In a classic sense science journalism deals with results, institutions, and processes in science, technology, and medicine. Its main occasions have been publications in journals, lectures at conferences, and prizes (such as the Nobel Prize). Science reporting is not necessarily prompted by the science system. The occasion may also arise from interesting phenomena in daily life or from general news (such as the scientific explanations behind a tsunami). Under this broader definition, many journalists working outside the science sections of the media do not recognize that they do science journalism when reporting on health, environment, or consumer affairs (Russ-Mohl 1987). Research results from the social sciences and humanities fit less in the category of science journalism, because those disciplines have places in other sections of the media (such as the feuilleton, culture, or political section). For many authors this separation also mirrors the notion of two cultures, the scientific on one side, the literary on the other (Snow 1964).
Compared to other forms of journalism, science journalism is a relatively new (Friedman et al. 1986) or delayed addition to the news (Hömberg 1990). Even in industrial countries, it emerged in several waves in the second half of the twentieth century especially. Technical developments and medical problems during the world wars were catalysts for more coverage of science. The space programs in the USA and the USSR, especially the Sputnik shock in 1957 and the landing on the moon in 1969, were the next triggers for increasing science journalism. Reporting on technical developments during that time was mostly optimistic. Critical environmental debates followed in the 1970s and 1980s, after the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Bioethical issues (seen in the first steps toward genetic engineering) have strengthened science journalism especially after scientists made public the cloned sheep Dolly in 1997, followed by the deciphering of the human genome, the stem cell debate, and increasing competition for research funding. A recent impetus has been the continued debates about risks (climate change, SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome], bird flu, and the like) and about special technologies. In the last 30 years, the scientific community itself has also increased its efforts to communicate.
In developing countries, the growing interest in public research and development investment pushes for broader reporting on these issues. According to the Science and Development Network (www.scidev.net), e.g., raising public awareness in China about science first became an official part of national development strategy in 2006. New knowledge superpowers like China, India, or Brazil experience a relationship between science and society that might be uneven and strained (Greco 2005). In less developed countries, science journalism is often still not a media priority or (in cases such as HIV reporting) is suppressed by government (Shanahan 2006).
Two perspectives describe the main roles of science journalism, one functional and the other critical. Scientists and scientific institutions as well as politicians tend to see the practice functionally, as an educational tool or instrument to improve public acceptance of scientific research. From this perspective, science journalism is part of the public understanding of science (PUS) movement (Gregory 1998), and the journalist is an educator. In this translator or deficit model (Irwin & Wynne 1996), science journalists interpret difficult scientific issues for a broader public, a task the scientific community cannot do sufficiently by itself. To some extent, functional science journalism also engages in the communication of innovation, as one tool to underline the importance of science and technology in industrial countries. Functionally, science journalists are clearly seen here as advocates of science. This attitude persists in countries where governmentally steered associations, like the Chinese Society for Science and Technology Journalism, define themselves as tools for revitalization.
Acting as an advocate of science produces a kind of Eureka! reporting, focusing on breakthroughs and inventions, but avoiding science policy issues. Critics object to geewhiz science journalism (Jerome 1986), think science journalism should be closer to general journalism in providing a context for scientific results and institutions (Logan 2005), and say journalists should resist the self-assigned function of popularizing science (Kohring 1997). Science journalism took on a growing role as critical observer of science in the United States in the 1980s (Jerome 1986), as it did later in many European countries. Especially in spectacular cases of fraud involving even the prestigious journals Nature and Science, at least some scientists and journalists described journalism as a partner helping guarantee quality in the scientific community. This role is similar to that of political journalism, as a watchdog or adversary of wrongdoing.
Science journalism faces divergent prospects for future development. An optimistic point of view emerged, e.g., in Germany (Wormer 2006), with the recent founding of several magazines and the development of new TV formats that broadened and redefined science coverage. A more pessimistic prognosis has emerged in the United States, against the background of the creationism debate and the political consequences of 9/11. In developing countries, the recently launched mentoring programs of the World Federation of Science Journalists might have a positive impact on the reporting on science in the future.
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