Jan. 13 — Environmental S.W.A.T. Team: 2009 began on a seemingly positive note, with The New York Times pulling a group of talented reporters from its science, business, metro, national, and foreign desks into a specialized “pod” focused on coverage of the environment. Over the course of the year, the team would report a diverse array of notable stories from around the United States and abroad.
Feb. 13 — Science Journalism’s Hope and Despair: The field continued its disruptive metamorphosis, however. At the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C., a panel of prominent science journalists lamented the decline of science journalism in newspapers and on television. While they spoke optimistically about online and other digital platforms, there was general agreement that “new” media are not yet compensating for the loss of traditional reporting.
Feb. 19 — The George Will Affair: Proof of the “mainstream” media’s poor handling of science seemed abundant. Washington Post columnist George Will drew widespread criticism for a series of columns that badly misrepresented scientific opinion and data about climate change. In an exclusive interview with CJR, the Post’s opinion page editor, Fred Hiatt, defended Will and rejected many bloggers’ demands that he run multiple corrections for Will’s work.
March 4 — Globe Kills Health/Science Section, Keeps Staff: The Boston Globe’s decision to kill its twenty-five-year-old weekly science and health section led to even greater dismay. Although the paper retained the section’s staff, current and former employees spoke to CJR of their dour outlook for the field.
March 25 — Post-Intelligent: Soon after, the northwest lost an excellent team of investigative science, health, and environment reporters when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer canceled its print edition and moved online, laying off almost its entire staff in the process.
April 29 — Swine Flu and CAFOs?: The battle was clearly on between Web sites and traditional news outlets. When the swine flu outbreak led to a frantic search for its cause, a number of bloggers chastised the press for not thoroughly investigating the connection with large, industrial hog farms. CJR commended the bloggers for being first to asking probing questions, but warned against jumping to unsupported conclusions. To date, the origin of the outbreak remains uncertain.
June 16 — Gene Randall “Reporting,” Inc.: Convoluted swine flu coverage wasn’t the only consequence of a diminished science press corps, however. One of the defining aspects of 2009 was the emergence of new voices attempting to bypass traditional journalistic forms. When former CNN correspondent turned PR-consultant Gene Randall produced a one-sided video “report” for Chevron about the corporation’s role in a $27-billion pollution case in Ecuador, he not only blurred the lines between journalism and corporate advocacy, he raised the question of whether a surge of newly pink-slipped reporters might go, as one media critic put it, “over to the dark side.”
July 1 — NSF “Underwriting” Coverage: The government also stepped in to fill the information vacuum left by journalism. A presentation about the National Science Foundation—a federal agency that funds a substantial portion of basic research in the United States—“underwriting” a variety of media projects caused widespread consternation at the sixth World Conference of Science Journalists in London. The most controversial projects involved placing NSF-authored articles about NSF-funded research in publications such as U.S. News & World Report and LiveScience.com.
July 10 — Grace-ful Coverage: Meanwhile, the consequences of losing publications like the Seattle P-I was all the more evident. In March, an asbestos-pollution trial in Montana that a former Justice Department prosecutor called “the most significant environmental criminal prosecution” in U.S. history received only fleeting media attention. The P-I had been the paper that exposed the pollution, which caused over 200 deaths ten years earlier, and one of the few to cover the ensuing trial in detail. The tragedy highlighted the importance of a robust, regional news media—and what happens when the lights go out at some of those publications.
July 16 — BPA, Health, and Nuance: The few science reporters left in the “mainstream” media continued to fight the good fight, however. With a FDA ruling on the safety of bisphenol-A, an additive in plastics believed to be a hormone disrupter, imminent over the summer, STATS, a “statistical assessment service” affiliated with George Mason University, released an in-depth critique of the media’s coverage of the BPA debate. The report accused the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which had publishing an award-winning series on the subject the year before, of hyping the risks of BPA despite scientific evidence to the contrary. A CJR analysis argued that while the report made valid points about the media’s overreliance on a limited number of sources, the STATS reports suffered from the same shortcoming as many articles: reaching for conclusions where explanations of scientific uncertainty would have been more accurate.