, M. (2011). The science journalist online: Shifting roles and emerging practices Journalism, 12(7), 778-793 DOI: 10.1177/1464884911412697


Science reporters today work within an evolving science media ecosystem that is pluralistic, participatory and social. It is a mostly online environment that has challenged the historically dominant and exceptional role of science reporters as privileged conveyers of specialist information to general audiences.  We map this science media environment, drawing on interviews with journalists and writers from nationally prominent US and UK media organizations, describing the shifting roles and emerging practices of science journalists online. Compared to a decade ago, this occupational group, driven by economic imperatives and technological changes, is performing a wider plurality of roles, including those of curator, convener, public intellectual and civic educator, in addition to more traditional journalistic roles of reporter, conduit, watchdog and agenda-setter.  Online science journalists have a more collaborative relationship with their audiences and sources and are generally adopting a more critical and interpretative stance towards the scientific community, industry, and policy-oriented organizations.


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