Researchers are well placed to explain concepts, but journalists will bring the critical scrutiny needed to integrate science in society, says Susan Watts.
I don't normally watch football on television, but recently I have been paying attention. What has happened in sports presenting, with former and current players replacing specialist journalists, is creeping into science coverage too.
One television executive put it bluntly to me early this year. “We mainly use scientists as presenters, even if it's not their area of expertise. They have more credibility. A journalist would have to have a really unique selling point for us to use them.”
By unique selling point, they meant special access, or a personal link to the story being told. But surely journalists already have a unique selling point — they are journalists?
Footballers talking about what we have seen on the pitch can make for cracking analysis. But such coverage will never expose the uncomfortable side of sport that is away from the screen — the drug-taking or the match-fixing. And what about the awkward unease among former heroes-cum-presenters when confronted with the prospect of throwing a tricky question at a current star, even though viewers might be shouting at the TV for them to ask it (my sons among them)?
Sport is not a life-or-death issue, for most people at least. But science and engineering can be. Scrutiny is crucial.
There is a fundamental difference between science communication and science journalism. At the science communication end of the spectrum sit the stories that show people how exciting science can be, the discovery of a wonder material, perhaps, or a new subatomic particle. Explaining the significance of sightings of the Higgs boson or of gravitational waves from the early Universe takes real skill.
Science journalism's job is to tell the stories that explore the murky underbelly of science, like the selling of bogus stem-cell cures to vulnerable patients. It is science journalism that will expose the rushed policy-making, the undisclosed profiteering, the conflicts of interest and the vested interests, the bad experiments, or the out-and-out frauds.
Written By: Susan Watts
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