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.
When HealthNewsReview.org publisher Gary Schwitzer writes on the future of health journalism, his words carry the weight of a database loaded with more than 1,000 reviewed stories. Like Charles Darwin’s long study of barnacles, Schwitzer’s micro-level scrutiny of the industry has left him uniquely equipped to tackle the big picture stuff as well. Which is why, when he draws a line in the sand, as he did in an essay published in a German public health journal, we should probably listen.
Schwitzer uses three examples: the hyper-expensive radiation treatments, comparative effectiveness research and good-old-fashioned disease mongering. In each, he asks reporters to be skeptical, and to push past the claims of vested interests. It’s easy to see where he stands, and he doesn’t pull any punches, as you can probably infer from this final sentence:
The future of health journalism will be determined by which roles journalists choose for themselves: cheerleader or watchdog, fear-mongerer or evidence-based reporter, part of the solution, or part of the problem.
Is the quality of health journalism improving? Apparently it is, according to the HealthNewsReview.org project, which was created nearly three years ago to review and evaluate health news stories around the country.
In a note on the organization’s Web site, Gary Schwitzer, a University of Minnesota health journalism professor who launched and runs the project, wrote that, “of the first 710 stories reviewed on HealthNewsReview.org, only 88 – or 12 percent – have received a five-star score.” But five of the first 12 stories reviewed this year got top scores – a five-star review, which he calls “unprecedented.”
However, “it’s not about the stars,” Schwitzer tells us. “The star score is converted from a grade three reviewers (out of a team of several dozen) give each story for how it does on 10 standardized criteria. The same 10 standardized criteria are applied to each story. So, while there’s an element of subjectivity
in any grading system, this is as objective and standardized as we can get.” To learn more about the ratings and criteria involved, you can look here and here.
Just the same, Schwitzer wonders whether the site is making a difference and if it’s helping journalists do a better job. “We can’t be sure of the impact we’ve had,” he writes on the site, “but a recent analysis of many of the first stories we reviewed back in the Spring of 2006 compared with some of the most recent stories we reviewed in the Winter of 2008 suggests that the quality of health journalism is improving – despite all of the difficult economic times in newsrooms across the country.”
But if numbers tell the story, keep checking the site for insights and trends.
What do you think about the quality of health journalism – are you seeing more thoughtful and accurate stories? Do you visit HealthNewsReview.org and use its criteria when you write about health?