Media coverage of science is declining in China — but scientists, press officers and journalists could change the situation, says Hepeng Jia.
Despite a boom in scientific research in China, media coverage of the subject is declining, and Chinese writers look back to the 1980s and 1990s 'golden age' of science journalism with nostalgia.
The first statistical study of the decline, published in November 2006, prompted the country's science journalists to submit an appeal to the Central Publicity Department, China's official media watchdog.
They called for an increase in media coverage of science (see Science reporting under threat in China).
But while their cause is justifiable, the profession — and science communication as a whole — needs to rethink the role of science reporting in China if it is to gain the recognition it deserves.
In China, the obstacles science reporters face differ according to the type of media they write for: official or commercial.
China's official media are those partially funded by the government, such as the People's Daily and China Daily newspapers. Their stories therefore often serve a propaganda role.
The commercial media, on the other hand, receive no government funding and have to prioritise certain stories in order to attract readers and advertisers to sustain themselves financially.
This market-oriented approach has been cited as a major reason for the decline in science coverage. Many commercial media editors think that the public feel science is too dry and complicated. This view has spread to editors in the official media.
A casual glance at science articles in the official media reveals ample use of difficult scientific terms and swathes of text boasting about the political achievements of Chinese research. What is often lacking, or inadequately expressed, is an explanation of how and why the research is relevant to the public at large.
By contrast, editors in commercial media often do not hesitate to cut scientific terms from a story — or indeed, cut science stories from the publication altogether.
Pass the propaganda
Another problem lies in the way that science journalism is practised in China.
There is a perception that science journalism caters for the science community, not the public. Science news is seen more as propaganda promoting China's scientific achievements and their political significance.
As a result, many science articles report on original Chinese research, intellectual property rights, or progress toward state science targets rather than studies exploring the natural wonders of the physical world.
Surely science journalism should inspire, educate and inform the public, and improve people's lives?
A key problem in this context is that journalists from the official media have better access to new research, thanks to their government affiliation.
So mass-media journalists often have to rely on the government's official Xinhua news agency for important science news. But if, as often happens, the stories are too densely scientific or seem irrelevant, they are often ignored and the public never hears of them.
And with competition for page space or broadcasting time typically severe, editors seldom encourage their journalists to do more science stories for fear that they may not be able to include them.
Perhaps China's science journalists lack the right type of education, training and patience to write readable science stories. But the blame does not lie solely with them. They are forced by a system that does not feel it is a priority to explain why a story is important to the public.
This is partly because of a greater malaise in the country's science funding. Projects meeting grandiose scientific goals are often prioritised over projects scientists themselves would choose, effectually hampering their instinct to explore the unknown. And government funding for research projects has no scope for science popularisation.
The need for reform
Given the situation, it is unquestionable that reforms are needed throughout China's science communication system.
At the policymaking level, research funds must be allocated for encouraging scientists to explain their work to the public.
Press officers from all institutions should take more care in explaining why the news is relevant in their press releases, and should try to flag up more subjects in tune with the public interest.
Science journalists should prioritise interesting and readable science stories rather than national achievements.
Formal training in science reporting may be necessary, but this has to be initiated by the journalists themselves. Science is always new, and there are always new terms and concepts that journalists must get to grips with and interpret for the public.
This is not an easy task, but it is necessary. Only in this way can China's media really inform the public on what is going on in the scientific community. It is also the only way to ensure that the public is part of the scientific process, which above all seeks to benefit the people — not the bureaucrats.