Carl Zimmer Live Blogging The Mars Methane Mystery: Aliens At Last?, reports that:
2:14 Lisa Pratt of Indiana University is talking biology. She is stoked.
2:15 Okay, I mean as stoked as scientists get at press conferences where they talk about photic zones. You can see it in the rise of her eyebrows.
Now, a reporter used to covering press conferences on the steps of a courthouse or a state or federal capitol would not catch that as “stoked.” But Carl Zimmer covers scientists, and he knows what we look like when we’re excited.
That means his article about this will convey her excitement, and readers will be able to use that bit of reporting to guide their own assessment of whether the large, highly localized, methane emissions from the Mars surface indicate that there is indeed subsurface life there.
A lesser reporter would present the whole event as a bunch of dull and staid science-types jabbering about photic zones and whatever else. Some scientists would favor geological explanations, others biological, with no cues to guide readers through the background context of the discovery.
With the declining number of full-time science journalists, readers will have to confront such shoddy reporting more often, and must either do without science reporting at all, work harder to figure these things out where decent reporters are available, or simply be misinformed by reporters who misread the subtle social cues sent by scientists. In none of these cases is our society better off.
As with all journalism, a trained monkey could transcribe a press conference and write a dull story around a few good quotes. Good journalism requires a thinking person with extensive context in the field, as well as a highly trained ability to translate that knowledge into terms the public can understand. Scientists can do the first, but not (usually) the second. General assignment reporters can do the latter, but not the former. Nor can they ask questions interesting enough to get the scientists involved in their own discussion.
As everyone from local papers to CNN reduces their science reporting staff, these conferences will increasingly be reported in ways that are equivalent to sending a sports reporter to cover the White House. That could work out occasionally, but it’s a bad bet for all involved. Not to mention that the amount of reporting not based on press conferences or press releases will become vanishingly small.
Science bloggers can help provide context, and are brilliant at catching papers that deserve attention but don’t have a press release, but it’s not a sure thing that they will have the time or resources to attend press conferences, and their access to embargoed papers is limited. I contend that we need science journalists now more than ever. We’ll see if my colleagues here at ScienceOnline ’09 disagree with that assessment.