It's Not Just Science Journalism

One of the tabs I opened last week and didn't have time to get to was this Clastic Detritus post about what it takes to get science stories in the media, which is (quoting Michael Lemonick):

I get it that a stories involving science need a little something extra to make it in a magazine like Time or even near the front pages of a mainstream newspaper. Or, put another way:

It should be surprising, important -- or weird and fun, failing the important.

I get it that the average non-scientist out there isn't going to take the time to read an article about "ordinary" science. I get it. Our culture has, by and large, decided that asking questions about our world is not very exciting.

I usually skip lightly over "science journalism has problems to which blogs are the solution" stories, but something about this one bugged me, so I left the tab open. It wasn't until I looked at Lemonick's examples in that interview that I realized what it was, though. In talking about what's wrong with science journalism, Lemonick says:

Another thing: if there's an outbreak of ebola in Sudan, it makes the news. Last year, a million people died of malaria. This year, a million people died of malaria. The number of people who have died over all of history from ebola is maybe 15,000. Last year, a MILLION people died of malaria. But it's not a story.

My immediate reaction was "That's not a science story." Because, really, not every story involving a disease is a story about science, any more than every story about telecommunications is a story about physics because we use diode lasers and fiber optics to make phone calls.

But then it hit me: I've heard this exact sort of complaint before, but it had nothing to do with science. This is the complaint of every media watcher ever.

The criteria given for how to get a science story into the media are the same criteria for getting any story into the media: "It should be surprising, important -- or weird and fun, failing the important."

A bomb goes off killing a dozen people in the US or Western Europe? Round-the-clock headline news for a week. A bomb goes off killing a dozen people in Iraq or Afghanistan? It's not surprising, so it's not news.

Tainted food makes a few dozen people sick in the US? A big story. Tainted food kills a bunch of people in a poor country? Not a story. Unless one of them is an American.

A wildly corrupt election involving suppression of dissent takes place in the Middle East? Big, big news. A wildly corrupt election involving suppression of dissent takes place in a poor country with no oil to speak of? That's just the way the world is, you know.

And so on. there's nothing remotely new or unusual about this "problem." Science stories face essentially the same constraints as any other story fighting for media attention. All news coverage is biased toward the spectacular exceptions rather than the ordinary and everyday.

It doesn't even have to be life-and-death political stories, either. Science bloggers complain about the fact that thousands of scientists make incremental improvements in our understanding of the universe all the time without getting any media attention for it. Which is true. But billions of people around the world make incremental improvements in their own lives all the time without getting any media attention for it.

Scientists aren't remotely special-- if you want to get on the evening news, you need to do something that is, well, surprising or important, or at least weird and fun. Save somebody, or kill somebody, or tie a bunch of balloons to a lawn chair and disrupt air traffic while sipping a beer at 5000 feet. All news is driven by novelty-- science is just operating under the same constraints as everything else.

So, are blogs really the answer? They're certainly an answer. After all, this is exactly the same sort of problem that led to Global Voices: using the Internet to raise the profile of stories that wouldn't make the evening news because of where they happen. It's a model that can work, within some limitations (chiefly that people need to know to seek out your content).

But a little perspective is in order here. Science journalism has its problems, to be sure, but the need for novelty isn't a problem unique to science journalism. And really, as important as science is, lots of stories that are just as important, if not more so, are similarly neglected, for exactly the same reasons.

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There is one other thing that I don't think that people fully appreciate: it is easy to get in/on the news (at least on a local level) - just ask! Want something you are doing to get into the local paper? Drop them a note about it! Catch a big fish, and want everyone to see it? Send a picture to the paper! Have an amusing laboratory demo to show off? Call your local TV station and offer to show it to them for one of their short filler segments!

The local news in particular are practically starving for material. If you give them something they can use without sucking up much of the very limited time of their reporters, they'll jump at it.

I'll second what Tim said, and add one more tidbit I learned from a journalist friend: Write the story for them. They pursue even a hint of a tasty tidbit, but will use basic stories if the work has been done already.

You might not know that a "press release" is usually a carefully crafted story written in standard journalism form (the first few paragraphs are each one sentence) so it can used almost as-is. There is a reason every news outlet has the same stories, often with the same lead, every day.

The other important detail is to send it early in the day, well before deadline. If sent after deadline, it will get lost in the "new news" that shows up for the next news cycle. Even TV needs time to edit your five minutes on camera down to 20 seconds with a voice over.

PS -
Malaria is a particularly interesting science story because it could be attacked effectively if DDT could be used correctly (sprayed on upper walls) rather than promiscuously (sprayed everywhere from aircraft) -- but we only regulate the pesticide, not its use, and idiots would misuse it even if we could just regulate its use.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 06 Jun 2011 #permalink