Science Journalism with a Spin

October 23, 2007 • Public Relations • by

Wissenschaftsjournalist, October, 2007

Why it is so difficult to escape the PR trap

It is an unambiguous trend that has been found by numerous studies: journalism has definitely come under the influence of PR, with more and more media reports being based on “news” that has been deliberately circulated by PR agencies, press departments and all those with an appetite for public attention. “Communication management” is a booming business, thanks to an ever larger number of companies, governments, authorities and non-profit organisations that are paying spin doctors tidy sums for having their public image fine-tuned, streamlined and polished.

In addition, the editorial staffs of many newspapers have been shrinking substantially. This consequently reduces their capacity for proper investigative work. Everywhere, jobs are being slashed and entire departments outsourced. And since freelance journalists are paid rather miserably, PR is having its influence here, too. Those freelancers, paid by the line as they are, who still wish to make some kind of a living, are simply forced to work for newspapers and PR agencies alike, often accepting PR jobs on the side. Equally tempting, on occasion at least, is turning a perfectly worded text, released by a press office, with a click of the mouse into a “story” – without going through the trouble of actually investigating it. For unlike the ideal journalists evoked in journalism textbooks, real journalists do rely on one source and one source only, when writing their articles – and ever more often this source is a press office or PR department.

Science journalism: a breed apart?

So much about the general trend in journalism, that very likely applies to the scientific branch of journalism, also. Sadly, though, up-to-date empirical data is missing, which is why it seems all the more reasonable to take a closer look at this important field. To do so, we first have to dispel a myth: the fairytale notion that scientists (and the journalists writing about them) are mainly engaged in a selfless search for the Truth. Much more realistic would it be to finally realise that they – like all the other actors in society, i.e. politicians, business people, bureaucrats, PR experts, as well as consumers and voters – are mainly concerned with pursuing their own interests.

The Ivory Tower stereotype

To find out how science journalism might actually differ from its journalistic cousins, we have to observe how science news actually comes to see the light of day.

At the source, we have The Scientist, based in the Ivory Tower of academia and hence safely tucked away from the “real world“ – or so the old fairytale would have it. In reality, scientists do something quite different: they pursue their own interests and try to get ahead, just like everyone else. This means that they also engage actively in networking, focusing their scientific work on the fields that promise fame (and money) – if only among their colleagues and fellow researchers. And while it is true that too much public awareness might interfere with their work, very often this doesn’t have to be the case. Quite the contrary, since researchers are acting under the growing pressure to get funding from public and private sources, winning certain fame can actually come in quite handy either when negotiating with the people in charge of handing out those research dollars or when submitting one’s latest paper to the colleague designated to peer-review it, for that matter.

Nevertheless, among the many scientists in the world, only few are actively seeking the limelight – quite unlike politicians, CEOs and other “celebs”. In a way, science continues to be a black box – thus appearing on the radar of journalism mainly in two cases: firstly, if there is an acute crisis that calls for scientific explanation and expert advice on how to avoid the most serious risks, as in case of an outbreak of BSE, SARS and other diseases; secondly, if there has been a scientific breakthrough which makes necessary some competent coverage – details about which are often circulated in advance by leading science journals, or by research laboratories themselves, which publish them as press releases.

Research PR or genuine science journalism?

In both cases it is most likely a PR bureau that is behind such a communication campaign. However, the press departments working for scientific institutions and research labs are quite different from the corporate communication divisions of large companies, or the press offices of ministries or influential non-profit organisations such as Greenpeace.

What sets them apart is the fact that – even though they have grown in size over the last years – they still tend to be understaffed. This makes  it difficult for them to engage in any strategic operations, i.e. any form of “proactive” communication management. PR representatives in scientific institutions, particularly in universities are much less in a position to exert complete control over the flow of information. The situation differs completely from their counterparts at ministries or big companies, where every bit of information has to be pre-approved by the heads of PR or media relations before it gets circulated, therefore ensuring that a specific organisation really does speak “with one voice”. At universities or public research facilities,  the situation is quite different. The researchers working there tend to insist on the freedom of research and teaching, which for them translates into the right to contact the media without any interference from a press office or the like.

Moreover, those working for such press offices often see themselves more as science reporters than PR professionals – a fact that facilitates the cooperation with newspapers’ editorial staffs as much as it minimises the critical distance between the two. Whereas journalists tend to keep such a distance when they work with big PR divisions, they run the risk of regarding the spokespersons of academic press offices as their “colleagues”. They consider them people who are basically sharing the same goal of increasing the popularity of the  sciences. “Even though the PR work of large research facilities is not journalism per se, its work routines are very much like the ones followed by journalists”, explains Holger Wormer, professor for science journalism at the University of Dortmund (Germany).

An indication that the oft-deplored symbiosis between journalism and PR has advanced even more in the field of science communication than elsewhere, is perhaps that the press offices at universities and research facilities are also mainly engaged in “polishing up” their own public image; and there as well, press releases get only published after having been pre-approved by the relevant PR representatives and/or the researchers themselves – who are both equally keen on presenting their own institute in the best light possible. A fact overlooked quite regularly by journalists, given the “intimate” nature of their cooperation with such organisations.

Pursuing their own interests and blind spots

But it is not only scientists and the press offices of research facilities that pursue their own interests. Science journalists act on the very same impulses. They, too, seek the approval of their superiors and colleagues, as well as of their sources (on whose cooperation they vitally depend); they, too, sometimes feel forced to push for the publication of one of their articles, at the cost of a colleague – due to the forever scarce printing space in papers. That is why they “spin” their stories at times,  give out PR material as their own, well-researched facts, or why they so often refer to the proverbial “well-informed sources”, to which they claim to have the best of access. By attaching their own initials to reports by press agencies such as DPA or Reuters, thus suggesting that they are based on their own labour, they are adding yet another “little white lie” to the already many that newspapers tend to tell their readers these days.

It is in particular freelancers, whose number tends to be greater in science journalism than elsewhere, who have to consider the economic aspects of what they are doing – at least if they don’t want to join the ranks of all the working poor out there. The Holy Principle according to which journalistic work is forever incompatible with PR activities – a creed formulated, for example, by Netzwerk Recherche, a group of critical journalists in Germany – simply seems out of touch with the realities of today’s workplace. A journalist who is contacted by Novartis or Bayer and offered to get paid ten times the amount an ordinary newspaper could pay for an article on, say, genetic engineering, will think twice before saying “no”. (However, once accepting, he or she should never write about the topic as an “impartial” journalist, or about Bayer or Novartis, for that matter.) Moreover, it is also true that a journalist who “boils down” the content of ten PR publications into one of his or her own articles – hopefully not too recklessly – might actually win enough time to go in search for a real story after that.

Science communication, it follows, does have its blind spots. And it is an area where for a long time, “recycling” has been the order of the day. Already years ago, more current data are not available, Winfried Göpfert, an expert for science journalism, found that even in German high quality titles such as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or Süddeutsche Zeitung, the percentage of scientific articles that are mainly based on one source only – normally a well-renowned science journal – is massive indeed. A problem that is further compounded by the fact that, normally, not even those articles come about as a result of journalist instincts but, rather, because the journal in question launches the topic in an attempt to boost its own circulation and reputation. The best PR, however, is the material that isn’t perceived as such at all. According to Holger Wormer, “today, Science and Nature have an equally dominant influence on what science journalists are writing about as press agencies have on average journalistic output.”

Gretchen Vogel, Science’s first Germany-correspondent, sheds light on the motivation of many science journalists by admitting freely that for her, “the beautiful thing about science journalism” is the fact that she doesn’t have to devote herself entirely on one subject matter only, as the researchers themselves are forced to. “Being able to cream off the best part to deal with the most interesting research in the most happening fields”, Vogel explains, “is simply great.” This eagerness to keep the “icing on the cake” just to oneself clearly indicates what is at stake here. Just like everybody else, science journalists pursue their own interests. And since working conditions in journalism have generally deteriorated over the last years – reducing dramatically the amount of time available for visiting researchers or attending conferences – it is pure common sense which dictates that science reporters cooperate closely with the press offices and PR departments of research facilities.

The readers – the Achilles heel of science journalism?

One of the reasons for why science journalism has been thriving in its rather small niche is the fact that it is aimed at a readership that tends to be better off than your average media consumer. The readiness of this group to pay a little more for their information makes possible the success of the science supplements of titles such as Süddeutsche Zeitung, Zeit and Geo. This, of course, also makes this readership particularly attractive as a target group for advertisers and their commissioners.

However, there is no guarantee that things will remain that way. Whereas, so far, the “everything for free” creed has taken root mainly among today’s youth who are prompted in this direction by all that free stuff downloadable from the Internet; in the long run this attitude is likely to spread to ever larger segments of society. The business model of Apotheken-Umschau, for example, a periodical with a circulation in the millions that offers high-quality coverage of medical and health-related topics and is available for free in German pharmacies and by contributions from pharmacists, financing itself entirely with adverts placed by pharmaceutical companies, is not likely to work in other areas of journalism.

The more the newspapers’ own investigations diminish, the more they become dependent on PR sources. And the sooner the advertisers get wind from the state of affairs, the sooner they will realise that it is much cheaper to reach their target groups via (scarcely camouflaged) PR articles than by buying expensive advertising space. This, of course, will accelerate the already steep decline in print media’s advertising income even more. Without a readership that is willing to pay for their information, good journalism will be difficult to finance. A finding that holds as much for journalism in general as it does for science journalism.

WPK (Wissenschaftspressekonferenz), by its own account the “largest professional association of science journalists in Germany”, has recently published a survey designed to find out the position of its members on ethical issues, such as the cooperation between journalists and PR professional and the diminishing distance between the two. Some 99 science journalists participated in this survey, conducted by Klaus Koch and Volker Stollorz. The results indicate that today, certain practices are extremely widespread, which 20-30 years ago would have been considered corrupting. The conclusions also point to the fact that awareness for the issues is growing, and that ethical standards seem to be intact still – at least judging from the discomfort with which the blurring boundaries between PR and journalism are regarded by most practitioners of the field.

However, since the study is not representative, its results have to be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, the members of WPK are likely to represent a more critical segment of science journalists, people who are probably more engaged in professional self-reflection. Generally speaking, those willing to fill in lengthy questionnaires usually are those with an interest in the problems under discussion. What is more, with questions relating to ethics people tend to give answers that are more reflective of what is socially desirable, rather than  their “true” attitudes towards a certain issue. In other words: the survey’s findings are likely to give a somewhat embellished picture of reality.

Incidentally, WPK keeps the outcome of said study under lock and key, making it accessible (i.e. downloadable on its website) only to its members – not exactly the best strategy for launching a general debate. However, this is not that uncommon for journalists – for as keen as they are on demanding transparency from others, they themselves tend to be a rather “discreet” lot, sometimes. Too bad, but then again, comforting in a way, since it seems to indicate that the journalists belonging to WPK have not transformed into sleek spin doctors yet.

Four suggestions on how to deal creatively with PR:

1) Science journalists’ creativity lies not so much in “scooping” a story, but in  associative thinking. This, of course, presupposes a solid overview of a certain area of research. When assessing the potential of a new story, the main questions therefore are: how can I enrich a PR report with added value, how can it be placed it within a larger context? Are there connections to, or contradictions with, the research carried out elsewhere?

2) To immunise oneself against spin doctors’ frequent attempts at launching certain research results as (yet) another “great breakthrough in the history of Science”, it is wise for science journalists to keep a re-submission file, i.e. a place to put in all PR reports making such (overblown) claims. Should the research results in question turn out to be something really significant, then it won’t take the journalist too much time to dig deeper and perhaps come up with an exclusive story. In this way, PR pros will no longer  be able to profit from people’s short memory span (from which journalists tend to suffer as well).

3) Science journalists should try to build their own network of contacts – mostly with researchers out there in the field. For in most cases, those researchers are much less famous than ministers, CEOs or showbiz stars – which explains why they are much less guarded by their PR people. Provided that there is a certain trust between researcher and journalist, many scientists are often quite eager to talk.

4) Those science journalists who make it a habit to read scientific journals regularly will almost inevitably be better equipped to spot the “right” sources. And these reliable resources would be  researchers who really are engaged in vital research – as opposed to those who just seek the limelight, posing as the Expert on Everything whenever there is a camera crew around.

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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