If There is a Problem with Science Journalists, It's That They Are Losing Their Jobs...But There Is Hope In a New Model

Sometimes I just don't get it. Whether it is climate change, evolution, or vaccination, the more literal minded among science bloggers and pundits typically blame science journalists for breakdowns in public communication.

Yet as I discuss in a forthcoming article at Skeptical Inquirer magazine, constantly blaming the media messenger deflects attention away from the fact that scientists and experts themselves make mistakes when it comes to public engagement (or that literal minded bloggers create more heat than understanding). As I often like to point out in talks, research shows that science journalists for the most part do a terrific job in covering science. Instead, if there is a problem with science journalists, it's that they are losing their jobs at major news organizations.

Yet some science journalists are making a similar mistake in diagnosing and responding to this problem. They pin job cuts on a lack of respect for science, when in fact specialists across beats and subject areas are losing their jobs, from foreign policy to business reporters. The decline in the science beat is not because of a lack of cultural respect for science, it's basic media economics.

Many science journalists also make a mistake in thinking about the future via the lens of the past, decrying a "crisis in science journalism," and assuming that the only way forward is to regain their jobs and status at major media outlets.

Unfortunately, not only is this unlikely to happen, it also ignores the great potential for a transition to a new model of science journalism that takes advantage of digital technology and emerging non-profit partnerships. In the forthcoming article at Skeptical Inquirer (a decades old non-profit), I note the potential and the need for investment in these new formats and models for science journalism. As I write:

Community initiatives of a different kind should focus on building a "participatory" public media infrastructure for science and environmental information. Most local newspapers have cut meaningful coverage of science and the environment. As a result, many communities lack the type of relevant news and information that is needed to adapt to environmental challenges or to reach collective choices about issues such as nanotechnology and biomedical research.

As a way to address these local-level information gaps, the Obama administration should fund public television and radio organizations as community science information hubs. These initiatives would partner with universities, museums, and other local media outlets to share digital content that is interactive and user-focused. The digital portals would feature in depth reporting, blogs, podcasts, shared video, news aggregation, user recommendations, news games, social networking, and commenting.

We should think of these new models for non-profit science media as an integral part of the infrastructure that local communities need to adapt to climate change, to move forward with sustainable economic development, and to participate in the governance of science, medicine, and technology. A community without a quality source of science information--packaged in a way that is accessible and relevant to most members of that community--will be ill prepared to make careful decisions about costs, risks, benefits, and ethics.

Here at American University, the work of Jan Schaffer, director of the Knight Foundation supported J-Lab has influenced my thinking in this area. So has the work of Pat Aufderheide and Jessica Clark at the Center for Social Media and Chuck Lewis at the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Lewis for example penned this vision of the future of investigative journalism for the Columbia Journalism Review, a model that easily applies to science journalism. Aufderheide and Clark offer a vision of the future of public media, that similarly translates easily to science journalism.

At CJR's The Observatory, a leading example of the digital non-profit model, Curtis Brainard notes the following observations from Schaffer, given at a recent panel at the Woodrow Wilson Center on the future of science journalism:

Despite such apprehensions, however, everybody agreed the industry is trying hard to figure out the best way forward. Schaffer, the executive director of J-Lab, said that her organization--which, according to its Web site, funds "participatory journalism" projects that "use new technologies to help people actively engage in critical public issues"--has funded about sixty startups around the country over the last four years. "News vacuums will be filled, they just might not all be filled by big-J journalists," she said. "How that's going to play out we don't know yet."

Schaffer described a number of "random" and "organized" acts of journalism, such as uploading amateur photos and videos of breaking news events, on the one hand, and "civic-media networks" on the other. Professional news outlets are launching their own experiments, as well. In the last few months, content sharing deals have been struck between The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post Gazette, eight top papers in Ohio, three in Florida, and two in Oklahoma. Schaffer did not say how such agreements might affect science coverage. In that department, recent, online news outlets were the focus.

Schaffer showed a clip of the upcoming J-Lab video called New Media Makers, which profiles, among others, one of the more acclaimed startups, the non-profit Voice of San Diego. News editor Andrew Donohue tells J-Lab that his team emphasizes a few core issues--including environment, science, and technology--that are important to the local community. Other online news outlets focus exclusively on such issues. Dykstra's Mother Nature Network is one example. Another that came up often was the Environment & Energy Publishing group.

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Extrapolating from one episode of angriness and annoyance to a generality is poor analysis.

Read Ben Goldacre's book, Bad Science which clearly points the finger in the U.K. at arts graduates in the media who gleefully report any pseudo-scientific nonsense if they think it makes good copy, and think there are two sides to every argument (such as MMR vaccine dangers). As he points out, science journalists find it difficult to get their material into print, and will sometimes get sidelined on the big stories.

Obviously the U.S. is a completely different society, but I suspect the problems are similar.

Or would you blame the MMR scandal on scientists too? For someone who claims to be interested in science, you do seem to have a low opinion of us!

Putting science "out there" won't work unless ordinary people get enthused enough to be interested, and the sad fact is that most people have little interest in science beyond health issues, and even then many can't differentiate between quackery and good medicine. People start taking notice when telegenic personalities produce interesting material with reasonably high production values (Life on Earth, Walking With Dinosaurs, etc.).

Rather than tell everybody else how they are getting it wrong with your vacuum-packed pontificating, why don't you get out there and actually communicate some science?

Yes, you hit it on the nose that the biggest problem with science journalists is their disappearance from major news outlets - and I would add, that they aren't employed to begin with. Sometimes I think critiques of media science coverage need to make clearer the distinction between the work of career-level science journalists and run of the mill reporters, who often have no science education beyond a couple of freshman-level distribution requirements. A quick look at any average local newspaper or newscast will tell you that science news is largely in the hands of the latter. In fact, tv news has all but stopped covering science, replacing it with a more consumer-oriented "health and medical" segment. That points to a huge problem with contemporary news outlets as a whole - the total consumerization of the news. Aside from the occasional two-headed kitten or other novelty story, science news must be about something people want or will eventually want to buy or sell. Great, if there're immediate applications, but the advancement of knowledge deserves to be reported as well, because more then ever we need to know the world we live in, its physical traits as well as commercial potential.

Thanks for posting this! I totally agree. I'm a science journalist, freelance, and have seen major cutbacks at my traditional outlets in terms of the number of stories they are able to assign to freelancers. Financially I'm just squeaking by, but I've never gotten that far from living close to the bone (now I'm glad). I miss the work, though. To keep myself busy, I've entered the blogosphere with a daily blogging effort on my own site and one other little gig. While the starting pay is very low or nonexistent (on my own blog), I'm having a blast adapting to the new medium. I love how interactive it is! On the established site, experts comment on my stories. I've never gotten that kind of feedback on my newspaper or "static" online stories. Cheers, Anne

We in the shark conservation world have given up on letting the media tell our science for us- it never ends well. Personally, I speak to people about sharks whenever they'll listen- for example, my barber and the poor lady I sat next to on my last flight are now confirmed shark conservationists. People respond to personal communication a LOT better than they respond to mass angry protests.