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Science journalism deals mainly with results and events in science, technology, and medicine. Its main sources are publications in scientific journals and conference papers, but science reporting may also be prompted by interesting phenomena in daily life or from general news (such as natural disasters or political debates).
Compared to other forms, science journalism is a relatively new addition to the news (Friedman et al. 1986). It emerged especially during the second half of the twentieth century while certain incidents can be identified to influence intensity and the dominant nature of reporting. Whereas the Sputnik shock in 1957 was a trigger for increasing as well as mostly optimistic science reporting, the environmental debates after Rachel Carsons “Silent Spring” and the nuclear accidents at Harrisburg and Chernobyl began to strenghten critical science journalism. Bioethical debates (concerning cloning, genome projects, and stem cells) have underlined the political role of science journalism in society. Debates about risks (climate change, flu epidemics, and the like) and about special technologies (such as nuclear energy, once more after the Fukushima accident) are an essential element of science journalism, too.
Scientists often see science journalism as an educational tool and instrument to improve public acceptance of research. From this perspective, science journalism is part of the Public Understanding of Science movement and its successors. Functionally, journalists are seen here as translators and advocates of science. Critics of a ‘gee-whiz’ reporting claim journalists should resist an assigned function of only popularizing science (Kohring 2005). This modern role of science journalism is similar to political journalism as critical observer and watchdog, also supporting the scientific system in safeguarding its own standards (e.g., in cases of fraud).
In many newly industrialized countries, the growing interest in research and development enhances broader science reporting, whereas, especially in the US and many European countries, science journalism is seen as rather in a crisis (Bauer et al. 2013). One reason (in addition to the general trends in the media) may be also the increased competing efforts of scientific institutions to communicate to a broader audience via internet, blogs and social media (cf. Allan 2011). However, from a normative point of view it does not seem reasonable that a ‘direct-to-consumer’ science communication could replace critical science journalism.
- Allan, S. (ed.) (2011). Special issue: Science journalism in a digital age. Journalism, 12(7), 771–919.
- Bauer, M. W., Howard, S., Romo Ramos, Y. J., Massarani, L., & Amorim, L. (2013). Global science journalism report: Working conditions and practices, professional ethos and future expectations. Science and Development Network, London. At www. scidev.net/global/evaluation/learning-series/globalscience- journalism-report.html, accessed August 18, 2014.
- Friedman, S., Dunwoody, S., & Rogers, C. L. (1986). Scientists and journalists: Reporting science as news. New York: Free Press.