Jun 30, 2009

Journalists as sociologists

Cooper and Ebeling [2007, Epistemology, structure and urgency: the sociology of financial and scientific journalists, Sociological Research Online, 12(3)] argue that science journalists practice some form of sociology. In short, the interviewed journalists were reflective and aware of the challenges and concerns of reporting about nanotechnology.

The paper begins with Derrida and Bourdieu and the argument that the media and academia are two different fields with their own rhythms and structures. The media play a crucial role in framing the academic knowledge, so it's important to understand the relationship between the two fields. This paper is based on a 15 month project that investigated the relationship between news sources - scientists and PR companies - and journalists. The focus is on 8 journalists who write for financial publications and their modes and strategies of interpretation and action.

Problems with reporting science: impossible to directly verify scientific claims, complexity of particular fields, multiple actors including companies, scientists, universities, etc. With nanotechnology there is also a problem of definition.

Strategies used by journalists to address these problems:

  1. Using expert sources and their direct quotes to evaluate and verify various claims of nanotechnology.

  2. Using as many sources as possible to address the complexity of the field.

  3. Relying on the reputation of scientists and the system of peer-review.

  4. Relying on the reputation (cultural capital) of the paper and sources by asking companies to speak on the record.

  5. Acknowledging the agendas of various sources (a neutral rather than strong form of objectivity where interests and agendas are made explicit).

  6. Being skeptic about the referential adequacy of the term "nanotechnology" and acknowledge "the hype".
"Our findings have a number of points of contact with points made by Bourdieu, Champagne and others about the structures and constraints of the journalistic field. However, we have chosen to concentrate on journalists as active interpreters working within this field, and suggest that this is an important complement to work that sees them as simply constrained by social forces. Moreover, journalists are themselves highly competent and reflexive analysts of these forces." (para 5.3)

The paper has some interesting observations. It supports the otherwise obvious strategies of science journalists with the accounts of journalistic practices, i.e., it provides some empirical evidence. It also makes an interesting point about similarities between journalistic and social scientific practices. However, the practices of social scientists are not explicated, so the claim about similarities is not supported enough. Also, interpretations and conclusions of this paper could have been stronger. To me it seems that the sociological practices of journalists not only prompt for critical reflection on the work of social scientists, they undermine this work. To put it simply, journalists do the social scientists' job. What is the role of social scientists then?