Science journalists 'passive recipients of news'

Nearly half science journalists say they spend most of their time being ‘passive recipients’of news stories, rather than uncovering stories themselves, according to new research.

Cardiff University surveyed 42 national science, health and technology news journalists from across the UK as part of a Government-commissioned report.

Some 46 per cent said that most of the time they were ‘passive recipients’of news stories and 22 per cent said they no longer have time to sufficiently fact-check stories they put their names to.

The research found that 23 per cent of respondents feel science reporters rely on PR too much, and only one in five said that most of their stories come from original journalistic investigation.

Simon Pearson, night editor of The Times, told the researchers: ‘The science community quarantines science coverage to a certain degree with embargoes and with organised press coverage.

‘We may get some exclusives … but by-and-large the coverage of science is about a time and a date in your diary where you go and talk to scientists.”

Daily Mail science editor Michael Hanlon told Press Gazette: ‘The days of significant breaking scientific news being released in an informal manner in a way similar to political news have gone.”

Science reporting was put under the spotlight at a debate entitled The Appliance of Science at the Frontline Club in London this week.

Speaking at it, Hanlon said: ‘What happens is you get very eager bunnies working in PR offices in universities, they tend to be over in the States, who want to take a tiny study on coffee involving 15 or 20 people, and they will flag it up and put a press release out. And then it will get an unholy amount of coverage.”

But he added: ‘Like all journalists science reporters have a responsibility to report what is new, true and interesting. There are some journalists out there who don’t want to do that, but the vast majority of us do.”

Also speaking at the event was Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia Mike Hulme.

Emails sent between climate scientists at UEA were leaked by climate change sceptics late last year, prompting a major row as questions were raised over whether scientists had misrepresented evidence. And Hulme said that his own emails were leaked.

He told the Frontline Club event: ‘The question of daily news and science is quite an important one. We’ve been discussing climate change and how it’s to be judged over decades, but actually in daily news we’re often talking about an hour, two hours if that.

‘That’s a difficult thing to marry, isn’t it? Those time scales don’t fit easily together.”

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