Science journalism is in Australia’s interest, but needs support to thrive

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Interviewing scientists – shown here is physicist Louise Harra – is a skill that takes experience and in depth knowledge on the part of the journalist.
uclmaps/flickr , CC BY-SA

Joan Leach, Australian National University

The oldest known human bones; the first detection of gravitational waves; the successful landing of a rover on Mars, and the discovery of the Higgs boson particle: all of these highly read global science stories illustrate the public’s thirst for the latest research and technological innovations.

But is science journalism in the public interest?

Specialist science journalists are vital in our society in a few key ways. These include as public disseminators of sound science that can lead to policy, as identifiers of flawed journalism and “dodgy” (even life-threatening) science, and as gatekeepers between public relations departments in research institutions and the general media.

And yet the number of specialist science reporters in Australia is in serious decline.

Journalism can drive science policy

Over 2012 and 2013 a range of media outlets teamed up with the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Academy of Science to coordinate a national immunisation campaign.

Channel 10’s The Project presented evidence-based coverage of the science of vaccination. The Roast (ABC TV) also took a humorous approach to covering the story.

Not only was the story given robust and prominent coverage across Australian news media platforms, the Daily Telegraph and news site MamaMia also ran campaigns encouraging readers to pledge to immunise their children.

In 2013 the Daily Telegraph followed up with a “No jab, no play” concept, promoting the idea that childcare centres should ban children who had not been immunised. State and federal governments have subsequently introduced legislation to effect this proposal. The program is still being monitored.

Linked to this coverage, a successful case was mounted in the NSW Office of Fair Trading against anti-immunisation activist group the Australian Vaccination Network. The network’s name was found to be misleading and the group has now re-badged itself as the “Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network”.

Journalism as a gatekeeper for “bad” science

Sound peer review and editorial procedures are in place in many research journals, but sometimes what can best be described as “dodgy” science is published, and this can lead to disastrous results.

The classic example is the (now falsified) study in 1998 that reported on autism-like symptoms and gastrointestinal abnormalities in children associated with the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination. The study was small (only 12 children), observational, and submitted for publication without key disclosures from lead author Andrew Wakefield.

In a subsequent press conference, Wakefield expressed his concerns about the MMR vaccine. The media’s enthusiastic reporting and less than critical response to these claims took an ethically and scientifically unsound report and turned it into what has been described as “perhaps the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years”. In 2008 measles was reported to be once again endemic in the UK, a development that has been linked to reduced MMR take-up.

Don’t open the floodgate! Not all science deserves media attention.

Had the journalists at that initial press conference been equipped to appraise the findings critically, the poor science may have been revealed from the start. The paper was later found to be fraudulent by investigative journalist Brian Deer, who published stories in print and made a documentary revealing the hoax.

Science journalism vs science PR

Science journalism and science public relations (PR) can be difficult to distinguish. The job of the PR specialist is to maximise eyeballs on each story. The job of the journalist is to find the story and report the evidence behind it, no matter whose story it is.

Stories that are written with a university press release – rather than a peer-reviewed science paper – as the main source of evidence can easily cross the line into infotainment rather than independent reporting.

It’s also the case that some stories that look like science journalism are heavily sponsored by universities and research institutions. This so-called “native content” – in that it looks appropriate for its context – is becoming more prevalent.

It’s a trend exacerbated by the movement of journalists from media organisations into communication roles in academic and research institutions. While the writing style is journalistic, the focus is to promote the science from the institutions that employ them. This bypasses robust and independent examination of the evidence.

There may be more of this to come as science journalists become an endangered species.

An endangered species

Embedded in Australian news rooms, the investigative science journalist is a rare beast; the most recent in a long line of casualties are Marcus Strom from The Sydney Morning Herald, and Bridie Smith of Melbourne’s The Age, who left Fairfax last week after 16 years.


It seems the ABC is the only mainstream media outlet with a science unit. Here, specialists Anna Salleh and Jake Sturmer along with experienced science journalists, communicators and broadcasters (Robyn Williams, Natasha Mitchell, Joel Werner, Bernie Hobbs, Ruben Meerman and Dr Karl amongst others) present regular science content on various platforms.

Journalists in specialities such as environment, health and technology do still hold positions at major media platforms, and Cosmos Magazine provides another platform for science content in Australia. Freelance science journalists including Bianca Nogrady, Leigh Dayton and Graham Readfearn work on specific projects across a variety of platforms.

Specialist correspondents develop a deep and complex understanding of their round over time, and carry a knowledge of what’s gone before that surpasses a quick internet search. They might, for instance, recognise that a particular “breakthrough” is simply an old study repackaged, that a study is very small, or that its promises have been made before without amounting to much. Or that the “faster than light” neutrinos were a statistical anomaly (and an error) rather than a tested matter of fact.

The disappearance of the specialist science correspondent means a loss of personnel with the time and the expertise to probe deeply and to ask uncomfortable questions. The consequences are declines in the breadth, depth and quality of science coverage. Pair this with an increased workload, the need for journalists to apply multimedia skills and the constant pressure to publish (driven by the 24-hour news cycle), and the opportunities for genuine investigation are slim.

New ways to cover science

As the number of science correspondents has fallen, the science sector has rushed in to fill the online void with blogs and social media sites (some terrifically successful).

Facilities such as the Australian Science Media Centre now work to support and facilitate evidence-based science journalism. The Centre boasts 1,600 subscribers and informs hundreds of reporters who attend regular briefings.

According to chief executive Susannah Elliot:

When the Australian Science Media Centre started in 2005, there were around 35 specialist science reporters in mainstream newsrooms around the country. Now you need less than one hand to count them.

This loss of specialist reporters means that there is no one to fight for good science in editorial meetings or look for science angles in everyday news stories.

We’re all going to have to do everything we can to help general reporters cover science and make sure they don’t miss the important stuff.

The Australian Science Media Centre is a not-for-profit resource that supports evidence-based science coverage.

The future of science journalism

It may be that science journalism has never enjoyed a consistent position in media outlets – some report that “peak science journalism” happened in 1987. In an important review of the history of popular science, writer Martin Bauer points out that science journalism is prone to a “boom and bust cycle”.

The call for more and improved science journalism is based on an assumption that lives are worse off without it. This is an easy leap for academics to make; after all, our very existence is based on the idea that more knowledge is better than less knowledge.

But how can we convince the general public this is the case? Studying the “decline of science journalism” – fewer numbers of journalists, diffuse science reporting, the rise of branded and native content – will not be enough to show that we need more science journalists. We must be able to clearly identify a public good, and convince media-saturated consumers that science deserves a place in their lives.

We must also develop a clear business case that supports science journalism. Relatively new media platforms such as Nautilus and provide some evidence that blending science with creative nonfiction, philanthropic funding, subscription services, paywalls, and hybrid models of journalism and public relations are worth further exploration.

Supported primarily by the university sector, The Conversation publishes science, technology, environment and energy stories that are written by academics.

However there has yet to be a convincing case of overwhelming public support for robust science journalism. In our view, this is a shame. We think academic and media groups, and those private sectors that rely on science and technology, should start articulating the public value of science journalism.

A colleague in New Zealand, Rebecca Priestly, has put some money behind finding out, though establishing a fund for science journalism. Perhaps it’s time to do the same in Australia.

The ConversationThis article was co-authored with Kylie Walker, Chief Executive Officer of Science and Technology Australia, and Visiting Fellow at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University.

Joan Leach, Professor, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Beyond the #CommsCorner


Today we share a few interviews with communicators that have caught our eyes over recent months.

  • In the latest issue of Harvard Business Review, Alison Beard spoke with lifelong communicator Alan Alda.
  • In a rare television interview, Jennifer Byrne spoke with internationally acclaimed author Helen Garner for The Book Club.
  • The Paris Review spoke with acclaimed television writer Matthew Weiner.
  • Lifehacker gathered 20 pieces of writing advice from prominent journalists.
  • Authentic communication with Sheryl Sandberg


Uber, where to?


UberWheretonowAfter a tumultuous year of corporate scandals at Uber, culminating in the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick, the ride share company has announced that it will allow driver tipping through its phone app. This functionality is to be rolled out in Australia later this year. It’s a stark turn around for the company, which has been embroiled in a quagmire of controversy around the labour rights and pay conditions of its ‘workforce’ (a term that Uber would steadfastly reject in favour of ‘contractors’).

Most see this as part of a PR campaign to mend broken fences between the company and its main constituency of drivers. It’s a complete 180 turn on its previous stance on tipping. On the surface this appears to be a great example of corporate social responsibility – a policy that benefits customers, workers, and eventually the corporate bottom line. It comes at a point when many users in the USA have abandoned Uber in favour of Lyft and other more socially conscious options (as usual, here in Australia we have far fewer alternatives). So Uber obviously sees this as a way to improve its image all round and recoup some of those lost customers.

So how will customers feel about their newfound ability to reward drivers? There are various studies that show tipping has only a nebulous connection to quality of service, and that it is easily influenced by bias. The ‘customer knows best’ tipping mindset, so entrenched in places like America, may be a flawed strategy for incentivising excellent service. In countries like Japan, where tipping is seen as rude, service standards are exceptionally high. These studies show that diners reward their waiters for arbitrary things. Important factors include the weather, the type of tray the bill is presented on, and most dramatically, the gender and race of the waiter. So much for performance pay!

All this has led us to consider a bit more closely the politics of tipping in Australia. As those who have dined out at any relatively upmarket establishment know, come time to pay the cheque, the etiquette around tipping is mired in uncertainty and rife with potential to show oneself up as ‘uncouth’ or ‘cheap’. There are those that are simply oblivious to the custom, having grown up in a country where the practice was not widespread more than ten years ago. You’ll also come across some who steadfastly refuse to tip on grounds that, in this great socialist country of ours, a worker deserves a fair wage and tipping isn’t part of that. For most though, we think of tipping as a way to optionally demonstrate our appreciation for a job well done and to encourage professional standards in our wait staff (misguided though that may be).

There are no hard or fast rules in Australia around tipping. In the US, the standard is 15 to 20 per cent of the bill. In the UK it’s generally set at around 10% and in many establishments this is added automatically to the bill. Here in Australia, we truly are the wild wild west when it comes to gratuities.

Like it or not though, the tipping culture is here to stay. Will Uber’s strategy pay off by improving its service for both customers and its workforce? Uber itself has voiced fears that introducing tipping will encourage drivers to swarm where those tips may be highest (the wealthiest neighbourhoods), while under-servicing other areas of the community.

For now at least, it remains to be seen how this will play out…

Cheers, Jack and the c word crew

Communication critical for #FlexWorkFullLife

Outcomes not hours

Flexibility means tracking outcomes not hours – Flexible CEO Jack Walden

How flexible are you? Today is national Flexible Working Day and we’re proud to be working with the team at Career Inside Track to help facilitate this important national conversation. Share your experiences of working flexible with #FlexWorkFullLife on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Communication is a key ingredient in supporting flexible working practices and the need to improve communication among team members is key to achieving greater flexibility and a fuller life, according to results from a national survey into flexible working practices released today for ‘Flexible Working Day’.

The survey reveals that Australian workplaces and employees are still relatively inflexible with flexible working arrangements, which may be contributing to ‘flexism’ and preventing businesses from realising their full potential.

While more than 80 percent of respondents embraced some form of flexibility in their jobs, less than 40 per cent had formal flexible work practices in place, leaving room for employers and employees to miss out on the benefits of true flexible working and creating an environment for ‘flexism’ to thrive.

The report, prepared by Career Inside Track, aims to support a conversation among Australian employees and employers from private, government and non-profit sectors as part of the first-ever national Flexible Working Day, with participants taking the opportunity to assess their FlexWork maturity level, discuss the benefits of flexible work practices and share their own stories of flexibility.


The report also highlights the importance of celebrating employees working flexibly to demonstrate the organisation’s commitment to flexible working, further highlighting the important role for communicators in supporting flexible workplaces.

Ambassadors for Flexible Working Day, including journalists Tracey Spicer and Angela Priestley, sporting champions Kim Brennan and Tom Faulkner, and chief executives and senior leaders from Diversity Council of Australia, GM Holden, Medibank, FlexCareers and other leading companies, are showing their support through events within their own organisations, sharing personal stories and photos on social media, and speaking with colleagues about how to make flexible working arrangements work for them.

Flexible Working Day is proudly supported by FlexCareers, The Parenthood and Women’s Agenda.

Tips from our #CommsCorner


6004674496_c24d5a26a3_oWe regularly ask communicators what they wish they had known before starting out in their communications careers and this week we thought we’d share a collection of their responses.

Here are six leading female communicators and the lessons they’ve discovered along the track of professional communications.

Don’t stress the little things – Vanessa O’Hanlon

To not stress about the little things.  Take on everything you are offered – don’t let fear stand in the way.  However you are feeling – everyone else feels the same, we are all human.

Just do it – Lauren Ayton

Just do it! I was so nervous before starting with science communication events; as a scientist, you are so used to specialising in specific areas, and it can be nerve-wracking to talk about your work without the jargon. A few years down the track, and I count science communication as one of the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of my job; I’m glad I just gave it a shot!

Learn from others – Andrea Davies

Learn from other people within the industry. Find a mentor who is willing to share their experiences with you. Join an industry body like the PRIA or IABC. Both connect you to other people in the industry that you can learn from. LinkedIn is also a great tool for gaining industry insights and connecting with other communicators from across the world. Also, recognise your gaps and undertake learning and development courses to improve your understanding of the world.

Always ask – Kathryn Crawford

Always ask the question you’re worried makes you look stoopid. I’ve ended up looking far sillier than I needed to by being too embarrassed to ask the question in the first place.

Remember to communicate with staff – Diane Squires

I really underestimated the importance of internal communications in the overall communications mix. Organisations spend so much time and energy on media and stakeholder communications, but then fail to communicate with their own staff. Staff are at the forefront of customer engagement, if they don’t know what is going on, how can they support your messaging.

Numbers matter – Amisha Mehta

Numbers matter and go hand-in-hand with words to create meaning—data analysis and accounting are your friends. Do not avoid them.

Mamamia, what a mess!


RoxanegaybookFeminism and fat-shaming aside, it might be time for Mamamia to brush up on their interviewing etiquette.

“Now, I would normally never breach the confidence of what goes on behind the scenes of organising an interview, but in this case…”

Well, if you wouldn’t normally, then don’t do it now!

And with those immortal words, Mia Freedman, editor-in-chief and founder of fem-lifestyle website Mamamia, went on to publicly detail the logistics for then infamous podcast interview. The subject was Roxanne Gay, best-selling feminist author of Hunger and Bad Feminist.  Freedman described these details in a manner that upset the plus-size author and which was, in the opinion of many, a gross violation of her privacy. The since deleted description on the podcast they were recording had such choice ditty’s as “Will she fit in the office lift” and “None of this is disclosed with a mean spirit”. Here’s a free tip: If you need to explain that what you’re writing is not mean-spirited, then perhaps you ought to re-think your subject.

In response to the furore, Freedman claimed that she had confused the authors’ own revelations of the personal details of her life with open-permission to reveal further private details. That by opening up about her struggles with fat-shaming and self-loathing, Ms Gay was giving permission to others to say whatever they deemed appropriate about it and her. What rankled most about the comments was the discourtesy and lack of respect shown towards the author. In feminist parlance, it reduced a complex and accomplished individual to a one-dimensional fat girl with special needs.

Fat-shaming, bitchiness and feminism aside, this is just, simply put, an unprofessional way for a media organisation to treat their client/guest. Perhaps Mia Freedman was attempting to hype up the interview by detailing all the extra-ordinary planning that went into it. The unusual and specific request for accommodating a plus-sized guest (requests, it might be added, that author refutes making). Can you imagine if she’d used this tactic with a wheel-chair bound guest? What’s more, as an experienced editor, Freedman should have been aware that her words would come off as rude and insensitive. Instead, she displayed a complete inability to mitigate all the possible interpretations of her comments. An unforgivable sin for the head of a fairly major media website.

On a fundamental level, is the role of a responsible communications professional not to place oneself in the mind of another? To understand them and their point-of-view more clearly, so that in turn they may convey that mind to the world at large. It would seem that an integral part of that is to not reduce your subject to a stereotype.

Jack and the c word crew

And here’s the tweet that makes us totally respect Roxane! Because she totally could have let him on that door!

Vanessa O’Hanlon in the #CommsCorner


VANESSA O'HANLON_0254.jpgThis week, we welcome Channel Nine newsreader Vanessa O’Hanlon into the #CommsCorner. After being part of the launch of ABC News Breakfast, Vanessa is now part of the team bringing a new regional news service to NSW for Channel Nine.

What’s you elevator statement – who are you professionally and personally?

Adaptable and motivated, I started in the media because of my passion for music and worked my way from reporting in a helicopter to news-reading. Adventurous and private.  But socially outgoing with friends and family.

Tell us about a typical day working in the media.

It varies depending on events and publicity commitments but typically it’s about staying across what’s happening.  Mornings are usually spent reading papers and online stories.  Afternoons pre-reading, editing stories, recording (local stories) and putting together the live bulletin that airs at 6pm.

When did you first know you wanted to be a journalist?

It came to me in a round about way.  At school I always had an interest in politics and current affairs and was on the SRC and School Council but I also fell in love with music.  I enjoyed interviewing bands and artists.   Working in a newsroom on ABC News Breakfast I knew I wanted to be more involved in the news side of presenting, I love the fast pace and how news evolves.

Which journalist from around the world do you most admire?

Growing up I loved Jana Wendt – who didn’t.  She was sassy and classy.

I have been very fortunate to work with some great talent.  To watch Virginia Trioli in action certainly inspired me but I am even more blessed to call her a friend.

What communication tools can’t you live without?

The internet – what a game changer.

Last year I would have said sites such as Bureau of Meterology, Accuweather and BBC weather.

Social media sites such as Twitter – although you need to weed out fake news. If there is a journalist you trust, having them on the scene of an event is the best source of keeping up to date.

What are the biggest challenges you face? And what are the biggest opportunities?

I guess it’s the same for everyone – it’s becoming complacent.  The world of technology is changing at such a rapid pace and it’s hard to keep up with what is relevant.

Right now I would have to say my biggest opportunity is working with Channel 9.  I started up NSW Regional News back in February so it has been a case of head down and work hard.

Tell us about the news coverage you are most proudest of?

This is a double edged sword – I am proud of being part of Australia’s first rolling free to air news channel (I was there for the start of News 24). It was a game changer to how we now see and receive news, but at the same time I wonder what it is doing to us psychologically especially with the growing rate of terrorism and the shift we have seen in politics.  Are we giving some people and groups too much coverage?  Or are we becoming more knowledgeable and better informed.

But right now, my proudest moment is broadcasting local stories back into regional areas.  There are a lot of towns that feel isolated and are struggling economically and need to feel a stronger connection to the rest of the country.

What’s been the biggest change to the newsroom since you began your career?

Where do we begin?  News has evolved in so many ways.  You used to have a daily paper and a nightly news service.  Journalists had the luxury of working on a story and setting the news agenda.  It was recorded and edited, now the focus is on ‘here and now’ usually in the form of live crosses.

Technology has changed that, like most industries the key to surviving is multi-skilling.  A journalist needs to write, edit and know how to gather stories and perform across all platforms from online, radio to television.

If you had to cut, create or change something from your reporting toolkit, what would it be?

My career path has been a little different than others but if I had my time again I would have liked to have honed my skills around reporting and packaging because if time permitted I would love to make documentaries.

What book/blog/news source do you think every communicator should read?

There are so many options to choose from but it must be a source that is trustworthy and portrays a standard of accuracy and impartiality.  My go to is Twitter to begin with, you’ll find an eclectic range of articles.

What tips do you wish you known before starting out in journalism?

To not stress about the little things.  Take on everything you are offered – don’t let fear stand in the way.  However you are feeling – everyone else feels the same, we are all human.

Finish this sentence: Communication is …. The key to expressing yourself to someone else.