The research magazine of the University of Bergen, Hubro, has a new issue out, and one of the articles from the new issue has been published on the website of the national newspaper Dagbladet.* I remember there was a bit of discussion at the university media center when Dagbladet a couple of years ago asked if they could publish our material on their website (I used to work there at the time). We asked ourselves (quite reasonably, I like to think): Why would the second largest mainstream newspaper in the country want to publish material that is, essentially, PR material for our university? We didn’t ask Dagbladet this question, so we never really got an answer, but if you pay attention, you’ll notice that Dagbladet also publishes articles for Gemini, the research magazine of the university of Trondheim. Whether they publish articles from the UiO equivalent, Apollon, I don’t know. At least I’ve never seen any.
Of course the Hubro articles aren’t written in the form of PR material. They’re proper, sciencey, journalistic articles that explain research (done at the University of Bergen) in an (hopefully) interesting and accessible way. But that doesn’t change the fact that the whole purpose of the magazine is to make UiB science visible to outsiders. I don’t remember the exact wording of Dagbladet’s request, but I remember they made it sound like a win-win situation: Hubro gets a bigger readership, and Dagbladet gets to present interesting, in-depth articles about stuff they wouldn’t have been able to produce by themselves. Put like that, it sounds wonderful.
Nevertheless, I’m puzzled by the arrangement. I’m willing to bet that most of the readers who read Hubro’s articles on Dabladet’s website, are ignorant of the fact that the article was produced by the university info machine. They think (I’m quite certain) that they read journalistic work produced by Dagbladet, work that is supposed to be independent and objective. That is, if they care at all. By all means, Dagbladet doesn’t try to hide the fact that the article was produced by someone with an interest in the work, on the contrary: they write explicitly that the article comes from Hubro, and even include a box with information about Hubro. But how many readers notice these things?
Like I said, at UiB we never really understood why Dagbladet would want to publish a public institution’s PR material on their website, but one can always have a guess. I think they assume that any article about research is “objective” in the sense that it’s centered around facts – because research equals facts, right? So it can’t possibly compromise the paper’s integrity if it publishes articles about research, even if the article is written by the institution where the research is done. Moreover, articles about research are, by definition, “serious” and “heavyweight”, so that far from discrediting the newspaper, they can only boost its reputation, regardless of where the article originally comes from.
Dagbladet is of course not the only paper to reason in this way (if, indeed, this is how the reasoning goes). Some years ago, the website forskning.no, the biggest source of science news in Norway, made an agreement with four national newspapers, at the newspapers’ request. The agreement gave the papers the right to publish articles directly from forskning.no as if they were the newspapers’ own. Now, forskning.no is owned in part by the Norwegian Research Council, and in part by a number of research institutions, among them our seven universities. The institutions contribute with articles to the site. That means articles from the info departments of the various institutions would eventually end up in the four newspapers, without any hint that they were institutional PR material (because those papers didn’t make it clear where they took the articles, like Dagbladet does). I don’t know if the agreement is still valid, but the fact that it was made at all, suggests that articles about research are somehow above the petty PR concerns that haunt so much of cultural journalism, for example. If this is true, I think it’s very interesting – and also a sign that science journalism isn’t quite there yet.
*And, being Dagbladet, they’ve taken the trouble of translating the article from nynorsk to bokmål. I wonder what the systematically nynorsk-writing Gudrun Urd Sylte thinks about that.