Fiona Fox (pictured) is chief executive of the Science Media Centre which works with journalist to promote “accurate, evidence-based information” about science and the media. Here she raises her concerns about the widespread pay cuts and furloughs which have hit journalists during the coronavirus pandemic.
Can you imagine if NHS leaders today announced a 20 per cent cut in salary for all health workers?
Or suggested that they are unable to guarantee funding for the NHS beyond this crisis?
There would rightly be uproar.
But this is exactly what it happening to many journalists.
Despite being designated as “key workers” by the UK Government in recognition of their vital role in informing the public about the Covid-19 outbreak, several publishers have imposed pay cuts on some staff and furloughed others.
Reporters on Times Higher Education Supplement have had a ten per cent cut and a quick survey of specialist science journalists on the SMC’s press lists reveals several other publishers warning of similar cuts.
And there is similar bad news from around the world.
An email from my equivalent at the New Zealand SMC told us that Bauer, a publisher that bought up nearly all of New Zealand’s print magazine industry over the last decade, announced it would shut NZ operations permanently, effective immediately, with nearly 250 jobs lost.
My colleague wrote: “Still reeling at the implications; so many SMC frequent contacts have been wiped off the board in one go.”
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the director of the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford, has predicted the economic effects of the pandemic could potentially remove 10 per cent of all frontline journalistic jobs in the UK.
It is heart-breaking that these cuts should arrive at a time when the need for good journalism has never been greater.
While it is widely acknowledged that experts are having a “good war”, it follows that we are hearing from these scientists because so many journalists are reporting their voices to a mass audience.
In mid-February I posted a blog aimed at those friends and commentators who feared that the press was whipping up a moral panic. I made the point that on this occasion it was the scientific community and not the media who were sounding the alarm.
I was keen to concede some media sensationalism but struggled to find any grievous examples.
The Science Media Centre ran five press briefings through February and March where science and health correspondents from all the main news outlets packed into our small room in the Wellcome Collection to question top scientists on every aspect of this virus.
These journalists went to great lengths to get the science right – no mean feat when reporting on a complex new virus which the world’s top virologists are struggling to understand.
This is science journalism at its very best.
Growing public appetite for science reporting
The public appetite for this reporting has also grown beyond anything I have seen with journalists quoting 2000 per cent increases in traffic to the Covid-19 stories on websites.
One BBC science journalist reported 50m hits on one of his explainer pieces.
Meanwhile Robin McKie, science editor of the Observer, wrote a four-page pullout on the Imperial College modelling paper that informed the Government’s decision to move to lockdown.
It is hard to imagine his editors giving such space in peacetime for what is essentially mathematics.
I’ve done my fair share of complaining about science journalists not being allowed to attend the early Downing Street press conferences which focused almost entirely on the science.
Watching political journalists asking Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty about a “U-turn” when their advice evolved to reflect new data was infuriating.
But it’s not the case that this story has been taken away from specialists, as we witnessed on stories like MMR and GM food. One health journalist described himself as the most important person in his newsroom right now.
While I have heard some cases of beleaguered science reporters knocking down ridiculous stories, I also know of senior editors at the BBC and The Times sending regular messages to the whole newsroom driving home the need for responsible reporting.
My 20-year-old son, who incidentally has had a pay rise from his supermarket bosses for working through the crisis, still lives on Twitter but now has the BBC news app on his mobile.
Like many others, when the chips are down, he has headed for tried and trusted news sources.
‘We need to invest in good quality science journalism’
Amid all the chaos and white noise, professional journalism means there are still people who are dedicated to producing accurate and fair coverage, to holding power to account and to keeping the public properly informed.
Like everyone else I have no answers to the economic crisis facing news journalism, but extraordinary things are taking place during this crisis which demonstrate how society can make things happen.
If Burberry can switch production from high-end fashion to delivering PPE and Dyson from vacuum cleaners to ventilators, then surely publishers can step up and make the case for creative solutions before throwing in the towel.
The once illusive magic money tree has suddenly appeared. We all need to lobby urgently for journalism to get its share.
The scientific community also needs to recognise how much public understanding of, and support for, science relies on strong independent science journalism and think creatively about how to support it.
Large amounts of money is being spent by funders on new websites for evidenced-based science (UKRI) and for fact-checking projects around the world focused on rumours spreading on social media (Google).
But we need to invest some of this money into the mainstream news media and good quality science journalism or we will be left only with the rumour mill.
Covid-19 is a life and death story and the media have largely risen to the challenge and are serving the public well.
But if this were to happen again in a few years from now, could we guarantee that the same would be true? The improved pandemic preparedness that everyone is clamouring for needs to include proper investment in the journalism.