What makes science newsworthy? New VA study of Swedish science journalists reveals the decisions behind the headlines

Healthy food, the climate and immigration. These are the three research areas that stir up the most debate amongst the general public, according to Swedish science journalists. Twelve journalists were interviewed to investigate what influences their reporting of scientific issues in a new report, recently published by the Swedish non-profit organisation VA (Public & Science).

There are many factors that influence what science journalists choose to report on. They have to make trade-offs between what their readers want, their own personal interests and what they can ”sell in” to their editors. As one journalist explains: ”It is easier to say, Look, five new planets have been found than a qualitative study has been undertaken on female immigrant’s health”. News that completely contradicts previously held beliefs of the research community is also considered newsworthy, as well as research that has a clear benefit or that affects a large number of people. Generally, the journalists have greater interest and confidence in research in the natural sciences than in the social sciences and humanities, which affects what gets reported.

“Immigration, debates about the climate and obesity. These are the issues that people get most aggravated about on the internet.”

The journalists perceive that their audience generally has a high level of confidence in researchers and science. At the same time, some topics can provoke heated debate. Healthy food is one of these hot topics, along with vaccinations, predatory wildlife, gender issues, the environment and immigration/integration. Several of the journalists feel that their audiences lack knowledge about how science works, whereas certain groups of people are very sceptical towards research in certain fields.

“It is also the case among the researcher community, like generally in society, that women readily pass any media enquiries onto men. That creates extra work for us, because that’s not a situation we want.”

Making contact with researchers is generally a smooth process, and researchers are often happy to be contacted by journalists. But there are some exceptions: there is a tendency for female researchers to pass questions onto male colleagues.

“We see that there are differences between how female and male researchers communicate with the mass media. Journalists often make an effort to ensure female voices are represented in their reports, but for that to work, it is crucial that female researchers seize the opportunities when they arise,” said Gustav Bohlin, a researcher at VA and one of the authors of the report.

As one journalist commented, talking about difficulties with investigative journalism “No one wants to go near the person that raised the alarm. That’s why many of them are worried… How can I investigate an issue if the person who knows about the problem doesn’t want to help?”

Several journalists wish there were more resources available for investigative science reporting fact checking. The problem is that investigative science reporting requires both time and in-depth knowledge of the subjects being investigated. The journalists are also dependent on receiving tips from the researchers themselves, which can be an obstacle as researchers are afraid of putting their careers at risk.

”Time! There isn’t enough time! Many things actually take a long time to get up to speed on.”

An increasing flow of new research findings combined with the demands of digital media for rapid reporting puts pressure on the journalists. Other challenges include covering slow-paced developments and issues for which researchers hold contradictory opinions.

The report “Behind the headlines – interviews with 12 journalists on science reporting” is available to download here in Swedish only. The journalists interviewed are employed at regional or national newspapers, radio and TV outlets.

The study is part of the Science in Society project, which VA has been conducting since 2002 in collaboration with the SOM Institute at the University of Gothenburg. The study is funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond and the Anne-Marie and Gustaf Anders Foundation for media research.

For enquiries regarding the report, please contact Gustav Bohlin at VA.


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