Journalism and PR might soon vie for the same stories

A study by Stellenbosch University and the City University of London has revealed that the relationship between South African science journalists and scientists, who are sources of information, is complex.

Journalists who participated in the study reported both positive and negative aspects of their relationships with scientists.

The study was undertaken by Professor Suzanne Franks of the City University of London; and Dr Marina Joubert, Rebecca Wells, and Lali van Zuydam of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST), Stellenbosch University, South Africa. It is titled ‘Beyond cheerleading: Navigating the boundaries of science journalism in South Africa’, and was published online in Journalism Studies on 8 November 2022.

Twenty journalists (freelance and full-time employment) participated, and the researchers investigated how they navigate relationships with scientists as sources within research organisations. Furthermore, the study assessed how science journalists view the roles and importance of university communications officers and how concerned they are about the effect of public relations.

With reference to the relationship between science journalists and scientists, “Interviewers recognised the importance of building positive, professional, and trusting relationships with scientists … Participants indicated that building relationships and databases of scientists takes years and is an ongoing and mutual process,” the researchers found.

They pointed out that journalists mentioned that scientists should be [more] media-friendly to improve their relationship with science journalists. One way to improve media-friendliness is to be more accessible to journalists.

Ghosting is a big problem

One participant said: “You get those who will read the message … and not respond; you will phone them, and when you phone, the voicemail will tell you: ‘No, rather send me a text,’ but they don’t respond to the text, so that’s where I’ve had the most challenges with [getting] information from them.”

However, interviewers recognised that some scientists have had negative experiences with the media, such as having been misquoted and having had their results misinterpreted. One participant said: “The big limits to people [scientists] communicating, are that they’ve been badly burned by the media before, and they think we’re all a bunch of chumps.”

Some journalists revealed that they allow scientists to check facts in their news stories and have a database of scientists they could approach for verification. Sending a query to a trusted expert in the field helps journalists avoid misconstruing anything from a scientific perspective.

According to Franks, Joubert, Wells, and Van Zuydam, participants expressed the need to hold scientists to account and verify the information they provide, as they have their own agendas. They quote one participant who said: “Scientists are on pedestals and so we just absorb what they say without being critical about it … Just because a scientist says something, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true. You need to be as dubious of them as you would be of a political source.”

Good science communicators are the favourites

According to Franks, Joubert, Wells, and Van Zuydam, journalists tend to avoid contacting scientists again after a negative experience or in cases in which scientists were unable to explain or relate their findings sufficiently. This means that scientists who have good media skills will be contacted for comment more often than others.

The researchers assert that the findings highlight the fact that journalists have to maintain a tricky balancing act in their relationships with scientists. Scientists need to trust journalists to get interviews but a breakdown in the relationship could occur when a journalist is critical of a scientist’s findings. When relationships are too friendly and close and this happens, scientists could feel they have been stabbed in the back. This could lead to lack of access to that person in the future.

The researchers argue that “it is evident that journalists want to maintain their independence and authority and want to protect the integrity [and boundaries] of their profession.”

When scientists have a better understanding of journalistic principles and the media’s responsibility to be critical, this “may improve mutual understanding and collaboration between these professions”.

Science journalists depend, to some extent, on institutional (or corporate) science communicators for access to new findings and expert sources, while communications officers rely on journalists for media coverage of their institution’s science news. However, science journalism, as with journalism as a whole, is facing an economic crunch, leading to shrinking newsrooms and fewer resources than before. Communications officers at universities fill a gap here bypassing the traditional roles of journalists, the researchers argue.

Journalists should broaden their science topics

The researchers revealed that journalists who participated in the study were concerned about ‘cut-and-paste journalism’ (‘churnalism’) of press releases distributed by universities’ media relations offices. They refer to other scholars who point out that, while there is a place for journalistic stories about the wonders of science, the roles of science journalists include analysing the limitations, partialities, and conflicts that exist within science.

To this end, the researchers point out that scholars argue that it is not the fundamental role of science journalists to praise and promote science, but to shed light on science independently and to probe its outputs. This involves posing critical questions about the actual science.

The researchers highlight that, apart from communications officers attracting positive media coverage, public relations is also about limiting negative attention in the media. This has resulted in communications officers writing directly for the media and blurring the lines between science communication and science journalism, according to the study.

However, some participants noted that they do not rely entirely on media releases for story content. Instead, they use press releases to spark story ideas, but that copying and pasting the content verbatim is “an injustice to journalism”.

The researchers refer to other research on the ‘medialisation’ of science – whereby scientists could pursue research topics that are appealing to the media. “This kind of science communication –focused on getting public attention – threatens the autonomy and credibility of scientific research,” the researchers argue.

On the other hand, the researchers point out that scientists and university media offices are under pressure to publicise scientific findings to show a return on the investment of taxpayer and donor funds. “Jointly, all of these factors add to increasing expectations that scientists will make their work more visible and accessible to external audiences, with press releases and media interviews as one of the key tools to achieving public visibility.”

In this vein, there is great concern about the influence wielded by an ever-growing science public relations machine “over a potentially shrinking pool of science journalists” and “its potential impact on the independence of science journalism and science journalists’ ability to properly interrogate science policy and findings”.

PR is slowly making its mark

The researchers note that scholars have warned that a decline in independent science journalism combined with the growth of science public relations means that media coverage about science could be “biased, over-optimistic and distorted, serving the needs of institutions rather than publics, inevitably eroding public trust in science in the long run”.

They explain that one of the main concerns is that pressuring scientists to compete for public attention via publicity may wear down traditional assessment criteria whereby the quality of science is judged, which could stimulate a harmful culture of “ongoing self-promotion, image-building and attention-seeking on the part of scientists”.

Clearly, science journalists are aware that the void in science journalism is increasingly filled by skilled and resourceful press officers who are able to provide ready-to-use media copy, but point out that this is problematic, since these materials are written to serve particular institutional (instead of public) interests.

The researchers say that their study confirms that, if science journalists want to maintain their independence and play a role in critical reflection on science, they will have to renegotiate and affirm their roles. “We conclude that journalists are generally appreciative of the roles and functions of scientists and institutional communicators in the science news cycle but do perceive ‘churnalism’ as a professional boundary threat.”