Futurity: add a dash of salt

As science journalists become fewer and further between, it’s only inevitable, it seems, that PR steps into the breach. Futurity is the latest venture to fill the gaping void formerly populated by reporters, comprising of press releases straight from the research centres themselves. The site came about after universities became tired of their research gaining fewer and fewer column inches as science takes a back seat in today’s media.

The site is essentially a collection of unmoderated press releases direct from the university communication departments, untouched by journalistic hands. But what some might say are obvious flaws aren’t actually as clear-cut as one might think. On the one hand, yes, the articles have agendas, their PR writers untroubled about the ethics of bias and balance, and there’s no journalistic moderating force between them and the public to provide a sceptical look at the evidence. But on the other, who’s to say that the pieces aren’t factually sound, given that they come from highly respected leading US universities, whilst also providing a voice to the science community. The alternative is to simply have less science out there in the public eye – not an attractive option.

Having a journalist write the article should, or at least used to, give some kind of guarantee of accuracy. As Jim Barnett on the Nieman Journalism Lab website has said, “Foremost among them [principles of journalism] is applying some standard of fairness — or as others might call it, skepticism.” That’s not to say that journalists would always be able to pick up errors, due to time and resource constraints, or might even be the ones to slip in mistakes themselves. But without that additional safeguard, it means Futurity should be taken with perhaps a touch more salt than usual.

As SEED’s Evan Lerner has written, “Science journalists may have to rely on actual scientists in assessing the validity of a new finding, but they do have the skills—and an ethical mandate—to speak plainly and honestly about those things and how they might be relevant to the reader. That’s expressly not a publicist’s job. Public relations is about generating positive attention.”
And Charlie Petit, a former science reporter, points out that these articles don’t even make it clear that they are press releases. As it stands, the website looks just like a genuine journalist-produced news site. I’m in no way suggesting that its creators are deliberately trying to mislead the public, but they should explicitly label each article to show that it’s a press release from a university.

But despite all this, I think the website is a good idea in as much as it makes the best of a bad science coverage situation. There’s no reason to believe that the articles, straight from research centres, would be wrong. And as Lerner points out, “Scientists are already responsible for disseminating that knowledge through journals and conferences, so why should they not speak directly to the public as well?”

That’s also the stand of Ben Goldacre regarding science reporting, who said at the recent public debate between him and Lord Drayson that scientists should communicate directly to the public and cut out the science journalists altogether. But as the Daily Mail’s Michael Hanlon pointed out during the debate, just as an army general wouldn’t be the best person to report from Afghanistan, so a scientist wouldn’t exactly be the epitome of impartiality.
Although I agree that scientists should involve themselves more heavily with boosting public understanding of science, a journalist should still be in the wings as a safeguard. By all means give scientists greater access to public communication, but bear in mind they are just as fallible as anyone else.

So, will I be using it as a future source of science news? Well… yes and no. Like with any press release in an ideal world, a journalist should check the facts and ascertain its accuracy first. Futurity should be seen more as a starting point than an end product, a springboard of story ideas from which to then investigate and write about. It’s a welcome stand in the battle to keep science in the public eye, but one to still be handled with a little caution.

© Melanie Hall 2017