Science is one of those topics where reporters find themselves inundated with media releases. In 2010, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism analysed more than 200 health, medicine and science-related stories and found that more than half the health journalism in our papers is driven by a public relations event or media release.

Each week universities, research institutions and scientific journals swamp newsrooms across the country with release after release — but interestingly it’s rare that these releases come with an accompanying copy of the research.

recent blog by The Guardian’s environment and science news editor James Randerson raised an interesting question: how important is the actual scientific paper to a science journalist? Randerson’s quick survey of his UK colleagues revealed a resounding “bloody important”, but how would Australian journalists respond?

In an effort to keep things as scientific as possible, I asked 64 specialist reporters from across Australia the same three questions Randerson had asked:

  • When writing a standard news story based on a paper in a scientific journal, how often do you get hold of the paper and read it? always/mostly/sometimes/never
  • If you think it is important to read the original papers,  please explain why. How much of it do you typically read?
  • If you don’t read the original paper most or all of the time, why not?

So far I’ve received 29 responses and here’s how the Australian results break down:

When writing a standard news story based on a paper in a scientific journal, how often do you get hold of the paper and read it? Always, Always,  Always! (Always — 29, Sometimes — 0,  Never — 0)

It seems that despite the rise and rise of churnalism over journalism, specialist journalists still rely on the research papers to get to the heart of the story. Scientists across the country should breathe a sigh of relief. The paper is still mightier than the media release.

A few journalists who bravely admitted their  “always” was probably more of an “almost always” highlighted a lack of availability of the paper as the major limiting factor.

The lessons here are clear: making papers easily available for journalists should be part and parcel of sending out the media release — to quote Sinatra, you can’t have one without the other.

But this discussion does raise another interesting question. Since the journalists all want to read the source material, maybe the audience would too.

As more and more media outlets develop their online presence, with apps, blogs, videos and tweets galore, the science stories that provide a link to the original research are still few and far between.

Obviously not all stories lend themselves to this type of approach — feature writers in particular would suffer, having to end a story with pages of links to multiple reports — but for your standard one study equals one story type news, the journalist’s “bread and butter” as Randerson puts it, surely a link to the article only adds to the credibility of the story itself.

As paywalls go up and consumers want more from online content, links such as these might go some way to being the sort of added value readers demand.

Of course that would also mean taking the research itself out from behind a paywall — but that’s a whole other rant.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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