Little Country, Big Talk: The fragile culture of Irish science journalism


20 Sep 201787 Shares

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In an extract from ‘Little Country, Big Talk: Science Communication in Ireland’, Declan Fahy paints a frank picture of the state of science journalism in Ireland.

In October 2015, an Irish-born scientist shared the Nobel Prize in medicine for research that contributed to stopping millions of the world’s poorest people going blind. William C Campbell co-developed a drug at pharmaceutical company Merck, which, in modified form, has gone on to treat more than 100 people for river blindness, a tropical disease that has ravaged sub-Saharan Africa.

Irish media enthusiastically greeted the announcement that Campbell, a native of Ramelton, Co Donegal, had become only the second Irish researcher to be awarded science’s highest accolade. RTÉ online reported: ‘Irish scientist wins Nobel Prize for medicine’. The Irish Times wrote: ‘Irish-born scientist wins 2015 Nobel Prize for medicine’. The Donegal Daily site headlined its report: ‘Proud day for Donegal as Professor Bill collects his Nobel Prize’.

‘Although Ireland has a mature culture of science and a developing culture of science communication, it has a fragile culture of science journalism’

The reporting of Campbell’s Nobel win illuminated several more general features of Irish media coverage of science. The story originated outside Ireland, yet its local dimension was stressed. Its tone was celebratory. It was not covered by specialist science journalists. Only The Irish Times probed deeper into the background of the scientist and his work.

The story was interesting also because of the aspects of Campbell’s story that were not developed. Reporters did not use the announcement as a jumping-off point to explore some of the novel dimensions of Campbell’s story, such as the rights and wrongs of pharmaceutical companies’ ownership of drugs that could help millions of the world’s poorest people, the unseen research work of an industry-based scientist, and the complex case of a scientist of faith with an admitted “complicated sense of religion”.

The superficial reporting of the Campbell story is not an isolated case. It reflects more generally the state of Irish science journalism, where there are few dedicated science journalists, a shortfall of science coverage compared to other countries, a neglect of science policy coverage, a reliance on one outlet for sustained coverage, a dependence on subsidies for the production of some forms of journalistic content, and a dominant style of reporting that lacks a critical edge.

The combination of these factors means that, although Ireland has a mature culture of science and a developing culture of science communication, it has a fragile culture of science journalism. This fragile culture has had significant impacts on how science is portrayed in Irish media, how scientific issues are presented for policymakers, and how citizens encounter and understand scientific ideas.

But the weak professional culture also presents an opportunity for innovation, as reporters in Ireland can be pioneers in the creation of new journalistic roles and specialisms within science and technology journalism.

Science journalism: A missing specialism in Irish newsrooms

Journalism about science-related issues is vital to democracy. As science-related issues such as medicine, health, climate, energy, food, and technology become increasingly central to public life, journalism becomes a major way that citizens encounter and make sense of scientific ideas.

Science, moreover, is a vast commercial enterprise, a pillar of policy formation and the recipient of vast public funds, so it merits critical scrutiny from journalists who, as part of their jobs, hold institutions of power to account.

Science is also a part of society, and its findings are part of culture, and science journalists have had a prominent historical role explaining specialist ideas to citizens. Science journalism, distinct historically from environmental journalism or health journalism, is a recognised journalistic specialism globally that focuses in depth and detail on these democratic issues.

Compared to the US and UK, Ireland has a far less developed culture of science journalism. There are currently no full-time science journalists in mainstream Irish newspapers and broadcasters. The Irish Times had a dedicated science editor in Dick Ahlstrom, who has now retired (and, during his tenure, he had other significant editorial duties at the news organisation).

‘As science was marginalised in Irish history, science reporting was marginalised in Irish journalism’

The Irish Times also had a longtime environmental correspondent, Frank McDonald, who retired in recent years. Earlier this year, former editor Kevin O’Sullivan combined these two roles, becoming environment and science editor. The paper also has a health correspondent and a specialist medical writer. The Irish Independent has an environment editor, Paul Melia.

The public service broadcaster, RTÉ, has had specialists in science or technology, but its correspondents have usually had dual briefs, reporting on education or health as well as science, and tending to cover education or health more so than science. That tendency, identified by Brian Trench in 2007’s Mapping Irish Media, has continued. In 2016, the incumbent in the role is responsible for science and technology, and tends to cover technology more than science.

Newstalk radio has, at the time of writing, the only regular science programme in Irish broadcasting: Futureproof, a weekly show supported by the State agency, Science Foundation Ireland. Occasional short series of science programmes on RTÉ television are also supported from the same source, as was Eureka! The Big Bang Query, a science-based comedy quiz show first broadcast in 2016.

Until recently, there were two popular science magazines aimed at niche audiences interested in science and technology. Science Spin, first published in 2004, has had sponsorship from State agencies, while Technology Ireland was published by Enterprise Ireland, a State agency aiming to promote Irish research abroad.

The Irish Times clock, originally mounted at the old newspaper headquarters on D'Olier Street, Dublin. Image: Michele Buzzi/Shutterstock

The Irish Times clock, originally mounted at the old newspaper headquarters on D’Olier Street, Dublin. Image: Michele Buzzi/Shutterstock

Historical insignificance

The absence of full-time science correspondents can be explained in part by the historical position of science in Irish life. The historian Terence Brown argued that science had been ignored in the 19th century as Ireland was primarily seen as a literary culture.

The early decades of the Irish State, which came into being in 1922, did not feature science as a policy priority. The political structures of Irish science did not start to be laid down until the late 1960s.

‘Because science was seen as politically unimportant, journalists also came to view it as unimportant, meaning that a beat never grew around it’

Irish journalism was formed within this wider history. Conor Brady, a former editor of The Irish Times, argued in Up with the Times that the roots of Irish journalism “lie in the great political struggles between nationalism and unionism in the latter half of the 19th century”. Most newspapers had clear political affiliations and they presented public affairs from that political perspective.

This history impacted on coverage of science. Because science was seen as politically unimportant, journalists also came to view it as unimportant, meaning that a beat never grew around it. Structures that had grown up in their newsrooms equipped them to deal with lobbyists from the agricultural of financial services sectors, from the construction industry or trade unions but, according to John Sterne and Brian Trench in a 1994 issue of Irish Communication Review, they lacked the resources to assess the science lobbyists in the same way. “Major policy departures, representing historically giant leaps in public spending, have been confined to the margins of media coverage,” they wrote.

Filling the void

As a comparison, other countries that placed science and technology at the heart of national development saw the growth of science journalism as a specialist area, and science journalists as an organised group of distinct journalistic specialists. For example, science journalism in the US grew as a specialist area after World War II as science developed rapidly and US policymakers and citizens worked out their relationship to new technologies, as documented in Dorothy Nelkin’s Selling Science. The US National Association of Science Writers (NASW) was established in 1934, formally incorporated in 1955, and currently has 2,140 members.

In the UK, science journalists also organised after World War II, as noted in Jane Gregory and Steve Miller’s Science in Public. The Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) was founded in 1947 and had, at the end of 2014, 459 members. The association said in its 2015 AGM minutes that its membership “was a little more, in pro rata population terms, than membership of the NASW”.

The Irish Science and Technology Journalists’ Association was established in its current form in the late 1980s and currently has about 20 to 30 members, almost all freelance journalists. In Ireland, there are no dedicated degrees or modules dedicated to science journalism.

‘Other countries that placed science and technology at the heart of national development saw the growth of science journalism as a specialist area, and science journalists as an organised group of distinct journalistic specialists’

A particular feature of the Irish media system also explains why there are no full-time science correspondents here. The Irish market has featured a wide range of content produced by UK-based media, including large amounts of science coverage generated by British-based science journalists. Irish news organisations, therefore, have relied for much of their science coverage on stories syndicated by UK titles or the reports produced by international news agencies, with the journalism of the British-based ABSW being a notable presence.

In addition, Irish viewers can also watch science news on BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky. They can also watch magazine-style science broadcasts, such as David Attenborough-hosted natural history documentaries on BBC and the long-running BBC science documentary show Horizon.

Irish audiences can now consume the vast amount of international specialist online coverage devoted to science. This left little need of native science correspondents. There was no news void to fill.

A culture of stasis

There are strong historical and sociological reasons for Ireland’s immature culture of science journalism. As science was marginalised in Irish history, science reporting was marginalised in Irish journalism. The exception is The Irish Times, which reported science – in common with the way newspapers reported politics and culture historically – through the lens of Irish national identity. Science never became established institutionally in Irish newsrooms as an essential newsgathering beat, and the Irish journalists who were interested in science predominantly did their work as freelancers outside newsrooms.

When Sterne and Trench identified this trend towards freelancing in the 1990s, they noted that it “proved damaging for science and technology coverage”. Their observation remains prescient, as the situation they observed remains largely unchanged. Irish science journalism is in a state of stasis.

‘Without support from official bodies – entities science journalism should, ideally, be a watchdog over – the volume of science coverage in the marketplace of ideas would plummet’

There are several current markers of this stasis. There is no critical mass of science correspondents. There is a shortfall of science coverage compared to other European countries. There is an observed pattern of science coverage that is sporadic rather than sustained. Rather than science news being regularly produced by several outlets, The Irish Times dominates coverage of science in general and climate change in particular. The paper has excelled in the well-established style of explanatory science journalism, but it has not exhibited a wide variety of storytelling styles or journalistic roles, and its science-related work has, at times, had formal ties to scientific institutions and their strategic science communication goals.

Across all media studied, there has been an absent – or, at best, infrequent – coverage of science policy. There is a tendency for science coverage to be celebratory rather than critical.

Irish science journalism is also institutionally fragile. Science coverage has not been integrated into mainstream newsgathering, but has instead been found in dedicated newspaper sections, specialist magazines and broadcast programmes. Several publications and broadcasts have relied, for their commercial viability, on funding or subsidies from Government or science-focused State agencies. Without support from official bodies – entities science journalism should, ideally, be a watchdog over – the volume of science coverage in the marketplace of ideas would plummet. In newspapers, science coverage has relied overwhelmingly for years on one science editor to shape most dedicated science coverage – and Dick Ahlstrom retired this year after his influential career. The specialism is brittle.

A woman reads newspaper headlines at a newsstand along O’Connell Street, Dublin. Image: Owen J Fitzpatrick/Shutterstock

A woman reads newspaper headlines at a newsstand along O’Connell Street, Dublin. Image: Owen J Fitzpatrick/Shutterstock

Four ways forward

Irish journalism can move in one of four general directions with regard to science, or can develop with some combination of these paths.

It can first continue to, effectively, produce science journalism without science journalists. The risk here is that journalism will be produced without the specialised knowledge needed to interpret and report on the range of science-related issues that feature as part of public life.

Or it can, second, appoint reporters who specialise in coverage of science, leading to a greater amount and more consistent level of science coverage, but one that largely appears in dedicated science sections, shows or verticals, risking being pushed into a niche in terms of its presentation to audiences. Specialist correspondents can also seek to be knowledge journalists who evaluate research, create dialogue and open policy options to debate. This is a challenging task for a journalist. To do this, news organisations must be able to recruit journalists with an interest in and understanding of science, either through specialised undergraduate or postgraduate courses, or through the targeted recruiting of scientists who can become journalists.

Third, Irish journalists and editors can create new specialisms. For example, a news organisation might appoint an innovation correspondent. Such a role exists elsewhere: the Financial Times has an innovation editor. But such a role has a contribution to make in Irish life, considering that innovation (however defined) is a cornerstone of Irish economic policy and that a longstanding feature of economic policy has been attracting high-tech multinational firms to invest in the country. An innovation correspondent would not only report on the creation of new technologies, but would draw on specialist knowledge to report on the complex process whereby innovation happens within governments, firms and societies; how innovations diffuse through culture; and how innovations would affect people’s jobs, lives and relationships with others.

Or, finally, Irish journalism can move beyond having traditional specialist science correspondents. They can seek to develop a form of knowledge-based journalism, in which reporters excel at applying a range of expert views to particular social problems as they are reported. These reporters can examine Irish and global problems that cross areas of expertise and different journalistic beats.

Climate change reporting, for example, has moved from being a story about science to being one of social impacts and policy responses. Reporting this issue at a high level demands a deep understanding of climatology, economics and policymaking.

Several bodies of knowledge come together around other future social challenges that Ireland will face: new technologies, biomedical advances, energy transitions and agricultural reform. To cover these vital civic issues competently, journalists and editors will need a grasp of scientific and other ideas.

This is the rationale behind a process that one scholar of environmental journalism, Sharon Friedman, called “mainstreaming”. In this process, science journalists are taken out of their specialist beats and spread throughout newsrooms and news desks so their knowledge can be positioned more centrally to newsgathering, allowing them to apply their expertise to a variety of public affairs news stories.

This is a potential future scenario for Ireland. As scientific ideas influence society, scientific ideas can permeate Irish news, covered by mainstreamed science-savvy journalists.

By Dr Declan Fahy

Dr Declan Fahy is a communications lecturer who researches how media shapes the public understanding of science, health, environment and technology. He researches and teaches at the Dublin City University (DCU) School of Communications. 

This article is adapted from a chapter in Little Country, Big Talk: Science Communication in Ireland, edited by Fahy, Dr Pádraig Murphy and Brian Trench. The book was published in April 2017 by Pantaneto Press and the Celsius research group at DCU and is available at Hodges Figgis, Books Upstairs and online.