Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Equity for Eureka

By Simon Grose

The science journalism award is overdue for a refresh.

This year’s Eureka Prize for Science Journalism went to two segments from ABCTV’s Catalyst that dealt with the phenomenon of hormonal changes in the male partners of pregnant women. The Director of the Australian Museum, which hosts the Eureka Awards, described the winning entry as “funny and deeply moving”, rare achievements in science journalism – no doubt a worthy winner.

While this result affirmed the continuing success of Catalyst in this award, it also affirmed the continuing failure of print journalists. Over the past 12 years the prize has been won nine times by television journalists, twice by radio journalists and just once by a print journalist.

Perhaps our science journalists who work in print are not up to scratch and the award’s results define that failure. Yet they matched their TV counterparts when it comes to reaching the finals: TV and print journalism each provided 24 finalists over the past 12 years, with radio providing a further 12.

In percentage terms, TV and print each provided 40% of the finalists. From that even start, TV journalists overachieved by winning 75% of the time while print dismally underachieved with an 8% share. Only the results for radio – 20% of finalists and 16% of winners – are closely matched.

Perhaps print journos just can’t handle the finals pressure. Or perhaps it’s like comparing a highly paid AFL team with a team from the bush who get beer money for playing and work a real job through the week.

Journalists in the electronic media typically work in teams comprising producers, editors, researchers, camera operators and sound technicians. Print journalists typically work alone.

TV and radio journalists working for the ABC’s magazine shows generally have long production cycles while journalists working in print commonly generate content on a daily or weekly basis. A print journalist may generate hundreds of works in a year while an electronic journalist may generate fewer than 10.

For example the 2008 winner, the ABCTV documentary Crude, “was filmed in 11 countries across five continents, and used sophisticated 3D animation” – an hour of television supported by a budget far beyond the ken of any print journalist. To fairly compete with such highly resourced rivals, a print journalist should be able to enter an entire annual output, which would make judging impossible.

As part of the Inspiring Australia initiative, it is understood that a review of science prizes is to be undertaken. When it comes to the Eureka Award for Science Journalism it could do well to consider splitting the award, putting TV and radio entries in one section and written word entries in another.

It should also toss out the entry criterion that prohibits work published online, a strangely anachronistic rule that eliminates many journalists who pump out written words.

Simon Grose was a finalist in the 2006 Eureka Award for Science Journalism and is a Director of Science Media (sciencemedia.com.au).