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Science journalism through the looking glass

Professor Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, is photographed at a press conference last week following the announcement of the particle's probable discovery. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

A recent journalism conference highlighted the changing landscape of science reporting and the need for scientists to engage proactively with the media.

On 25 June the Royal Society hosted the second UK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ), a provocative meeting that addressed a wide range of issues. As scientists attending the event, three questions struck us as especially important.

First, should science journalists focus on explaining science or on exposing misconduct? Second, should the Leveson inquiry leave journalism to regulate itself or has the press already failed that crucial test? And finally, could a kitemark provide a trust meter to help readers distinguish quality science reporting from churnalism and fiction?

Are science journalists the 'revealers of the rotten'?

In the technical manual Ten Ways to Enrage a Science Journalist, step one advises: "Label him/her as a science 'communicator'. To incur extra wrath, recommend cheerleading."

Alas such a guide doesn't exist (yet), but in a lively session, Connie St Louis, Evan Davis, William Cullerne Bown, Jay Rosen, and Alok Jha considered whether it is OK for journalists be "explainers" of science who illuminate new discoveries, or whether real journalists are always "exposers" who challenge scientists and uncover wrongdoing. As Rosen put it, should science journalists be the "revealers of the rotten" in pursuit of heroic takedowns, or should they embrace steadier virtues? Are "explainers" second-class journalists?

As scientists we were puzzled by the implication that explaining and exposing are incompatible activities. Journalism as a whole must surely achieve both, just as science should expose flaws in existing theories while also explaining new data to peers, students, and the public.

We can already see how individual science journalists combine explaining and exposing. Science writer Ed Yong, who won a prestigious award at UKCSJ, is well known for publishing explanatory pieces alongside investigative exposés. St Louis, however, lamented the lack of investigative journalism to root out scientific fraud. Given the complexities of such frauds, unmasking them poses an ominous challenge for journalists, though it is clearly not impossible.

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