Is Science Journalism taking a backseat at a time when it should be at the forefront of news?

As both a science and a journalism major, I have many appalling moments while watching broadcast news – moments when the reporter on television is stating some very obviously erroneous or exaggerated scientific facts.

This issue is not exclusive to broadcast journalism, however. Newspapers often have horrifying headlines, like “Autism causes rain,” a rough layman’s translation of a study that demonstrated that precipitation might be one of the factors that could influence autism. Of course, a lot of this boils down to the fact that scientists spend all their lives proving and re-proving the conclusions of their experiments after many precise reproductions while journalists are often trained to reach conclusions from one “expert’s” quote and another’s corroboration due to the constraints of time and sources. This is all the more reason why complex topics such as science need specially-trained reporters so that the facts disseminated are as accurate and precise as possible.

However, in a world of newspaper cutbacks and declining revenues, often among the first ones to be shown the door are specialized reporters, because the organization cannot afford them anymore. This excellent article in The Nation outlines the setbacks that science journalism is facing right now because of a news industry in trouble. Stalwart organizations like The Boston Globe and CNN are either relegating science news to less significant departments, which lack trained personnel, or completely shutting down their science sections altogether.

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum point out in the Nation piece that this decline of science journalism has merely been expedited by the current crisis, but one that was a long time coming. They blame the niche audiences developed by cable networks and now the Internet, in addition to the continued reporter fascination with the new, the sudden and the exotic, as opposed to focusing on larger trends and big pictures. Scientific research, of course, doesn’t work that way – nothing is conclusive with the pronouncement of a single academic paper.

The other problem is the obsession with fair and balanced coverage, which is only barely acceptable in the case of a shout-fest between a democrat and his republican counterpart on national TV, but is rendered totally pointless in the world of science, which thrives on sound reason and logic – there are no “equal” sides as in the humanities; science is about right and wrong. This problem is exemplified by the global warming debate as Mooney and Kirshenbaum indicate. Then there is the sensationalization factor, which causes journalists to raise a hew and cry about event-based news stories, as happened with the reporting of the swine-flu outbreak (shameless self plug warning).

Thankfully, there is still some good news to be had – in the world of Web 2.0 magazines and newspapers are going straight to the source. Wired launched a Facebook Science page to form a science community that would bring scientists closer to lay readers, and Beatblogging.org, a project launched by citizen journalism pioneer Jay Rosen has made great strides in involving mainstream news organizations in designing science beats around social networking sites such as Ning and Twitter. The Atmosphere Blog, launched by Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle, which allows readers to interact with two well-known climatologists from Texas universities is a good example. The flip side of this, however, is the conflict of interest that might arise from scientists propagating their own research, and imparting subtle biases into news.

While Mooney and Kirshenbaum are optimistic about what the Web has to offer with regard to science journalism they are concerned about just how many people can and will benefit from it, considering they would have to make a voluntary effort to find it. In the days of the “big 3” networks covering all news to a large audience it was easier to give the audience important science information. Moreover, while the Internet allows a wider range of sources for information, there is also a greater likelihood of finding false information, a problem that cannot be as easily discerned by the lay reader in case of scientific facts as it could perhaps be in the case of politics or entertainment. And probably not as vital.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to settle on nonprofit journalism organizations as the likely sources of straight science news, and going by programs such as PBS’s Nova and NPR’s Science Friday, that is perhaps a wise choice.

Regardless of where it comes from though, in times such as these, with outbreaks of dangerous diseases, unreliable health care, and global warming, the world needs reliable information from sources that are sufficiently trained in complex scientific subjects.
Which is what makes blogs such as this one even more paramount.

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.

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