Tuesday, May 7, 2013

#Sci4hels Question Time #5 - What is the obligation of a science journalist when it comes to education?

I’m manning the sci4hels ship this week for question time. For question #5, we’ve decided to talk about whether science journalists have an extra obligation to educate compared to journalists who focus on other areas. We’ll be entertaining this topic on twitter at the hashtag #sci4hels on Thursday 5/9 at 1pm EST. I hope you’ll be able to join us, so, you know, I don’t end up talking to myself.
This question has me particularly excited, because for me it ties back to the larger questions of “why am I doing what I’m doing?” and even more importantly “what do I want to be doing?” Since I turned 25 two months ago I’ve been joking a lot about having a quarter-life crisis, but several things have gone on in my life recently that spurred me to take stock of just about everything, including my career.

via Wikimedia Commons
I often grapple with questions about whether I can consider what I do journalism, whether I’m okay with not doing journalism, if what I even want is to be a journalist, and where those boundaries are – but those are questions for another discussion (and in fact are being tackled in some capacity by another panel at WCSJ13.) Still, it relates to whether or not education is or should be a part of science journalism.
If I do want to help educate the public about science, and if that is an important part of what I want to accomplish in my career does that mean I should be a science journalist? Why not be a teacher? (Oh, so many reasons.) I could work at a museum and educate the public. I could be a public information officer and help educate. I could be an outreach officer for any number of scientific organizations. If you want to educate, why do it through journalism?
There are a lot of questions related to this including: are there other aspects of being a journalist, specifically a science journalist that compliment being an educator? Does being an educator play a role in science journalism that it doesn’t for business or political writers? Writing scientific explainers is definitely journalism – but is it just one kind of journalism or is it something that pervades all science journalism? One of my favorite take-aways from Scio13 came out of the session on explanatory journalism where Carl Zimmer made the comment (which I'm paraphrasing) that good science journalism should never read like you are dropping a textbook on someone. I think that ties in well with this topic, because if you want to be an educator and you want to do it through journalism - well then how do you do that effectively?

While you could approach this question in a lot of different ways, I would really like to hear from people about whether being an educator was part of what made you want to become a science journalist, and what role you think education plays in your work. Bora has tackled this question before in the blog post/on Twitter with Is Education What Journalists Do? Again, I'll be posting this question to Twitter on Thursday 5/9 at 1pm EST at the #sci4hels hashtag - I hope you'll join in.

Update 5/9: 
So what happened? Here's the storify recap - it was apparently both useful and not useful, but a lot of people had a lot to say, so thank you for participating everyone!


  1. Just ran across this randomly on Twitter, but I have to say that science journalism has some very serious responsibility, not only to teach, but to take extra care to not sensationalize and to do the legwork.

    Recent events (ie Jonah Lehrer and others) have shown that the public is often misled by bad science journalists or those willing to circumvent various ethical considerations for the sake of bylines. It's a problem.

    1. As far as not sensationalizing and doing the legwork goes I agree completely. Bad science writing can have seriously detrimental effects on the public's understanding and appreciation for science. It also makes it more challenging for the public to determine what is quality science writing and what isn't. As with all things, doing good work will always be fundamental.

  2. I think science journalists have an obligation to educate, but I don't think this is unique to science journalists. People who write about, say, government or business also have to educate their readers about civics and economics, respectively. I think we need to take care to avoid thinking that science is exceptional in this case. If someone expresses shock that many people can't name the eight planets, ask that person if they can name the politicians who have been elected to represent them personally and see if they can!

    1. I think that is a good point, and it also ties in with respecting your audience. Just because someone hasn't shown an interest in science in the past doesn't mean they can't become interested if we do a good job and make the work engaging. We shouldn't brush people off, because they may very well just be passionate and informed about other things.

  3. Of course, there is the subset of science journalists working in a specifically educational capacity... (I'm talking here about K-12 ed). In that case, you are simultaneously charged with writing a compelling story while also teaching basic concepts and vocabulary in a way that is often not as explicit in adult-focused science journalism. In those circumstances, there's really no question that the goals are "education."

    That said, I definitely agree with Emily that all journalists intend to enlighten their audiences in some way. I think of it like this: When you're in school, you may take classes that ask you to do many different things. Some ask you to produce artwork; some ask you to memorize charts and tables and perform labwork; some ask you to write creatively and read the works of various authors; some ask you to analyze the thinking of philosophers past. Each of these classes comes at you in a different form -- in the same way that journalists might hit you with infographics, videos, personal essays, or straight-up news stories. At the end of the day, though, the goal of each of those classes is to educate, whether by introducing new facts or by getting you thinking about a topic in a new light. I think journalism basically works the same, whether it's for science or any other field.