The science of journalism: Reporting on matters of life and death

The latest Masters from one of the UK's premier journalism schools aims to prepare students for reporting on issues that are a matter of life and death. Caitlin Davies reports

Confused about swine flu? Excited about a new cancer breakthrough? So who do you turn to when you want to get the latest facts: politicians, scientists, doctors or journalists?

Every day, we're bombarded with stories of miracle cures and deadly health scares – on TV, radio, online and in newspapers. Most of our information comes from science journalists, yet do they really know what they're talking about?

Ben Goldacre, the author of Bad Science, has accused science journalists of posing "a serious danger to public health" by writing inaccurate, misleading reports. After all, they're writing about things that affect us all, whether food, climate change or childhood immunisations.

However, Pallab Ghosh, president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, believes that good science journalism can change the world for the better. He delivered the opening address at last week's sixth World Conference of Science Journalists, held in London. In the past, he said, science journalists "were the geeks of the newsroom. On national newspapers, we were given the fun stories to do to provide light relief to the serious coverage of politics and foreign affairs. I think that's now changed."

Today, science journalists cover more grown-up stories, such as stem cell research. And it's the journalist's job to scrutinise and challenge the information emerging from governments, corporations and scientific institutions. No one else, says Ghosh, is able to do this.

But just how well are scientist journalists doing their job? "Personally I'm horrified by some of the irresponsible coverage," says the broadcaster and scientist Connie St Louis. "I find a ridiculous overblown report in a newspaper every morning, yet people look to us to know what to do.

"There is an enormous public appetite for science stories because people want to know what's going on, but reports on medical breakthroughs can be very confusing. People go to their GP and say, why can't I have this drug?"

It is against this background that City University in London is launching a new MA in science journalism, for which St Louis is the course director. The idea is to raise the profession's standards and meet the needs of journalists reporting on science, health, environment, technology and food issues.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, points out that science journalists help to shape public opinion and reaction. Cases such as mad cow disease reveal a troublesome relationship between scientists, government and the food industry, and a journalist's job is to understand this.

According to the Association of British Science Writers, science is now a very trendy area in the media and a lot of young people want to become science writers.

But if you're tempted by a correspondence course, the association's advice is to forget it and save your money. Instead, it suggests looking at how much experience course tutors have of working in the media. In its booklet So You Want To Be A Science Writer? it says there are two things you really need to be a science journalist: talent and confidence.

City University's multimedia MA course is aimed at journalists who can understand science, rather than those with a science background. Students will learn how to get stories and how to interpret a research paper correctly. They will also be treated to masterclasses, and guest lecturers include Professor Steve Jones, head of the department of genetics at University College London, and science writer Simon Singh.

Students will study the legal, ethical and societal responsibilities of science reporting. They will also have the opportunity to visit Cern, the European organisation for nuclear research in Switzerland, attend science conventions and report on real stories such as the swine flu pandemic.

The MA, which starts in September, is a full-time programme lasting 12 months and costing £7,495 (for home and EU students) and £14,995 (for international students). Applicants must have a good second-class degree and relevant work experience in journalism.

But with the current economic climate, will an MA improve job prospects, or will it just add to students' already overwhelming piles of debt?

Some would argue that, such is the practical nature of journalism, an MA won't necessarily be of much use. "It is a difficult time for all journalists," agrees St Louis, "and we're not promising jobs at the end of it.

"But they will have had an excellent training. It's a great time to do a course because larger media organisations are cutting back on graduate training, and because in the future the market will free up again."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teacher Required in Grays

£21000 - £40000 per annum + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 tea...

Tradewind Recruitment: Humanities Teacher

£120 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: The Humanities Department of this ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee