Module JG350

Scientific Journalism

Module author

Tanni Haas

City University of New York

Learning objectives

After studying this module, you will be able to:

  • define scientific journalism and explain this journalistic genre;
  • give an overview of the historic development of the genre, including key persons who established this genre;
  • reflect this genre critically and discuss the chances and risks of scientific journalism.
Study point 1
Reading extract Scientific Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that scientific journalism is important zu know

At the outset, the concept of scientific journalism is one that many people simply assume deals with the world of science and all that entails. In truth, this genre involves the use of a primary sources when it comes to producing a variety of different forms related to journalism. The ultimate goal for the scientific journalist is to provide clarity through transparency about important issues that may otherwise be ignored.

The difference between scientific journalism and the everyday variety is that opinion is much more prominent in what information is presented via this newer method. In addition, the journalists in this branch of the field are not generally employed by standard media outlets, but instead work within a shadowy cadre of like-minded people who believe that raw, unfiltered information is the best way to inform the general public. 

In contrast, traditional journalism is more geared to cover both sides of an issue, while staying within the framework of the industry's code of conduct, which frowns on the use of information gained through more unorthodox means.

In addition, a number of cases involving the scientific brand have enthusiastically promoted the publishing of secret government documents, with little concern about whether the information gleaned from these sources represent issues that may involve the national security of a specific country or its ethical use.

The everyday journalist, while not averse to challenging authority under certain circumstances, is much less likely to deal with documents that may have been obtained under potentially questionable circumstances. That reluctance likely stems from a number of situations in the past in which the information provided turned out later to either be inaccurate or an outright forgery.

While the genesis of this genre could legitimately be traced back to Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper, and gained some credence over 40 years ago with the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, this brand of journalism is still legitimately still in its infancy. That's because the efforts of people such Julian Assange have only entered the public consciousness over the past three years.

Popper believed that proving scientific narratives wrong is impossible, since the actual information provided offers little room for debate. Assange has taken that philosophy to the next level through the Wikileaks website, which has published a host of controversial items that have elicited a range of emotions from government leaders in a number of countries.

Among the items that have been presented are video from the United States military showing American soldiers in Iraq shooting at supposedly unarmed men, classified reports on the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, secret diplomatic cables from the State Department that included embarrassing opinions about foreign leaders and assessments of detainees in Guantanamo.

The publishing of such material led to calls that he be prosecuted for espionage, forcing him to seek political refuge in diplomatic embassies. Not only that, Assange was verbally attacked for the editing of video, which severely undercut his message of transparency. His response was to say that although he presented both the raw and edited versions of a video (the latter of which was more prominently featured), the inclusion of the edited video allowed him to offer his opinion on what truly constituted the facts.

The contemporary journalist needs to be aware of scientific journalism, simply because the ever-growing power of online presentation of the news will likely inspire others who are sympathetic to Assange's cause to take that approach when it comes to seeking the truth. 

That means it's likely that ethical boundaries will run the risk of not only being straddled, but trampled outright. That will undoubtedly speed up the evolution of how a journalist must gather his information, which means that a "publish or perish" mentality related to controversial sources is likely to take hold over the next few years, or certainly within the next few decades.