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Journalist compares U.K. science writers, American health reporters

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

When the Association of British Science Writers announced the nominees for their 2011 Science Writers’ Awards, Guardian science blogger Martin Robbins noted a familiar pattern.

Of the 12 places on the shortlists for science writing, 6 went to New Scientist, 1 each to Nature and the BMJ, and 1 each to the Guardian and the Independent The final two places went to a freelancer and the website SciDev.Net. That means that newspapers combined took just two spots, while specialist science publications took eight. Meanwhile, the TV shortlist was occupied by BBC 3, BBC 4, and BBC 2, while the radio shortlist featured BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 4 again, and, yes, BBC Radio 4.

A lists of nominees from earlier in the decade reveals a similar pattern of “Near-dominance of broadcast science by the BBC, while specialist publications competing with a dwindling group of broadsheet newspapers for the literary prizes,” Robbins writes. To better understand this apparent one-sidedness, Robbins talked to ABSW chair Connie St. Louis, who suggested that U.K. newspapers have succumbed to a form of churnalism and “communication,” because they simply don’t have the resources for in-depth work like that which occurs at the BBC or the specialty outlets. Here’s St. Louis:

I have this thesis which is… science journalists have forgotten how to be journalists. They’re actually science communicators, and they go into the job and… the job was to tell you what science was doing and help you understand science, and I think that’s an incredibly important function, but don’t call yourself a science journalist if that’s what you’re doing, call yourself a science blogger, call yourself a science communicator, but if you’re going to call yourself a journalist then behave like a journalist, dig for stories, ask questions of science, ask questions of scientists, look at numbers, look at figures, and do what journalism does.

St. Louis then goes on to compare U.K. science journalism (somewhat unfavorably) to the relatively higher level of scrutiny faced by American health journalists, scrutiny brought about thanks in part to a few key thought leaders.

We’re always explaining new cures, explaining new science, but where are the guys who are really digging down, where are our Ivan Oranskys, where are our Gary Schweitzers [sic], we don’t have them. It’s all very much “here’s a new cancer drug”, and I’m not knocking that, it’s really important, but actually we’re in a very deficit model of journalism at the moment.

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