ABSW Event Report: New science journalism – reporting beyond the traditional media
Many thanks are due to ABSW member Yalda Javadi for producing this report
Full audio of the event is also available a Podcast will be made available soon
On Wednesday 23 September at Rivington Place, the Association of British Science Writers (@ASBW) hosted a panel debate on new science journalism – reporting beyond the traditional media. #asbwnew
Jack Serle (Reporter, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, @jackserle) moderated the panel, which included Justine Alford (News Editor, IFLScience, @LamnidaeBlue), Giles Newton (Editor, Mosaic, @GilesHNewton), Martin Robbins (Science Writer, Vice, The Guardian and The New Statesman, @mjrobbins) and Kelly Oakes (Science Editor, BuzzFeed, @kahoakes).
Justine Alford (JA) began by introducing IFLScience and its unconventional escalation from being a one person’s outlet for random science facts into one of the biggest science news organisation in the world. Now, with almost 22 million followers on Facebook, it has had to build up a business. “Larger audience means we can teach so many people about what we care about. We don’t have a target audience so we have to be broad.” She describes the tone of the writing as casual and fun, conveying science in a digestible and appetising way. “Science can sell itself. The problem is when science journalism is too formal with too much jargon and poor explanations. I have a passion for communicating science correctly and accurately.”
Giles Newton (GN) introduced Mosaic’s unique long-form science journalism model, publishing only one story per week. “Our articles are 3000 words or over. Part of the model is to resurrect those sections that typically people glaze over and print them as ‘extras’. All articles are released under a Creative Common licence, which ensures a much greater reach. We’ve had 2.5 million visits so far and have collaborated with BBC and CNN. We are also seeing an increased number of translations to other languages.”
Martin Robbins (MR) explained that he didn’t see a lot of difference with new and old journalism and his ambition is to try and make people forget that he’s a science journalist. “Rather than straight science reporting, I’m looking at other issues such as politics and culture through the prism of science. It’s time to break out of the formulas we have for science features writing. The content and writing styles out there are all the same; newcomer writers all sound like Nature or New Scientist. There are very few distinctive science writer voices out there at the moment.”
Kelly Oakes (KO) described BuzzFeed as being entirely Internet-led. She enjoys being able to use the Internet to go through news more quickly and adapt to what is current. “This meansthe deadline is always ASAP”. She explains how Buzzfeed won’t generally write about single studies; they wait until it’s been replicated or stands the test of time. “The stuff that I write falls into the ‘fluffy’ category, and those stories do almost as well as the stories about cats! Each story finds the audience they’re intended for; it doesn’t matter if that’s 500 people or 5 million people.”
Q) Where do you get your stories?
JA: We have access to embargoed content from bigger journals (PLOS, Nature, Science etc.). We trawl through press releases. We also pitch our own stories from our own interests from time to time.
MR: I ignore pretty much all press releases, apart from the interesting ones (or ones that offer free cheese, ham and limoncello!). I tend to write about what is in the news at the moment. For example, I wrote an article about Jeremy Corbyn being elected as the new Labour leader, and took an evidence-based angle on it, answering questions based on what we know about polling, and whether that’s accurate.
KO: In general, nothing I write comes from press releases, unless it’s something that may get misrepresented. We also get ideas from our readers. It’s about taking everyday stuff, or questions people ask me down the pub or in the office and going into the science of that. We start from the audience, rather than the scientist!
GN: We’re not in the news business – it’s very slow news. Most of our stories are pitches from writers.
Q) What is your stance on issues-based science and addressing bad science?
MR: I started out doing a lot of that kind of stuff. I think that campaigning and debunking is important. But I would like to see a research study on whether this debunking actually helps people change or does it polarize perception.
KO: There has been a study that showed debunking can actually make people retreat further into their view, so you have to be very careful.
JA: I don’t think people should be put off because they think it wouldn’t change people’s minds. You just have to be very careful about it. It’s important to put the right information out.
GN: It depends on what stories come to us.
Q) In traditional news journalism, investigative science journalism has been strangled by the economics. In new journalism, is it any different?
KO: We have a huge investigative team at BuzzFeed – none of them exclusively on science, but if someone has a good story, they will be given the time to work on that.
JA: It’s definitely something we’re looking to move into now that we’re expanding our editorial team. I went to South Africa and reported on rhino poaching story; we’d like to do more of that.
MR: I find the whole topic of investigative journalism frustrating. I’ve given up pitching these – there are a very limited number of people willing to invest. People are just not commissioning it and that’s reflective of the standard of entries I see when I’m judging the Investigative Science Journalism awards.
GN: At Mosaic, we deliberately avoid investigative journalism. We do exploratory and explanatory journalism, but we don’t have the skills as Editors for investigative journalism. It’s been part of a practical decision.
MR to GN: Given the massive shortage of science investigative journalism, if organizations, such as the Wellcome Trust, don’t invest – where are these people going to learn these skills?
GN: That’s a very interesting point. If we were to expand, we might look into this. However, for one story a week, it’s not an area we can move into right now. Maybe now is the time to collaborate, pull together and pool resources.
Q) How is new journalism funded? Vice and IFLScience have an advertising model, but BuzzFeed do something novel - native advertising model. Can you explain this?
KO: We use sponsored content, so it looks like a BuzzFeed article but the author will be a brand or product. It gets people to read a genuinely interesting and engaging article rather than to popping adverts all over the place.
JA: IFLScience relies on adverts, which means we have to entice people to the website. This means we get accused of clickbait a lot, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with encouraging people to read science. We’re quite lucky to have a readership so we don’t need the more invasive ads. Elise Andrew is against native / embedded adverts; she doesn’t want people to think that we’ve written an article that we actually haven’t.
GN: The rise of adblockers will be an interesting factor to think about.
MR: I think adblockers will mean people will just choose the embedded advertising option – people are quite sneaky with getting their ads in.
Q) How do you deal with scientists when most are afraid of journalists and think you might misinterpret their study?
MR: That is an increasing problem I have been having. The traditional thing to do is to go to the scientist and get the explanation from them, but you can have a problem with accessing them.
JA: We do reach out to scientists a lot. We have some that like to talk, and some that don’t.
KO: I have found scientists quite receptive, because they know the reach we have. I generally go straight to the scientist rather than the press offices if I can help it.
Q) Do you get a different response when you say you’re from Vice or BuzzFeed compared with the Guardian?
MR: It’s difficult to do a direct comparison, because the articles I write for the Guardian are different to the articles I write for Vice. I have found people are quite nervous if they know it’s going in Vice, but I try to be nice and give them reassurance.
JA: I’m not aware of any scientists refusing to speak to us because of who we are.
KO: People are generally quite happy to speak to us, because they know the reach.
GN: I think saying we’re backed by the Wellcome Trust; it can open some doors.
Q) How do you write with flair in science when science is so exact?
GN: My advice is to write relentlessly and your voice will come.
KO: Write and publish – try and find a platform to publish your work. Find your own voice and don’t try and copy everyone else.
JA: Write what you’re passionate about, because if you’re passionate about something – that will be conveyed.
Q) Are freelancers better for long-form (traditional) journalism, while in-house writers for more new media?
KO: That is accurate for BuzzFeed.
JA: We use in-house writers, but sometimes we use freelancers. If a story breaks out in US time, we hire a US freelancer to write about it so it’s ready for UK time.
GN: Our editors have written a couple of stories in-house, but most are freelancers. We try to have a diverse range of writers: travel writers and food writers. We want to expand our scope.
Q) I love reading Mosaic, in particular, the Breaking Bad News article, as well as the extras. How deeply are the writers involved in the extras? Also, there is a video attached to that story – I don’t see video that often; is there is a reason you don’t use videos more often?
GN: That story was actually written by one of our in-house editors. The writer will normally suggest the extras. In that article we also included a 30-minute film. This took a lot of time and resources, so now we just do them every now and again.
JA: We used to have a YouTube channel, but then I put a stop to that with my scathing article about how the Discovery Channel lies to people. We are however moving more towards digital. We’re going to start doing animation and then live videos, which we’re really excited about.
KO: At Buzzfeed, there is something called BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. We have a huge video team.
MR: At The Guardian they tried sticking a camera in front of the science people – including me – and I just looked miserable! And I have a horrible voice! I think multimedia is great – but not for me!
Q) Rounding up, is the quality of news going to increase or decrease in the coming years?
MR: It’s going to get better in some sections, because of things like Mosaic, Buzzfeed and IFL science coming into more ambitious projects. But then you have Daily Mail on 250 million hits a month – so it can also spread out in a big and unhelpful way.
JA: Science communication has massively exploded in the last couple of years. It’s hard to say what makes a good website from one that will crash. It will be interesting to see what the future holds.
KO: I’m going to stay on fence and say it will be different. One thing that’s happening at BuzzFeed is moving from being a content provider to being a content distributor, finding and going to people where they are.
GN: It will be interesting to see which traditional newspapers and news platforms would have disappeared and which of the new generation will become the CNN of now? Will BuzzFeed be the dominant platform?