Science reporting takes a hit

CNN shutters its science/environment/technology unit:

[Longtime CNN anchor/reporter Miles] O'Brien's departure comes as the network dismantles its science, space, environment and technology unit in Atlanta. That includes O'Brien as well as six producers. O'Brien has been CNN's chief technology and environment correspondent since being replaced as anchor of American Morning in April 2007.

Before, during and after anchoring, O'Brien worked the NASA beat for CNN. He covered John Glenn's return to space in 1998. In 1999 he led CNN's coverage of the failed Mars Orbiter and Polar Lander missions. And in February 2003, O'Brien led coverage of the shuttle Columbia tragedy.

CNN spokesperson Christa Robinson tells TVNewser the unit is being shuttered as the network integrates science, environment and technology reporting into the general editorial structure. "Now that the bulk of our environmental coverage is offered through the Planet in Peril franchise, which is part of the AC360 program, there is no need for a separate unit," Robinson says.

The idea that science reporting doesn't need its own unit is absurd. True, the Planet in Peril franchise does some good work, but it is too narrowly focused on environmental problems to be seen as a replacement for a science news unit. Relegating science, technology, space and the environment to one part of one show is clearly an error. Good science reporting requires that a newspaper or news channel devote serious effort to gathering material.

This trend of destroying science journalism units within general news organizations is disastrous for the public and for the news media. It can't be a single correspondent or producer occasionally called upon to watch NASA conduct a press conference, because science isn't conducted in press conferences. It's conducted in technical journals, and in off-beat conferences in odd places. Science reporters have to go to those conferences and chat with scientists so that they can have a sense of what new developments mean, and where major fields are heading.

Without that background knowledge of the scientific field, journalists are stuck regurgitating press releases. Even well-written press releases are self-serving, and way too many press releases from scientists and universities are not well-written. They are too sensationalistic, presenting a minor new finding as if it were a revolution in science. The general public reacts to the torrent of breathless reports of (often contradictory) claims of revolution tends to tune the whole thing out. Reports without regular contact with the scientific community will tend to do the same, and to perpetuate that bad tendency on the few occasions when they can be convinced to cover anything at all.

This is referred to as "the tyranny of the news hook" (see the discussion in A Scientist's Guide to Talking With the Media: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists by Richard Hayes and Daniel Grossman). It's a problem that both scientists and science journalists have decried, but which is hard to solve. Part of the solution is for scientists to be better about presenting their research to the public. But the solution will also require more journalists at major news organizations who are trained and encouraged to present science accurately, to develop sources in the community of science, and to present not just the new result, but also the broader context of the field.

Disbanding the science reporting unit at CNN short circuits the process. Scientists are reticent by nature, which means that journalists often have to dig a little harder to find the best new science stories. Scientists interested in talking will tend to look for a dedicated science reporter, since general reporters are more likely to mangle (what scientists perceive to be) crucial details.

This is especially bad for CNN, since so much of their airtime is taken up by talking heads yelling at one another. Science doesn't work like that, and scientists fare poorly in a setting where rhetorical speed is valued over empirical evidence and fact-checking. This means that science is less likely to be covered at all, and when it is covered, it will be covered poorly.

I realize that this is not the worst thing happening to journalism in the 21st century, that it is, in fact, part and parcel of greater problems assailing the industry. But CNN is fundamentally different from a local paper. It is a national news outlet. Its reporting sets the bar for other national networks, and provides content and guidance to local TV and print outlets. Its news radio division has 2000 affiliates, and many online listeners. The decisions it makes will directly affect many people, and the indirect effects as other organizations follow its lead will be immeasurable.

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This is disappointing news, but not terribly surprising. CNN has been getting progressively awful for a long time now (and I say this with a lot of heart break: I'm a native Atlantan and used to be very proud of it). A news addict friend and I have long been lamenting the downward slide CNN has been taking, which probably not coincidently has occurred as Fox News has gotten more popular.

I agree with you that a big part of the problem is that the programs have devolved into people yelling past one another. But it's much more than that. It's also the quality of the other journalism that has significantly decreased. I still read every day, but only out of habit (and because occasionally the Breaking News headlines are useful). I've been seeing less quality news and more sensationalistic news. And worst of all, more celebrity news. My prediction is that CNN will soon be nothing more than a cheap tabloid.

By Jacob Sherwood (not verified) on 03 Dec 2008 #permalink

excellent post. but what can be done? quality has always been a niche market (just ask walmart). it is true for news reporting as well, I'm afraid. perhaps cnn could hire sub-contractors for different news topics, and turn themselves into an aggregator. that seems to be The Way Things Are Done Now. :-)