How entertaining should science journalism really be?


I only recently came across the term ‘infotainment’. As an amalgamation of ‘information’ and ‘entertainment’, the term describes a style of writing that is both informative and amusing. The article in which I discovered this was based upon the suggestion that “Too much contemporary science writing falls under the category of ‘infotainment’”.

As a science journalist, I can imagine that one of the trickiest tasks is getting the balance of information and entertainment right. Too much information and you’re squashing your potential audience into those who care enough about the subject to read more than two lines; too much entertainment and the punch-lines become more interesting than the subject line. I think it’s easy to look at a journalistic piece and comment on whether the writer has included enough results or references or researchers quotes. And of course all these factors make up the foundation of the piece, whereas it’s often difficult to judge an article for being too funny, too catchy or targeting too wide of an audience. Perhaps because it’s well written?

In my head, the world of science journalism is like a roundabout, with research and grant proposals and scientific publications following each other in a clockwise direction. Successful research gives way to great results, which in turn gives rise to further research. Stuck in traffic on the slip road which trails off the roundabout are the journalists who act as the bridge between the science world and pretty much everyone else. And they’re responsible for making sure that every piece of information that leaves that roundabout can be understood. And then processed into something that someone other than a lab technician or plant science lecturer wants to read. The excel spreadsheets pumped out of laboratories and compressed into journals then thrown towards journalists to be deciphered are the building blocks for great writing. So I guess it’s pretty challenging, considering the amount of headlines that the public get bombarded with on a daily basis. But I guess it’s also why it appeals to me. In my opinion, it’s easy to write informatively. It’s simple to tell a reader exactly what results were found after x number of clinical trials were performed, just like it’s simple to tell a reader exactly what you had on your toast this morning. But what’s interesting and memorable and readable is what difference it’s going to make.

So I think as long as all the facts are right, and all the building blocks are there, why not make an article as entertaining as possible? Squeeze in as much ‘infotainment’ as possible. Of course it depends on your audience but in my case, I’d rather read a ten-page article on something that will want to make me turn the page, than twenty lines on something that won’t.

The article I highlighted evaluates critical science journalism against infotainment science journalism, emphasizing that “infotainment science journalism rarely challenges the validity of the scientific research study or criticises its conclusions”. Within the last century, I have no doubt that the rise in the number of articles in which the validity of the research is undermined or ignored has risen, mainly due to competition between tabloids to produce the most scandalous headline. And I am sure that countless journalists overlook the accuracy of data in order to publish a piece with ‘dramatic’ or ‘life-changing’ results; however this is usually due to the journalist, not the style of writing. Informative articles can be misleading, just as entertaining pieces can be incredibly accurate. In contrast to the quoted statement, I actually believe infotainment journalism often finds flaws within the research in order to bring up an alternative view to comment on. I accept, however, that it would be refreshing to find a detailed critical analysis at the end of an entertaining article or more quotes or figures directly from the original paper. Considering the readers of an article would rarely venture towards the original paper – or often, even struggle to find it – it is of such high importance that the facts that are reproduced are the correct ones, and that the writer takes the time to study whether the research is worth a headline or not.

But I still firmly believe that the entertainment value of science journalism cannot be undermined. Without infotainment, the potential target audience would diminish and all that’s left would be undergraduates desperately trying to find a 50th reference for their lab report due in the following day. Clever science writers and opinionated journalists are what’s pushing science forwards in the 21st century. These are the ones making it more appealing, the ones inspiring future generations of writers, journalists and researchers who kick start the next set of experiments and the next set of headlines. So of course it’s important to criticise any journal papers that might be publicised, but it’s the way that a journalist can make stem cells seem more interesting than that hilarious cat video on YouTube that’s going to catch people’s eye. After you’ve got people’s attention for the first paragraph, the nitty-gritty hard science, facts and statistics are all easy writing.

The need for critical science journalism (May 2013) The Guardian

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