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Science journalism in a digital era

Enthusiasm for the internet is so powerful that we sometimes need to step back and ask ourselves if the wired world has any drawbacks

You may wonder why you should take any notice of someone with greying hair talking about the web. Surely this computer thing is a young person's pursuit. Unfortunately, recent experience suggests to me that younger observers see nothing but good in this internet caper. Perhaps an old hand can bring some perspective to the picture.

So it will be no surprise when I say that I do not plan to go on about the wonders of the internet and how it is The Future.

I'm here as a journalist who first got into writing about science and technology almost exactly 30 years ago. Way back then you were privileged if you had access to an electric typewriter. I wonder how many people can change the ribbon in a typewriter, let alone do it without getting their hands dirty?

Such is the pace of change that it isn't all that long ago that there two classes of journalist. You were either computerised, and usually American, or manual.

This caused problems for people who tried to lay on press facilities at conferences. These days everyone wants power sockets and telephone lines for their modems. (Next year the demand for lines will probably cease as everyone goes mobile.)

Even as recently as the 1980s, the AAAS organised four different sorts of work rooms for journalists. Smoking and non-smoking rooms for the computerised, and smoking and non-smoking rooms with typewriters. These were usually for visiting journalists, mostly from Europe.

I was at a AAAS conference some years ago. During the meeting an American writer stuck his head around the door, listened to the clattering noise of typewriter keys smashing together, and said "wow, this sounds like a real newsroom".

A bit later another American came in, sat down, typed a few lines. And then ripped the piece of paper out of the typewriter with the satisfying whirl that the platen made. He threw the paper across the room into the waste paper bin. "Gee, that felt good," he said and then went back to his computer. Somehow deleting a file does not have the same satisfaction.

There was even a time a bit before that when fax machines were rare. After every day's writing at the AAAS the Brits would go down to the local Western Union office and give their scruffy typing to someone who typed it into a terminal so that the copy would arrive in London a letter at a time, all in capital letters on a telex machine sitting in the corner of the library disgorging what you can only call an elephant's toilet roll of words that someone else then had to retype for the printers.

This isn't just reminiscence, but an illustration of how dramatically computers and information technology have changed the way in which we deliver our words. I can now sit at home and file not only words but printable pictures to magazines a half a world away.

The same technology has also transformed the way in which those words reach the printed page. While the paper publication has yet to die, it is changing. If you haven't got a web site to go with your magazine or newspaper, you might as well not bother.

It is sometimes all too easy to forget that the technology has also transformed news gathering, and not always for the good. The most obvious change is in the speed at which information arrives at the front door. I still receive envelopes with press releases, but by far the biggest traffic is by electronic mail.

My postman would collapse under the weight if he had to deliver paper copies of all the press releases that I receive electronically. We even have web sites that act as electronic post persons. I am most familiar with AlphaGalileo and EurekAlert! But I also use the services of Newsdesk, Quadnet and Newswire, not to mention a number of individual companies.

Just go to EurekAlert! At any time it has hundreds of press releases for you to read and plunder. They come from institutions all over the world, although with some biases that I will go into a bit later.

The first problem with some of these web sites is their language. You have a choice of English English or American English, mostly the latter. Unlike AlphaGalileo, EurekAlert! hasn't even tried to attract other languages.

This is not good news. Most of the science writers I know in Europe are happy to read English press releases and to take part in English press conferences. They then go and write in their own language. This makes it all too easy for English language science to dominate our coverage.

You then have to add to this the fact that our American colleagues are so much better than we are at publicity. Their PR skills and language domination mean that they receive coverage that far outweighs their contribution to science.

I'm sorry, I do not buy the argument that US science will inevitably get more coverage because American science accounts for most of the papers that appear in the journals. This is a very circular argument.

More than one survey over the years has found that scientists themselves did not give due to good science in journals in other languages. It is not the science writers' job to sustain the bad habits of science.

My point is simply that we need to be careful or the web will mean that we write about science in fewer countries when it could widen the global coverage of science.

Let me give you just two examples. Whenever anything happens in space, NASA gets the credit, often alongside an American university group. Even the European press manage to ignore the fact that many of these missions are led by, and managed by, European researchers.

In a more specific example, Hajo Neubert, a Danish science writer, recently came across a story from an American institution. They had sent the details out on Quadnet, yet another American e-mail alert service. The story was about the discovery of methane hydrates in the pacific.

Hajo says that the name of the research vessel mentioned by the Americans rang a bell. It was called "Sonne", a German name.

He rang around German research institutes and found that "it was indeed a German expedition". There were just two American guest scientists on board.

Hajo wasn't going to be put off. He asked the leader of the expedition why he hadn't told the press about the results. The answer he got was that this is basic research and the leader couldn't really see that anyone would be interested. In any case, they had not finished the research programme, so the leader didn't see why he should talk about it in public".

Worse, the Americans were the only ones to take any decent pictures of the trip. The Germans had stuck to pictures for their scientific documentation. No matter what happens in the scientific literature, in public this was American science.

That could easily have happened in the bad old days of the paper chase. But then you had to rely in slow old snail mail to get things through. Now the web story gets everywhere immediately.

More important, the relative dearth of material meant that writers spent more time out in laboratories, talking to scientists and covering what they found on the road.

When asked about the influence of the internet on science journalism, David Whitehouse, who used to be the BBC's science correspondent and is now in charge of science on their web site, acknowledged the value of the internet and all that it has done for us. But like me he warns about the less savoury aspects.

The same song sheet

He warns that the Internet has resulted in less diversity among science journalists. "There are far fewer surprises these days," he says. "Because so many journalists have to spend their time covering the endless stream of stories from these web sites there is less time for individuality."

Another journalist made a different comment.

"What bothers me about the Net," he said "is that the search engines will inevitably pick out the same things for everyone on the subjects we are researching - so to an extent we all end up singing from the same song sheet."

The simple fact of using the same tools can then make everyone move in the same direction.

Why go out and visit researchers when there are literally hundreds of stories served up on a plate every week? If you have only room for three or four articles, what is the point of spending two days out in laboratory land? If the search engines all take you to the same experts, why bother to look for someone else?

Some people seem to believe that by saying this I am accusing science writers of being lazy. I have no idea how they arrive at that conclusion. Our trade is driven by deadlines. And these seem to get shorter as new technology takes over. It isn't laziness that forces us to use the obvious contacts, simply the need to get the story done and to move on to the next one.

As one person put it to me about the wealth of stuff on the web, "There's 30 much information there — why go anywhere else?"

The science correspondent of one of the UK's leading TV stations also told me that he does most of his work via the internet these days. Anecdote maybe, but it does come from the horse's mouth.

I confess that I have adopted this strategy in some projects. When I am writing articles that mention a number of companies that are working in a particular area of technology, for example, I find it all too easy to stick with the ones that have a web site. A lot of them are American.

More often than not this strategy is no different from the old approach of looking in your files, or ringing around people and asking for suggestions. But we have to remember that this way of working has its pitfalls as I'll explain a bit later.

You don't even have to call the scientists these days to do your background research. You just visit their web sites. Or find sites where people work in the same area.

American domination

Once again, this opens the way to American domination of science reporting. They are just more clued in when it comes to the internet. And the language issue is there again.

Of course, French science writers do not cover only American science. They know what is going on in their own country. The same applies in Germany. But do French science writers cover German science? Or the other way round?

If this is the case in Europe, how must it be in other parts of the world?

The internet can, then, reduce the extent of science coverage around the world. It doesn't have to. That is just how it is. It is up to us to bring this message home to the people in charge of science in our countries. We have to convince them to support such ventures as AlphaGalileo.

I know this will not be easy. Even when you offer people a free ride.

I will not go into great detail about AlphaGalileo. (They had their own slot later in conference.) But I will say that one reason why it works the way it does is because Europe's research community does not see why it should pay for publicity.

In the USA, EurekAlert! can charge universities $1000 or more a year for the right to post press releases. In Europe that just won't work. So EurekAlert! gets other people to pay. Universities and other European research organisations can post their material there for nothing.

If you want evidence that a European press service works, let me quote the example of a science writer in Boston. He saw a release on AlphaGalileo about the coelacanth. This was about results from French and Indonesian researchers in what he says was an obscure journal, to him anyway. As he said in a message to me, "you should have heard the explosion at UC Berkeley when I called to get a reaction to the AlphaGalileo press release".

It seems that the Americans had found the coelacanth, but they left it with the Indonesians. So while the Americans were waiting for Nature to publish, the French and Indonesians beat them to it.

Free access to AlphaGalileo and stories like this are not, it seems, enough of an incentive for some people.

I recently tried to persuade a friend who does PR for a leading French research body, government funded, to use AlphaGalileo. They told him that it was "too Anglo Saxon". Apart from the fact that this isn't true — you can sign up to receive material in French, and more languages are on their way, so long as someone provides the money — surely the best way to get other languages up there is to put them there.

If nothing else, you can make the English feel terribly inferior about their language skills. I'm afraid there is nothing that you can do to make the Americans feel inferior.

Language isn't the only barrier to getting things on to AlphaGalileo. When they approached the UK's major research councils, they got a couple of reasons why some of them were not keen to be there.

One excuse was that it would cause too much work in their press office. Don't you feel sorry for them? How awkward it is when journalists ring up and ask questions.

Another excuse that came up when AlphaGalileo asked people to sign up to send press releases to journalists was that making releases available at the click of a mouse somehow devalues them.

We have to take this a bit more seriously. It actually raises a whole host of issues about the use of the internet.

Most American organisations have a page for press releases. So do most companies. This means that anyone who is determined to follow a particular company or university can get their press releases.

But this does not eliminate the need for journalists. There is more to writing the recycling press releases.

The organisation that did not want to devalue its releases can easily put them out under an embargo. This isn't the place to debate that particular issue, that will happen later on in this conference.

Checking on you

The wider spread of press release has more important implications. It means that people can read what we write and then go back and check up on us. They can see if we have misinterpreted the press release. Even worse, they can check up on us to see if we really have talked to the people we quote, or if we have just lifted the whole lot.

Indeed, at the meeting in Budapest, Brian Trench, a science journalist from Ireland, suggested that all of our web sites should have links that go back to the original press release. What an excellent idea.

So it is in an organisation's interest to make the material available to the public. Readers can check up on what we write, and judge for themselves if we have got it right.

More important even than this, the availability of press releases means that writers have to do something more than just read them and put their own spin on their articles.

I know that nobody in this room has ever just written an article on the basis of a press release, but it does happen.

Press officers in American universities tell of seeing their press releases appear, almost word for word with someone else's name at the top.

Because our readers can look at press releases, we have to work a bit harder to add something to our articles. We have to provide the context, and get the comments of other people.

Actually, the best response to science by press release is probably to ignore the releases altogether.

It is just too easy now. The internet brings this daily flood and provides this marvellous library of background material and contacts.

But with that information also available to or readers, we have to provide some added value. This will get harder as more and institutions put their material on the web.

My message is not that we should try to restrict access to press releases. Far from it, the organisations that fund and carry out research at the taxpayers' expense should not stop at press releases. They should provide information at all levels and in suitable detail. We just have to offer more.

This could be my opportunity to urge science writers to deal with how research happens as well as what happens, but that is probably another topic best left to other sessions in the conference.

Web revisionism

There are plenty of other reasons for not relying too heavily on the internet for your information. Everyone says that the great thing about the web is that you can put material there instantly. No need to wait for journalists to do their thing.

The only problem is that you can remove information even more quickly than you can add it.

Louise Kehoe, who writes for the Financial Times has already pointed to signs of what you could call web revisionism.

She follows companies rather than scientists. I do too, but I try to keep an eye on both, and how they interact with one another. So I like the corporate web site with the annual report and all those press releases.

It isn't often, I'm afraid, that you come across a company that puts as much effort into describing its R&D on the web as it does into telling the world about business changes. But you can't even trust that.

Louise points out that when someone falls from grace and leaves the company, they can easily vanish from the corporate web site overnight. She quotes the example of Apple computers. Look at their web site for any references to John Sculley or Gil Amelio and you will be out of luck.

As Louise explains, corporate web sites are not obliged to present a full and accurate history of a company.

Don't rely on the web to maintain a reliable archive. If you want old stuff, I suggest that you build up your own libraries.

Web revisionism can easily happen in science and technology. If you don’t want a search engine to land on that piece of work that you did a few years ago and that you now find a bit embarrassing, you just have to delete the page. The visitor will be none the wiser.

That is the negative side. Rick Stevenson, the editor of Chemistry in Britain, points to the up side of the web. As he says, many companies have web sits with annual reports, environmental reports and company statements. As Rick puts it: "The old chore of extracting confirmation of stories and copies of statements and reports from organisations that never return your calls is a much smaller part of the technical hack's work nowadays."

Rick also reminds us that a few key sites with good directories can point us towards obscure companies in foreign parts that would have taken a long time to find in the bad old days.

Then there are those magical search engines. It doesn't take long to dig up background information that would have taken days to find not long ago. "The younger generation of reporters don’t appreciate how easy they have it!" says Rick, who doesn't exactly have much grey hair himself.

It isn't always so easy to pursue academic science. Sure, you can always go to the web site of something like Nature or Science, but you have to be a subscriber to get at those. And there are thousands of journals out there that just are not open to ordinary people, and certainly not to science writers.

I now want to talk about the implications for science writers of the almost universal rush to put expensive journals on the internet?

Universities can sign up so that their people can get in. But what about us?

In the UK at least, there are major public libraries where we can go and look at the paper copies of journals. What will happen if these disappear?

There will always be science to write about. But this move could be yet another way of reducing the variety of the stories that appear.

Do we really want all the stories to come only from the real big journals that can afford to invest in an expensive press office and media facilities?

When I exposed my heretical view of the internet to the subscribers of EUSJA's electronic mailing list Luc Allemand offered an answer to this particular dilemma. (I should add that Luc is not one of these people who complains about English domination of the internet, he just answers in French, so I hope I haven't missed the point completely.)

Luc's answer is to go to the web sites where journals post their contents pages. If you see something interesting, you can then ask for a copy of the paper.

This brings in another point that several people made when I asked for views on the value of the internet. Electronic mail is not the same thing as the world wide web.

Email to the rescue

Email actually makes it possible for people to overcome some of the concerns that I have mentioned about the web.

Several science writers suggested that email is now the best way to communicate with researchers. It is less intrusive than a telephone call. And is more likely to get a response than a phone call.

Joan Stephenson, one of the editors at JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association reinforces this message. She says that email has made it much easier for her to have contacts with non-US sources. He says that one useful move is the fact that more and more scientists put their email addresses on poster presentations.

The important point here is that scientists have to be available. Their press offices should give out email addresses. And universities should have decent email directories.

The editor on JAMA makes the point that university directories have helped her to track down non-US sources. For that to happen, universities have to make it easy for people to find their databases. I have wasted many fruitless minutes at some British universities trying to find their directories, let alone using them.

Even if they don't want everyone to pester researchers, press officers can always hand out passwords to a closed area. This would be much more use to me than the large pile of directories of experts that I have in my office.

The subject of email reminds me of one of the few studies that anyone has ever done about science writers’ access to the internet.

The study is now about 18 months old which means that it is positively historic in internet terms, and it dealt only with the UK. The survey was paid for by the Wellcome Trust, partly as a way of getting information for AlphaGalileo.

The survey asked journalists and PR people about their access to the internet and their preferences for receiving press material.

The survey showed that electronic mail has practically caught up with the fax as the preferred way of receiving press releases. The post was a long way behind.

Here again it is worth pointing out the differences between the web and email. If something is on the web, I have to go and get it. Even if there is something like AlphaGalileo's alert service.

My favourite mechanism is the email alert with the option to reply and get the full story. I can then file these away until my computer crashes or gets struck by lightning and lose the whole lot.

Don't laugh. Lightning once killed a computer of mine, although I was able to get stuff off the hard disk when I got a new machine. This is one reason why I never throw away my old computer when I buy a new one. I just connect the two and have the old one as a spare for when lightning strikes again.

I have already talked about the way in which the superior PR skills of American institutions can lead them to dominate the internet and the coverage of science. Fortunately, the picture is not completely gloomy.

People at the BBC tell me that they get plenty of letters from Americans who visit their web sites because the sites do provide a more global coverage than some American sites.

The BBC people also say that because they are on the web and "contactable at the click of a mouse" scientists offer them stories.

As the BBC writer pointed out, a web site also gives you the opportunity to use video, audio, web links and all sorts of things that you cannot do in paper. Some would say that this is why some web sites are such a mess, but I think we can already see improvements in this area. Site designers are beginning to realise that you don't have to thrown in the kitchen sink to make your web pages stand out.

I leave it to you to decide if you are happy about another of his comments. He enthuses about the fact that "there's no word limits on the Net - I don't get good stories spiked here for lack of space".

Is this really a good thing? isn't that the whole point of a magazine? That an editorial team has put a lot of effort into choosing the stories and then to giving them just the right amount of space?

We have all heard the observation about how surprising it is that here is just enough news to fill a newspaper every day. Certainly there are times when good stories get spiked for lack of space. But the idea that there are no limits fills me with dread.

Even the writer who offered this as a reason to be cheerful about the web admitted that it "needs quality control". Well, that means that you need editors and people who can turn the words into something that meets the readers' needs.

I maintain that any single editor can handle only so many stories, whether they appear on paper or in electrons. It may actually take more effort to edit stories that are destined for the web.

Credibility

One problems with the web is that not everyone has the same editorial credibility as the BBC. Anyone can start an on-line publication.

Would be editors come along all the time. Any writer who has spent any time in an on line discussion group will have seen invitations to submit their work for a new venture.

These fledgling media barons rarely mention paying for words. When anyone mentions this, they mutter about not paying anything now, but they will when the advertising starts to roll in.

The usual response to this is to ask them if they ever try to get their phone company to give them a free phone line on the understanding that they will start paying for it when the ads start selling.

We can forget about these people. They never get anywhere. We should be far more concerned about the web sites that appear looking very glossy, and peddling a particular point of view.

There is enough mad science out there to fill many gigabytes of hard disk. For example, if it hadn't been for the internet, the cold fusion nutters would have gone away years ago. Now they can keep peddling their message.

That may be harmless light relief for most of us, but that isn't always the case.

It is far too easy for organisations to peddle dodgy science. We need look nor further than the extreme environmentalists.

In Europe we have been subjected to a lot of rubbish about genetically modified food. And not all of this rubbish has come from Monsanto.

Not long ago I received a newsletter from Greenpeace. It said "GM food — the next Brent Spar?"

This story did not point out that Greenpeace had got its science terribly wrong on Brent Spar. As a result. Shell was forced to change its strategy for getting rid of redundant oil rigs. No matter what you may think of this issue, surely it can't be right to peddle bad science to achieve your ends.

In comparison with some of the stuff on the web, Greenpeace is positively responsible. Fortunately, few science writers are likely to buy this rubbish unchallenged. Which is why we will still have a role to play even when the web grows up.

The issue of internet publishing raises the issue of the internet equivalent of the scientific journals. I may not be typical, but I still spend most of my time with paper publications. They are easier to read in bed. But new web based publications are starting all the time.

So far no one seems to have been able to charge readers for these publications, but we may one day throw off the idea that everything on the internet has to be free. When that happens, the web could challenge the financial health of traditional paper based publications.

Net publishing

I suppose I really should say something about the impact of the internet on publishing. I do not want to go into this at any length, partly because I am no longer intimately involved in the business side of publishing, but mostly because I find it much less interesting than the editorial side. But any talk about the internet and science journalism cannot ignore that aspect.

Let me quote just one example of the way the wind is blowing. Reed Elsevier, the European publishing giant, some might call it a dinosaur given its recent financial performance, bought the journal Cell a few months ago.

What was it about Cell that attracted Elsevier? Was it the fine editorial team? The great subscription list?

No, according to Nature, the appeal of Cell is the fact that it fits in with Elsevier's plans for electronic publishing. Nature quotes a company suit as saying "It's the battle of the bookmarks."

Before Elsevier gets too carried away, it might like to reflect on another trend in scientific publishing.

Some scientists are getting mighty fed up with having to pay huge sums for scientific journals. After all, the journals don't pay for the papers they publish. Even the referees do their work for nothing.

Anyone who has worked on a journal knows that there is more to it than this. But that has not stopped scientists from setting up their own web based publications.

With authors and referees connected to the net, it is easy to see that papers can be published much more quickly. And you don't have to wait to fill an issue before you go into electrons. This sort of publishing also makes it much easier to add fancy images and multimedia bits and pieces to papers.

I leave it to someone else to worry about the economics of this approach. I just raise it as yet another trend that will change the face of science journalism in the future.

Net insanity

Someone else can also try to explain the insanity by which adding the magic "net" word to your business means that investors think you are a hundred times more valuable than boring old companies that shift paper.

I am completely baffled by the idea that a company that is losing money hand over fist selling books over the internet is worth more, much much more, than a company that shifts far more books, and makes it a profit at it, through these old fashioned shop things.

We are obviously in the wrong side of the writing business if we want to share in this wealth. Web designers can earn 10 times as much in a day as can trained designers of magazines and newspapers. I have yet to see anyone offering a premium for web only publications.

Indeed, a major bone of contention for some science writers is the fact that most publishers, with a few honourable exceptions, want to pay nothing for the right to use our words on the web.

I'm not one of those people who believes that writers should refuse to accept any contract that does not guarantee them wealth unlimited for this subsidiary right. More than 15 years ago I tried to recompense writers for the right to put their words in a database

But I do find it a bit depressing that the cost of words often seems to be a minor consideration when people come up with grandiose plans for web sites that will alter the face of science publishing as we know it.

My litany of doom and gloom about the influence of the internet on science writing is really meant to be no more than an antidote to the web mania I have already mentioned.

I make regular use of the internet and find electronic mail to be invaluable. Without it I would not have been able to draw on the input of so many people for this session. I just want people to stop and think about the implications of what is happening.

We don't want to wake up one day and find that it is too late to reduce some of the more negative consequences of this information revolution.

I will end with one observation from the editor of Physics World, Peter Rodgers. He is a fan of the web, but is a little bit worried by the fact that some publications seem to think that the internet itself has something to do with science. One daily newspaper ran what it called a science and technology section, but 90 per cent of it was given over to internet stuff, with an unhealthy amount of material on computer games.

Anyway, here's what Peter said about the origins of the web:

"The Web was invented by physicists (largely) and why would a bunch of nice people like physicists ever want to do anything that was bad for science journalism??!"

He's right, of course. We just have to make sure that the internet works the way we want it to, rather than the other way round.

This is the text of a talk given at the World Conference on Science Journalism in 1999.

For links to many of the internet resources mentioned in this talk, visit the web site of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations:
http://www.esf.org/eusja/index.htm

1999 Michael Kenward
 

Michael Kenward 2000 Last changed 07 February 2008