It’s been an interesting discussion about what’s journalism.


But it’s tended to focus on what we think of our own writing.


So for me it’s simple.


If you’re being paid by the scientists or the government then it’s not journalism – it’s science writing, science communication, PR etc.


It’s not about your intent, it’s about how the audience perceives your status.


You may write in a journalistic style, you may subscribe to journalistic ethics, you may be a member of the union. But if you’re funded by the subject of your writing (in the broadest sense) then it’s not journalism.


We discussed this at the science journalists conference in Helsinki. No one’s pure. We all move along the spectrum.

Here are a few rough notes I made in advance of the session.


It gets confusing. Some university information officers think they doing journalism – they’re not, even if they’ve trained as journalists.


Magazine editors are journalists, but when they’re talking up their cover story to sell magazines then that’s PR.


Science film makers are journalists – until they’re selling their film on the talk show circuit.


Information officers talking to school children probably aren’t doing pr. But when they’re talking to politicians then they are.


And when big pharma issue a media release it’s usually pr, but not always, sometime  it’s public interest information.


I always try to write in a journalistic style, but I’m not a journalist, except when I’m writing for Nature – then I think I am a journalist, or at least doing a journalistic job.

Fundamentally it comes down to following the money - who is paying the bills.

And then to the quality and ethics of the practitioner.

If you’re paid by the publisher and the subject has no editorial approval – that is journalism. Your reader expects you to report without fear or favour.

If you’re paid by CERN to write for the public about the Higgs boson then it is science communication – the connection between your writing and future funding of CERN is remote.

If you’re paid by a university then it’s science communication, PR or marketing depending on the linkage with student recruitment.

I’d argue that the science is a little different to other rounds.

It’s fundamentally different to say, politics or business reporting.


Good science reporting, good communication and good science PR are all built on an evidence base and there are usually no commercial interests.

That’s a sweeping generalisation. Science journalists still need to be sceptical, medical journalists more so.







Niall Byrne


Creative Director, Science in Public


Watching Spitfires today – beautiful engineering that, together with radar saved Britain.

Bioinformatics tomorrow at EBI


I’m in Europe until 17 July for the World Conference of Science Journalists and other events.

Contact me by email or skype or via the office, +61 3 9398-1416.

All mobile phone messages go to skype
Twitter scienceinpublic

Skype niall_byrne 


From: [] On Behalf Of Bianca Nogrady
Sent: Friday, 12 July 2013 4:04 PM
Subject: Re: [ASC-list] further to recent list conversations


And while we're at it, here's an interesting article from the New York Times about the difference between 'journalist' and 'activist', which I think has relevance to this discussion:


This phrase struck a chord with me: "The notion of journalist as political and ideological eunuch seems silly, even to some who call themselves journalists."




On 12 July 2013 11:46, Rob Morrison <> wrote:

It is, of course, not a case always of being one or the other. In some of my media training sessions with researchers I remind them of that little box on ARC/NHMRC and other grant application forms that says something like: "In 150 words suitable for a general audience, describe your intended project."This requirement is becoming more and more common in grant applications. 

I have reviewed many of these and, in my experience, it is often the worst bit of thew application, done in a hurry and (one suspects) in great annoyance, and sometimes consisting of no more than a crude cut-and-paste of part of the application itself. 

Fatal! This may be one of the most important parts of the application as tired reviewers, faced with a stack of applications and little time, will look at this first. If it doesn't capture their attention and enthusiasm, you can imagine in what frame of mind they will plough through the rest of the application, especially when their chief job is in working out who to reject as there are so many more applications than there is money to support them. Why help to rule yourself out at the start by putting you reviewer off?

To work well, this box needs to draw on the journalistic skills of brevity, clarity, making an indifferent reader want to engage etc etc. In other words, even if a researcher does no more in science communication that learn how to apply journalistic/science communications skills to this aspect of their research work, they will have gained greatly.


Dr Rob Morrison
Phone: (08) 8339 3790
Fax: (08)8339 6272

From: [] on behalf of Claire Harris []
Sent: Thursday, 11 July 2013 10:25 PM
To: Sarah Keenihan
Cc: Cathy Sage;; Jenni Metcalfe; Adam Barclay

Subject: Re: [ASC-list] further to recent list conversations



I have found this discussion very interesting and it is somewhat comforting to hear that many of us are thinking about these questions :) It is very interesting to reflect ourselves about what it is we are trying to achieve, or what we enjoy in our roles and then consider that against our own ideals and ethics, as Cathy and others have mentioned.


I see some of Sarah's questions best answered through thinking of a cross-weave where we choose the different strands in our weave as we would different colours or textures. For example some could be 'skill strands' - so therefore someone who's a journalist has stronger interviewing, story-telling but perhaps not 'issues management' or 'events management' skills strands. And then these strands overlap with other strands, say the particular discipline strands of health, nanotech, astronomy that we prefer. And then maybe there are the organisational/cultural strands where there might be strands of NGO, advocacy, commercialisation, government - we weigh up whether we like the way they work and whether their code of ethics or principles align with our own. We all choose our weaves based on preferences, opportunities, even the people we like working with.


So, for me, what's particularly interesting, given there are many things that makes us (a gaggle? of science communicators) similar or different to each other, is what are the strongest features of the value we find in being a 'science communicator' or perhaps a science communication observer.


And just to throw another spanner in the works, in discussions with other communicators who work in similar fields to me but don't consider themselves science communicators, the question goes higher than a distinction between science journalism, science communication (science engagement, science knowledge brokering...) as to why is the word 'science' on the front of any of these words in the first place... I think that is very intriguing :)


Oh and I just read Jacqui's blog post and yes, great read!! I've made similar observations over the years.






On 11 July 2013 13:15, Sarah Keenihan <> wrote:

Hi again everyone,


It's great hearing personal experiences in relation to this topic.


Jacqui Hayes and I have been talking offline on this recently. If you're interested, she has written a guest piece for my blog on her recent experience of switching from a journalism position to one in communications, see: Crossing to the dark side.


Bye for now,








On 11/07/2013, at 12:09 PM, Angela Lush wrote:

Hi all,

I've really been enjoying this discussion as its something that I think about often as well. My work spans science PR/advertising, communication, education and on occasion journalism. For me, apart from my personal ethics and bias like the aspects Cathy and Adam mentioned, I try and view the different forms of communication in the context of audience expectation. 

Would the audience expect to be reading a well researched, independently verified and balanced piece of work (journalism)? Or could they reasonably expect that some bias might be in place - be it work being shown in the best possible light - depending on the channel being used and the author or source of the work (communication/PR)?


This can sometimes be a very blurry line (eg advertorials not marked as such) but I've found that good clients want to be honest with their audience and in their communication in all forms. 


Of course this could just be me rationalising my own bias in my client work!  But I think that good work is beneficial for both the client and the audience and this responsibility to the audience is an important aspect - whether it's journalism, communication or PR/advertising. 





Sent from my iPhone

On 11/07/2013, at 8:03, Cathy Sage <> wrote:

Hi. Good point Sarah... I think it would be worrying if we don't all concede we all have "bias" of some sort and work from that understanding.   I can live very comfortably with the bias I have... that is to work with scientists to help them convince people about the value of what they do..... especially when I find that many feel quite nervous about fronting the media with science of any complexity even if it's very important that people out there know. I've walked away from jobs where I've felt uncommitted and uncomfortable and told them why.... one was the opportunity 10 years ago to promote to the public the advantages of cloning animals. 




On 10/07/2013, at 8:37 PM, Sarah Keenihan wrote:

Hi all,


Perhaps my choice of the term 'biased' was a little ill-advised...


I guess what i was hinting at is the point Adam has raised: generally, we write about an area of science or work for a client because we feel a connection/comfortable with it. Is that bias? Not always, especially when aware of it, but perhaps sometimes it does stray close.


With that in mind, I'd still love to hear thoughts on what *is* the best way to define:

  • Science journalism
  • Science communication
  • Science PR

I'm still grappling with it all, really. 







On 10/07/2013, at 6:37 PM, Adam Barclay wrote:

Hello all.


like to think that I do communication and not PR, but I do sometimes wonder if that’s just me practising PR on myself given the not-so-rosy reputation of PR (‘the dark side’ etc) relative to good ol’ unbiased communication. I hope that if I found myself working for an organisation whose messages stuck in my craw, I’d leave. Either: a) I’ve never been in that position, or b) I’ve convinced myself that I agree with the messages. I think it’s the former, but self-perception is notoriously unreliable to say the least.




From: Jenni Metcalfe [
Sent: Wednesday, 10 July 2013 6:17 PM
To: Joanne Finlay; Sarah Keenihan
Subject: Re: [ASC-list] further to recent list conversations


Well said Joanne! My thoughts exactly.


I would certainly hope none of my writing as a journalist or communicator – depending on what hat I am wearing and I do wear both – is biased in any particular way.


I’m not about spinning anything, which is why I like to think I do journalism or communication and not PR.


Hmm bet there’s some thoughts on that!




Jenni Metcalfe

Director, Econnect Communication

phone: 07 3846 7111; 0408 551 866

skype: jenni.metcalfe

twitter: @JenniMet

PO Box 734 South Brisbane Q 4101

subscribe to Econnect's free monthly e-newsletter:



From: [mailto:asc-list-bounces@lists.asc.asn.auOn Behalf Of Joanne Finlay
Sent: Tuesday, 9 July 2013 9:48 PM
To: Sarah Keenihan
Subject: Re: [ASC-list] further to recent list conversations


Hi Sarah


I think the questions you raise are really important. 


I am curious though about your presumption that writing as a communicator for a science institutions requires taking a 'somewhat biased' position.


Can one person effectively swap from writing as a journalist (for example, for a newspaper) to writing as a communicator (for example, for a science institution)?
                        i.e. is switching from relatively unbiased to somewhat biased writing a comfortable transition?


I have always taken the view that science communicators can and should honestly and accurately report the science, no matter who we work for. The hard part is in ensuring the institution or spokesperson you are writing for doesn't claim more credit for the science than is their due. In my view it is possible to do this, and although difficult not impossible to keep all parties happy. That's where being ethical as a science communicator comes in.


All sounds like good ASC conference fodder.




Jo Finlay

Journalist, writer and science communicator


On 08/07/2013, at 4:03 PM, Sarah Keenihan wrote:


Dear fellow members of the Australian Science Communicators,

Like Lynn and Bianca, I too am very interested in considering perpectives on science journalism and science communication, and how the two interrelate.

It interests me on a personal level because I’m trying to work out where I fit along the science writing continuum. However of course there are also bigger implications. Implications for:

            • How we (the people who talk about science) define our goals;

            • How we, governments and consumers make decisions about who pays for communication and journalism content;

            • How the public interprets material with a scientific flavour; and

            • Whether this material has the desired or indeed any impact.


I’ve written a few blog posts in recent weeks trying to get my brain around aspects of this. (If you’re interested, it started with Journalism is dead?, then progressed to Journalism versus communication and finally resulted in this duo: Profile of a science journalist and Profile of a science communicator. Of course my descriptions are not perfect – please add comments if you feel so inspired).

Whilst I’ve found the process of writing these posts helpful in clarifying my own thoughts, of course now I have more questions.

What I’m really interested in is the intersection of the two specialities, communication and journalism. Here are some issues which plague me:

            • In writing and reading job definitions or descriptions, how can one distinguish between a ‘science journalist’ and a ‘science communicator’?

            • Can one person effectively swap from writing as a journalist (for example, for a newspaper) to writing as a communicator (for example, for a science institution)?
                        i.e. is switching from relatively unbiased to somewhat biased writing a comfortable transition?

            • Is it important that science writers themselves have an awareness of the difference between science journalism and science communication?

            • How can readers of science writing tell the difference between science journalism and science communication?


Related questions are being raised in other arenas as well: see this piece by Matthew Ingram entitled Thanks to the web, journalism is now something you do – not something you are which explores the relationships between advocacy/activism and journalism.

Getting back to the ASC, are these questions important for us to consider as a community of people who talk about science in public spaces? I think yes, and I’m hoping this may come up as a potential topic for the ASC conference in February 2014. In addition to hearing from communicators and journalists who are ASC members, it’d be great to invite ‘outsiders’ along to get their perspectives as well.

I’m looking forward to the conference.



Sarah Keenihan
PhD | BMedSci | GradDipSciComm

Reading, writing and interpreting science. And other stuff. 

0419 976 834 | @sciencesarah |


Special Project: Science For Life.365









On 05/07/2013, at 7:40 AM, Bianca Nogrady wrote:


Thanks for posting this Lynne - it's an interesting read.


At the risk of opening a can of worms, I'm intrigued by the fact that a number of science journalists take the stand that they are not a 'cheer squad' for science, as Pallab Ghosh is described as saying in this article.


I understand very well that the job of a good science journalist is to ask the hard questions, to look critically at the data, to ask where the money come from and not to assume that science is truth.


But this assertion that one is not a cheerleader for science feels almost like a statement of emnity, like we have to take a stand against the hordes of pom-pom waving fanatics.


Isn't it possible to be both? I'm proud to proclaim that I'm an unrepentant science nerd. I love science and the process of scientific discovery and the knowledge that comes from that, and I'm always raving to friends about some amazing new bit of info I've discovered.


I'm very happy to stand up and trumpet 'Hooray for Science!' but I don't think this makes me any less of an effective journalist.


I'd be really interested to know people's thoughts on this.




On 5 July 2013 07:26, Griffiths, Lynne <> wrote:


SciDev.Net has launched a new-look website -  Their latest editorial features a discussion on science journalism and communication in the global context -,1LFBE,AZRIZP,5IAH7,1

There are related articles that may be of interest -


Lynne Griffiths
Director, Communication and Parliamentary Liaison
National Water Commission 
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