Press Press

Generalists versus specialists

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.324.7330.178 (Published 19 January 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:178
  1. Melissa Sweet, freelance journalist
  1. who writes about health for the mainstream and specialist press in Australia

    Row among US journalists goes to the heart of who and what science writing is for

    The boundaries between journalism and specialist scientific/medical publishing have become the subject of heated debate among science writers and journalists in the United States.

    The debate has also raised questions about the role of journals such as the BMJ and JAMA (the journal of the American Medical Association) in the internet age: now that they are read more widely by the general public, should they still be considered as purely professional journals?

    The bunfight—which erupted on the electronic discussion list of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) over the Christmas break (http://nasw.org/lists/nasw-talk/hyper/index.html)—was triggered by some specialist writers' concerns at their exclusion from fellowships that provide further training to journalists.

    Many such fellowships are restricted to journalists who reach the general public, and have typically been awarded to those working for mainstream print, radio, or television outlets.

    The stated aim of such fellowships has been to promote improved journalistic standards and public understanding of science. Some observers, however, say another aim is to promote the organisations involved, citing a fellowship that involves journalists spending time at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

    Some protagonists in the debate argue that it is journalists in the mainstream media who have the greatest need for help.

    “Most awards and fellowships in science journalism arise from concern for the audience, not the egos of journalists,” says Charles Petit, a senior writer for US News & World Report, and a former NASW president.

    “It is the general public that is generally accused of scientific illiteracy, not the readers of Science or of JAMA or of other specialised publications.

    “And it is the reporters who deliver science to the general public that are often suspected of incompetence, and hence most in need of a professional stiffening.

    “I suspect that many in the trade press are in fact more careful and thorough than those in the general media, precisely because their audiences are so much more discriminating. But it is that audience's scientific literacy, and the fact that it is generally well served as well as rather small, that makes provision of prizes for that arena appear less urgent.”

    But some specialist writers believe that they should be considered for such fellowships because their stories are often followed up by the mainstream media and can have a significant impact on the public. They also say their work is important in its own right. In addition, an increasingly health literate public is turning more and more to specialist publications for information.

    “Due to the interests of those who fund fellowships and awards, the generalists in the mainstream media have more options, and I'd like to see more career development options for specialists as well,” says Dan Ferber, a freelance journalist and contributing correspondent to Science magazine.

    Meanwhile, the Knight Foundation, which provides several journalism fellowships, is considering widening the eligibility criteria in response to the recent concerns.

    At the heart of the debate, however, lie different views about the virtues of specialist and freelance writers versus mainstream staff journalists. The NASW, which represents them all, has a long history of internal division.

    This was reflected in a bitter ethical debate last year about an advertisement circulated to members in which a public relations company wanted to pay a journalist to attend a diabetes conference and then “guarantee two to four placements in medical trade publications targeting general practitioners and/or diabetes specialists.”

    There is a tendency in mainstream journalism to look down on colleagues in specialist publications and the trade press, partly reflecting concerns that they may be more likely to have conflicts of interest. Freelancers also are often seen as suspect, because many do both journalism and other work, such as public relations.

    However, there are plenty of examples of suspect behaviour by the mainstream media, such as taking trips funded by vested interests, or providing biased, incomplete, or mistaken coverage.

    Of course, another issue altogether is whether such fellowships actually improve media coverage. Bob Roehr, a freelancer who specialises in covering HIV and infectious diseases, believes a significant obstacle to better reporting is the often lower status and isolation of the medical and scientific beats.

    “My explanation is the bias of senior editors and management who generally came up through the political career ‘track,’ are largely scientifically illiterate, and yet are making executive level decisions on how resources are allocated, what gets covered, and how it gets covered,” he says. “That is the root cause of why coverage of science/medicine so often sucks in the daily press.”

    Amid all the hot air, one encouraging aspect of the debate is that many journalists, wherever they work, clearly are keen to learn more and do their jobs better. As one of the listings noted, “no journalist already knows all she or he needs to know.”

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