Can Journalists and Bloggers Report on Science when Access to Federal Scientists is Still a Challenge?

March 14, 2013 | 11:58 pm
Francesca Grifo
Former contributor

You have likely heard that science journalism is in decline. No surprises there – one after another we have watched newspapers reduce the number of science beat reporters or announce the closing of their science desks altogether. We have also heard a great deal of debate over what the new on-line sources of information mean for how science is understood.

These are all very important discussions, but one key to the future success of science journalism and the accuracy, depth, and sophistication of online and social media science coverage is this: easy, timely, and frequent contact between those writing about science and those doing science.

Sadly, the report card released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists  – Grading Government Transparencyreveals that scientists in the federal government still face barriers to talking with the public and the press. Out of the 17 agencies included in the report card, six have no available communications policy or have a low scoring one. At many other agencies, both scientists and journalists describe deadlines passing while reporters wait for permission to interview or even chat on background with agency scientists.

Why Do Journalists Need Scientists?

It is critical that at least some investigations into scientific controversies and scientific practice originate outside science. When trained journalists ask scientists probing questions, the quality, utility, and importance of their reporting go up.

This is especially true for journalists who rarely report on science, or are not immersed in highly-complex scientific topics. They need to talk to scientists in order to understand and evaluate both the quality of the research and what the findings mean. If we place federal scientists off-limits, then journalists can be left with only press releases and other secondary documents created by public affairs officials and other non-scientists as their sources.

But access to researchers in the field also helps all reporters critically evaluate scientific findings and elucidate their meaning. And this is just as true for those writing for online audiences as it is for traditional media. Good science reporting starts with a grasp of scientific concepts and ends with a journalist’s ability to investigate. Both of these are stymied when agency scientists need permission from public affairs officials to chat with reporters, which some of the agencies we analyzed require.

I wrote on the state of scientific integrity in U.S. Federal Agencies last week. Both those results and today’s report card tell two stories: one, of some agencies trying to become more open and two, a story of other agencies still not reaping the benefits of transparency. Americans lose out when communications policies put up barriers instead of facilitating the free flow of scientific information. Both science communication and science journalism matter and both require access to scientists.