The decline of science journalism in Australia

Investigative journalists would do well to investigate what is happening to science news writing in Australia. Australian media has never been an enthusiastic employer of scientifically informed journalists. They’ve been few and far between in the Australian press, perhaps because their area of interest is not considered sexy . Within the last few months, there’s been an exodus of journalists from the Australian media, and amongst the departures – science journalists..

Where does that leave science writing? Well, there does exist the resource of the Australian Science Media Centre (AuSMC), where general journalists can go to, to call for help on matters scientific. Sounds really good, doesn’t it? But more about that later.

I knew that quality science journalism in Australia was dwindling. It took the most recent pro nuclear advertorial in the Fairfax media to really wake me up to this. John Watson, A “senior writer” at Fairfax media produced this story Want to kill fewer people? Go nuclear (regurgitated from a Forbes story itself regurgitated from Pushker A. Kharecha* and James E. Hansen’s paper, Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power)
To be fair to John Watson, at least his article is legible for the ordinary reader.

Legible, but not really believable – – Watson starts off, rather unwisely, I feel, with the time honoured denigration of those who hold anti nuclear opinions -” a pitchfork-waving mob who demand we have nothing to do with nuclear power, while relying on other energy sources that all kill more people.”

The article is full of bald, and incorrect, generalisations, .” Nuclear power is the safest source of energy by a long way. Solar power causes five to 10 times as many deaths ”
Watson misrepresents the statements from the UNSCEAR Panel, and the World Health Organisation. The UNSCEAR ‘s brief unofficial preliminary report has now been removed from the Internet Both of these recent reports stated that there would be a rise in cancer amongst women who were exposed to Fukushima radiation as children. He minimises the problem of storing nuclear waste Wisely, Watson sidesteps the core question of the economics of the nuclear fuel cycle, – implying that nuclear power is cheap, but not exactly saying so.

Now how come that The Age, Sydney Morning Herald etc sink to this kind of sloppy journalism?

Well, apart from the pretty obvious fact that they don’t want to offend their corporate backers, this kind of writing is symptomatic of what happens when you get rid of your science journalists. Amongst the plethora of Fairfax journalists encouraged to depart their jobs were science editor Deborah Smith, health editor Julie Robotham , health correspondent Mark Metherell and environment reporter Rossyln Beeby.

That’s Fairfax. What about the Murdoch media? Well, the Murdoch media never really had that much of a problem in its coverage of science, as THE AUSTRALIAN blithely went ahead publishing science articles by people who clearly were far from expert in science knowledge. This has been documented by Tim Lambert in THE AUSTRALIAN’s War on Science, where he scrutinises writers such as Maurice Newman and Graham Lloyd.
But – THE AUSTRALIAN did have one proper science writer – Leigh Dayton. – and look what happened to her. In sacking Leigh Dayton, the reason she was given by the editors was..
“they could rely on the supply of press releases from the Australian Science Media Centre so that their general reporters could write the science news”.

Which brings me back to the question of the Australian Science Media Centre. Yes, it does seem like a good idea. And yes, it is a non profit project.

But – is it wise to get rid of real science journalists, and to depend on a centralised body which may well undermine science journalism?. A large empirical study carried out recently by Andy Williams of Cardiff University, UK confirmed that Science PR was increasing and independent science journalism was decreasing.

Sad to say. the development of Science Media Centres (SMCs) has been problematic as far as coverage of the Fukushima nuclear disaster goes. The combined use of SMC`s throughout the globe has hugely helped the nuclear industry out and got Tepco and others out of paying huge compensation to those effected worst by the disaster. In the UK for some time the independent scientist has been squeezed out of the media and a more pro- industry message is being given to journalists/media outlets, who do not have such a good grip of the full impact of a nuclear disaster.

Arclight writing in nuclear-news.net gives a number of references to show how experts from the SMCs downplayed the seriousness of the disaster. I noted, also, that those “experts” writing about ionisng radiation and health, were nuclear engineers, not radiation biologists.

Arclight goes on to say “I just wanted to introduce you to this side of the science “debate” and how the science is corrupted and biased without independent scientist to keep a check and balance. I was surprised to see the Australian SMC coming out in strength to ignore the plight of the children of Fukushima and save the nuclear industry from a well deserved collapse.”

I’m not alone in lamenting the disappearance of science journalists from the Australian media. The subject has been discussed eloquently by Melissa Sweet , and Leigh Dayton, in Crikey.com.From the perfect job to an endangered species: the demise of science journalism and why it matters

Australia’s Science Media Centre is dedicated to “helping scientists work effectively with the news media” Yes, it is non profit. Yes it is funded by a range of worthy organisations. Those sponsors include CSIRO, South Australian Government, New South Wales Government, Victorian Government, Australia Pacific LNG, News Corp Australia, BHP Billiton, and a number of Universities. It all sounds good.

And yet, and yet … how do general journalists scrutinise and distinguish between what is an independent science story and what is a pro business “keep everybody happy” story, about scientific matters, – such as the nuclear industry. How easy might it become for general journalists to be just discouraged from even covering some issues?

Already, in Australia, there are plenty of industry media statements, making it very easy for a general journalist to put out copy. If the subject is a bit difficult – like for example, the health effects of Fukushima radiation, it could be all too easy to go to the SMC, and perhaps get a comforting article from a nuclear engineer – as has happened in Japan and the UK.

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