Most Americans, from the general public to policymakers, rely on journalists to learn and stay informed about complex scientific issues of critical importance, such as climate change and human health. News reports about these issues influence the way Americans spend money, decide what they believe in and value, and ultimately, how they vote.
Journalists also play a key role in ensuring the information they share is accurate, as the spread of misinformation can have serious, even life-threatening consequences in all areas of our lives.
Understanding how journalists perceive their role as “key conduits” or “knowledge brokers” between the scientific community on one side, and the public and policymaking community on the other, is the subject of a recent paper titled “Journalists as Knowledge Brokers.” Funded by a grant from the William T. Grant Foundation and published by Routledge, the study was written by SC&I alumna Nicole Gesualdo, Ph.D. ’19, Professor Itzhak Yanovitzky, and Matthew Weber, a former SC&I faculty member who is now an associate professor at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.
“'Knowledge brokering’” is a newer conception of journalists’ role,” Gesualdo said. “Journalists historically have been thought of as ‘gatekeepers,’ controlling which information reaches audiences and when. As ‘knowledge brokers,’ journalists mediate a transfer of information that is produced by one community but useful to another. Research has shown that journalists are central to the flow of information about policy matters in society because they can reach diverse audiences, manage large amounts of information, communicate about complex topics, and connect people who are invested in the same issue. What interested us is exactly what journalists do in their day-to-day work that lines up with knowledge brokering.
“This is important because how journalists do this work—and what opportunities and barriers they perceive—can help us understand how successful or unsuccessful they might be as part of the ecosystem that allows policymaking and practice to be informed by scientific evidence. A major takeaway from our study is that the journalists we interviewed saw knowledge brokering as central to the public service mission of journalism. They recognized that research has value to news audiences, and they felt they had an important role to play in helping the public to understand and see relevance in scientific knowledge.”
The authors also explored how journalists decide what science stories are legitimate and significant enough to cover. The journalists they interviewed said it was a priority for them to “protect their audiences from findings that may sound enticing or sensational but that should be interpreted with caution,” said Gesualdo. “This is important because researchers and research studies compete for press attention: the journalists we interviewed felt that it was their job to properly vet newly emerging findings to ensure that they are disseminating accurate, credible, reliable information that is relevant to their audiences.”
Gesualdo said they interviewed a diverse group of 22 U.S. journalists, and their sample included six freelance journalists and 16 current or former newspaper journalists: six from national papers, nine from regional papers, and one from a hybrid print-web organization. Interviewees had an average of 18 years of journalism experience, with a range from five to 36 years.
“Because this study focused on how journalists describe their own involvement in knowledge brokering,” Gesualdo said, “our method was to interview journalists about their self-reported professional routines and practices in this area. We wanted to know how they acquired scientific knowledge in their reporting, how they evaluated and interpreted it, how they communicated it to their audiences, and how they used scientific knowledge to connect or mobilize people.”
Gesualdo said they started out with a theoretical framework that Yanovitzky and Weber devised, identifying five main functions that constitute knowledge-brokering. In general, they are:
- The awareness function, in which journalists determine what research or knowledge is out there and, in turn, make their audiences aware that it exists
- The accessibility function, in which journalists process scientific knowledge and make it understandable by audiences
- The engagement function, by which journalists help audiences to see the meaning and implications of scientific knowledge
- The linkage function, through which journalists help people who are invested in the same issue to connect with one another or become aware of one another
- The mobilization function, by which journalists motivate people to act based on scientific knowledge
Following the interviews, Gesualdo said, a team of four researchers, all SC&I doctoral students, reviewed the transcripts of the interviews and coded what the journalists said for evidence of the five knowledge-brokering strategies. Their coding team included Holly Avella, Christoph Mergerson, and Nicole Weber.
Their research revealed that journalists employ a few specific strategies to serve as effective knowledge brokers. One is to work diligently to build relationships with scientists. They view this as an essential part of their jobs in order to stay current on important scientific trends and discoveries. “This study begins to explore the potential role of journalists as knowledge brokers among a much broader group of stakeholders than news readers,” Yanovitzky said. “While it confirms that journalists are still very much focused on their readers and adhere to traditional journalistic norms regarding reporting, they do invest time and effort in building relationships with researchers and other brokers of research such as professional associations and publishers of scientific research.”
Uncovering the process journalists use to sift through large amounts of scientific data is another key finding of their study, and it sheds light on the ways journalists develop their understanding of science so they can explain complex scientific findings in a way that their readers can easily grasp why they should be interested and concerned about the science journalists are writing about -- news that might otherwise be too foreign or complicated to seem relevant to their reader’s lives.
Weber said, “Our research provides insight into how journalists navigate through complex networks of research, interviews and fact-finding to make decisions about how to craft their articles. In part, we find that journalists perform significant background work to maintain their networks and to stay abreast of current topics. But more importantly, we show that journalists work through a detailed screening process to vet research and to interpret findings so that they can effectively translate research into a context that will help their audiences.”
Universities can play a vital role in supporting the work of journalists as knowledge brokers, and Yanovitzky is undertaking continuing research that will address this critical issue, Gesualdo said. “Journalism still has an important role in ensuring that the public is exposed to truthful and accurate information, but journalists need help, particularly because the news industry has been struggling in recent years. One way in which universities can help is by creating knowledge hubs for various topics through which journalists and others can easily access reliable evidence-based information and training journalists to become more effective knowledge brokers. This is, in part, what Itzhak is testing through his new grant-funded project, ASPEN.”