More knowledge is a good thing, especially when it comes from top-flight research institutions. But the launch of Futurity, a nonprofit news service specializing in science and medicine, underscores what Dan Gillmor describes as the challenge of the “almost journalist.”
Futurity was created by universities frustrated by the disappearance of newspaper reporters and column inches dedicated to covering their work, according to a story last week in the San Jose Mercury News.
Many of Futurity’s articles are written by the universities’ public relations departments. And while the articles might be factually accurate, the problem with almost-journalists is that they don’t always apply the principles of journalism to their work, Gillmor wrote in an article last year. Foremost among them is applying some standard of fairness — or as others might call it, skepticism.
This is the chief problem with Futurity, according to former science reporter Charlie Petit, who is quoted in the Merc article. “The quality of research university news releases is quite high. They are rather reliable,” Petit tells the Merc. “But they are completely absent any skepticism or investigative side.”
How to solve this problem is not entirely clear. Petit suggests clear labeling of articles as a start. Kaiser Health News, a project of the Kaiser Family Foundation, has a national advisory committee of distinguished journalists to oversee its work. Gillmor is less specific, but says the problem is one that should be addressed by journalism educators.
Whatever the solution or solutions, they are certain to be put to the test as more and more advocacy nonprofits, think tanks, and universities fill the void left by newspapers. According to Gillmor, almost-journalists will find that adhering to the standards of journalism ultimately will help them raise their game.
“By doing so, they can strengthen their own arguments in the end. At the very least they are clearer, if not absolutely clear, on the other sides’ arguments, however weak,” he writes.