Why Science News is Getting More Worser. . . . .
- It's all a matter of opinion -- several excellent links at the web page. . . .
Janet Ralot's excellent blog from Science News:
Home / Blogs / Science & the Public / Blog entry
NEWS OF SCIENCE: CHOOSE WISELY
By Janet Raloff
A provocative piece in the Aug. 17 Nation by author/blogger Chris
Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, a marine biologist from Duke
University, suggest science reporting isn't valued as it once was.
One measure of this: declining numbers of seasoned journalists
covering research - and a declining number of column inches and
broadcast minutes of science coverage.
How can this be? You'd think we'd want more and better research news
with the growing threat of climate change; a need for newer and more
efficient energy technologies; threats of flu pandemics; a migration
of U.S. jobs to high-tech firms in the developing world; and chronic
illnesses that are eating up an increasing share of the U.S. gross
domestic product. In fact, the public may have a big appetite for
news on such topics. But these days, media coverage and the human
resources devoted to science and technology issues are not dictated
by surveys of audience preferences.
A meteoric three-decades rise in S&T coverage, beginning in the
immediate post-Sputnik era, "sought nothing less than to bring
science to the entire public, to mediate between the technical and
the lay, the wonky and the approachable," Mooney and Kirshenbaum
argue. "The thinking was that translating scientific knowledge into a
form everyone could understand would help forge a more enlightened
citizenry and, ultimately, a stronger democracy."
Hard to argue with that.
But several trends have been conspiring to erode S&T media
performance. First, a move to turn the media into big revenue
generators. The fact that the reporting and producing of news is an
expensive operation appears to have escaped the attention of the
idiots who have recently been investing in newspapers and broadcast
networks. After buying into enormous debt to acquire news operations,
media moguls have suddenly realized that they can't raise the money
to easily pay off that debt. Especially as ad revenues have been
moving away from the mainstream media, or MSM, and onto the Internet.
The result: Experienced (and better paid) reporters and editors have
been jettisoned over the past two years in favor of more (and lower
I can understand why this strategy might appeal to a media owner
because those newbies can fill a news hole as effectively as their
predecessors did. Unfortunately for news consumers, what
inexperienced newbies offer is often no more than a succession of
bite-size reports on developments devoid of context and perspective.
Mooney and Kirshenbaum describe this trend pithily: "As a rule,
journalists are always in search of the dramatic and the new. When it
comes to science, however, this can lead [inexperienced reporters or
editors] to pounce on each 'hot' new result, even if that finding
contradicts the last hot result or is soon overturned by a subsequent
study. The resulting staccato coverage can leave the public
hopelessly exasperated and confused."
The approach that works in much political coverage - a search for
balance by providing the arguments of one side contrasted against
those of the "other" side - sometimes falls on its face in S&T
First, sometimes there aren't two sides. There might be essentially
just one. To contrast it against one or more largely uninformed or
misinformed fringe groups won't provide balance. It will just serve
to elevate the credibility of groups that don't deserve it.
Or there may be more than two sides. Perhaps five or more. To focus
on any one or two - to the exclusion of the others - also does the
public a disservice and again falls far short of the "balance."
Or sometimes the news is not a controversy - with spicy competing
quotes - but a slowly emerging trend that strengthens from some
conventional wisdom into a general truth. Reporting this may not be
as sexy as covering some political debate on climate change or the
ethics of cloning. Still, the emerging truth may be what we need to
hear. Even if it's not what we hoped or wanted to hear. And that's
"how much of the press managed to bungle the most important
science-related story of our time: global warming," Mooney and
Kirshenbaum contend. They covered quotes or developments that
appeared to contradict conventional wisdoms. They didn't cover the
steady transformation of a "wisdom" into a truth.
Trend two: Over the past three decades, the news media has splintered
from a few major local newspapers and a handful of national networks
into a proliferating universe of free or near-free cable and online
sources. At least initially, those alternative media parasitized the
MSM for content. Today, online and cable media are increasingly doing
their own reporting and often well. But most have focused on
political or niche topics. Few offer full-service reporting on the
universe of issues that shape our lives - especially science and
tech. And the vast majority of "news" on the Internet amounts to
Blogs can be well researched and reasoned. But most instead are mere
snippets of fact or some anecdote wrapped in a blanket of opinion.
And most consumers don't appear to have figured out how to separate
the one from the other. In fact, Mooney and Kirshenbaum maintain,
"The web . . . empowers good and bad alike. Accurate science and the
most stunning misinformation thrive side by side . . . and there is
no reason to think good scientific information is somehow beating
[the bad] back."
Commentary has its place. But it should augment sound reporting, not
attempt to substitute for it. Indeed, the Best Science Blog, last
year, came down to a confrontation between two "polemical" sites -
one that assaults religious faith and another that challenges
mainstream interpretations of the science of climate change. Conclude
Mooney and Kirshenbaum: "the Internet is not unifying our culture
around a comprehensive or even reliable diet of scientific
information, and it isn't replacing what's being lost in the old
On July 13, Mooney and Kirshenbaum's new book came out, "Unscientific
America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future" (2009, Basic
Books, 224 pp.). I haven't had a chance to read it yet. But it seems
to tackle in greater depth the issues they bring up in The Nation.
So what's the solution? The pair argue for a move toward nonprofit
reporting and commentary. They recommend encouraging the reporting
and analysis of S&T developments by universities, research-interest
groups and others. I guess we, at Science News, fall into that
But what we really need are more challenging and discriminating news consumers.
Learning how to discriminate news from cherry-picked data, commentary
and polemicism may need to start in elementary school and continue on
into college. Local community groups should offer refresher courses
for those who finished their formal education ages ago.
We need to accept that the definition of news is morphing - as is its
delivery and quality. Increasingly, it's up to all of us to choose
our sources of that continuing education wisely.
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