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When two worlds collide: Bringing science journalism and science communication together

Title: The translator vs the critic: A flawed dichotomy in an age of misinformation

Author(s) and Year: Richard Fisher, 2023

Journal: Public Understanding of Science Vol.31(3) 273-281


TL;DR: Distinctions between science communication and science journalism are contingent on outdated models that fail to acknowledge the current state of information dissemination. Fisher examples 4 issues: false balance, manufactured doubt, amplification, and context collapse facing both science journalism and communication. He demonstrates how these issues highlight shared values between the two fields but an incompatibility with our complex reality.

Why I chose this paper: In my previous SciComm Beyond article I discussed how the role of a sign language interpreter was more akin to that of a SciCommer than is currently recognized. But to do this I intrinsically acknowledged that the role of a current-day SciCommer is no longer a translator of science. Fisher’s paper helped further explain the need to move away from this outdated notion evidencing his practical experience in the field. Whilst studying SciComm, I have noticed a disjoint between theoretical SciComm and practices like science journalism and hence found Fisher's paper both explanatory and comforting


Communication vs Journalism

The role of a science communicator has never been simple but in an age of mass media, where information can be spread by anyone at any time to anyone anywhere, it has never been more complex.

Science Communication is often conflated with the process of explaining science, as many professional SciCommers may be all too familiar with when attempting to explain their job to friends and family. Richard Fisher describes this notion of SciComm as the traditional model of SciComm. Fisher explains how this model stems from the infamous deficit model, a theoretical approach that assumes a lack of trust in science comes from a lack of “public understanding of science". Interestingly, this term is the eponym for the journal in which his paper is published.

Fisher situates his argument by distinguishing this traditional model of SciComm from his experience as a practicing science journalist. To do this he evidences how the divide is reinforced by both science journalists and science communicators, before providing his own definitions. Fisher frames the traditional science communicator as an “explainer/translator” putting the role in direct comparison with the objective and skeptical “critic” that is a science journalist. Fisher suggests it is the role of the traditional science journalist to "hold science to account", placing science journalism firmly outside the realm of science. However, this also assumes science communication to be working directly for/within science, consequently putting issues of objectivity at the core of Fisher's distinction.

The Objectivity Conundrum

Fisher spends significant time discussing how a want to be objective can lead journalists to give undue weight to certain minority opinions, an issue called false balance. Fisher examples how traditional journalistic methods attempt to avoid this issue by stating journalists should only address issues of “legitimate controversy” not issues of consensus nor issues designed to promote conflict. However, this also means for journalists to address science they must treat science as being "legitimately controversial".

Fisher discusses how traditional science communicators have issue with this treatment due to its incompatibility with their role to "translate science's fixed wisdom". Fisher examples criticisms from the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion whose demands for journalists to "tell the truth" were centered around the belief that issues of science should be issues of consensus not controversy. Fisher however reinforces the antiquity of treating science as indisputable.

But the article also highlights many issues with traditional journalism. Fisher explains how journalists have the subjective power to attribute importance to scientific issues, a process Fisher describes as "providing oxygen". He explains how journalists can inadvertently amplify discourses and how even attempts to “debunk” unscientific myths can be unintentionally harmful.

Furthermore, Fisher highlights how our capacity to rapidly spread information in the digital age poses several threats to traditional science journalism exampling issues such as malicious manipulation by bad actors and collapse of context. Fisher discusses how these issues are exacerbated by the rise of mass digital communications increasing both the reach and impact of journalistic endeavors. Consequently, Fisher demonstrates the influence science journalists can have on science and society, hence implying that they can no longer act purely as observers. Fisher suggests traditional science journalism is not equipped to address these issues, thus forcing the need for a transformation in the field.

Science Communication for anyone by anyone

Fisher also demonstrates the issue "the misinformation age" poses for science communicators. He explains how our current means of communicating science is no longer compatible with top-down pedagogical communication. Fisher explains that nowadays any SciCommer's attempt to explain science is done so alongside an indefinite number of others doing the same, hence communicating science has become an unwinnable competition for attention. This is because now anyone can produce and publish content, creating a media landscape Fisher describes as horizontal rather than hierarchical.

This notion echoes a popular movement within SciComm focused on wanting to democratize science and reduce the current power imbalance between science and society. This non-traditional SciComm moves away from the deficit model and explanation towards a focus on "engagement". Consequently, many scholars now discourage top-down science communication and promote horizontal participatory practices such as "co-production”, where scientists and non-scientists alike are treated as equals within scientific discussions. These practices allow science to keep itself in check in the hope to avoid any biases and power imbalances that may be historically engrained.

Fisher's discussion hence demonstrates how the digital age has dismantled many of the systems by which science is hierarchically communicated. This makes traditional science communication harder than ever before and paves the way for new "horizontal" methods.

Communicating engaged journalism?

This paper makes evident that science communication can no longer purely educate “fixed wisdom” and science journalism can no longer act as external critics. Communication has become embedded within issues of science and society and journalists need to recognize their role in the process. Furthermore, traditional science communication is struggling to keep up, making way for a newer model that can also hold science to account. Thus Fisher has demonstrated how the distinction between science journalism and science communication is weakening.

Perhaps we need more ”engaging” journalism", a phenomenon that Fisher briefly mentioned or perhaps we science communicators should learn from journalism and become more comfortable sharing scientific mistakes. Either way, it seems clear that both fields exist within and interacts with a shared and increasingly complex society. Perhaps they could learn a thing or two from each other.

Edited by: Tony Van Witsen and Niveen Abi Ghannam

Cover image credit: Joël de Vriend on Unsplash, depicting Extinction Rebellion protests outside the BBC

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