The Death and Rebirth of Science Reporting?
Posted by mattusmaximus on April 1, 2009
There has been a disturbing trend in recent years in journalistic circles: the decline of science journalism in many areas of the media, specifically print media (newspapers, magazines, etc). However, it’s not all bad news, because Internet-based blogging provides a new venue for science reporting.
Traditional journalists are increasingly looking to such [science-based] sites to find story ideas (see ‘Rise of the blogs’). At the same time, they rely heavily on the public-relations departments of scientific organizations. As newspapers employ fewer people with science-writing backgrounds, these press offices are employing more. Whether directly or indirectly, scientists and the institutions at which they work are having more influence than ever over what the public reads about their work.
In some ways, I view this as a good thing. For scientists to be able to communicate more directly with the public without a filter can lead to a more accurate portrayal & dissemination of information. However, there is a downside…
The amount of material being made available to the public by scientists and their institutions means that “from the pure standpoint of communicating science to the general public, we’re in a kind of golden age”, says Robert Lee Hotz, a science journalist for The Wall Street Journal. But that pure standpoint is not, or should not be, all that there is to media coverage of science. Hotz doubts that blogs can fulfill the additional roles of watchdog and critic that the traditional media at their best aim to fulfill. That sort of work seems to be on its way out. “Independent science coverage is not just endangered, it’s dying,” he says (see ‘Vox media’).
What’s more, the amount of material available is not a good proxy for its reach. Press releases and blogs will not find the same broad audience once served by the mass media, says Peter Dykstra, who was executive producer of CNN’s science, technology, environment and weather unit until it was closed down last year. Now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, an independent think tank in Washington DC, he says that science and environment news will be “ghettoized and available only to those who choose to seek it out”.
And there is another problem here, and that has to do with the quality of work put out by the remaining science journalists out there.
Unsurprisingly, among the science reporters who remain, the workload is on the rise. Nature’s survey reveals that 59% of journalists have seen the number of items they work on in a given week increase over the past five years. They are not just doing more reporting, but more types of reporting. Many are now being asked to provide content for blogs, web stories and podcasts — something they weren’t doing five years ago.
So, what to do about this situation? Well, fortunately – as was mentioned above – more and more scientists & science institutions are attempting to reach out directly to the public using the new media of the Internet. For example, one of the most popular science blogs online – Pharyngula – has done much to fill in the gap…
Paul Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota in Morris, says that he started his blog Pharyngula “largely out of boredom”, but now that he gets more than half-a-million weekly page views, he sees it as a valuable tool for talking to a public audience. Myers freely admits that his readers “are not just there for the science” — his attacks on religion are a mainstay of the blog’s appeal. But he certainly considers himself a source of scientifically reliable information for his readers.
And then there are other blogs, such as this one 🙂 , which are written by non-scientists but those who are advocates for skepticism, critical thinking, and a science-based worldview. In my opinion, blogs such as these are extremely important, because laypeople who are science nerds (like me) are sometimes able to communicate scientific ideas a bit more easily to the readers of these blogs than many scientists.
All in all, this entire situation is a natural result of the rise of the Internet & World Wide Web. We are seeing the transition between the older, more traditional means of informing people to a newer and constantly evolving method which is based upon our ever-increasingly interconnected world.
Is it a bit scary? Yes, it is, because – despite the claims of psychics – you really cannot predict the future on things like this. However, at the same time it is incredibly exciting & invigorating, and I believe the scientific & skeptical community is up to meeting this task.
I’m happy to be doing my part 🙂