Best of 2011: The Observatory

From extreme weather to the crisis in Japan, Curtis Brainard picks the top CJR stories from the past year

The Hottest Thing in Science Blogging: The hot ticket for science bloggers and online writers this year was ScienceOnline, a once-obscure North Carolina conference with only about 300 coveted seats available. It sold out in less than forty-five minutes after a Twitter registration frenzy attracted eager participants whose ardor would have put to shame even diehard football fans looking for Super Bowl tickets. See also, Science Blogs “Win a Place at the Table” .

Extreme Measures: 2011 was the year of extreme weather. After years of hearing the scientific refrain that no single weather event can be attributed to climate change, a few major papers and scientists began to make for forceful statements about the connection. That and two years of abnormal events—including a heat wave in Russia, floods in Pakistan, drought in China, storms of all types in the United States—had many reporters wondering if they now have a green light to report at will that severe weather bears the hallmarks of global warming. See also, Tornadoes and Climate Change and Media Hurricane Hype?

Covering “Crazy”: The media has a penchant for psychoanalysis that often gets news outlets into trouble. From killers to celebrities to dictators, this year has already born witness to more armchair psychiatry than critics can stomach. From Jared Lee Loughner, to Muammar el-Qaddafi, to Kim Jong-Il to Charlie Sheen, critics charged that journalists violated the “Goldwater rule,” an ethical standard adopted by the American Psychiatric Association, which warns that psychiatrists shouldn’t give reporters professional assessments unless examined a patient directly and been granted proper authorization for such statements.

Crisis Juggling in Japan: The triple disaster. The triple whammy. Both terms became common in media accounts of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear-plant disaster that rocked Japan in March. Juggling the tripartite story was not easy for reporters. From access to information to the basics of risk reporting the stumbling blocks were numerous. See also, Misinformation Clouds Much Japan Coverage, Japan’s Other Environmental Woes, The Importance of Energy Reporters
and AP Rings the Alarm.

Mixed Grades for Medical Coverage: A review of nearly 1,500 health-medical articles over the last five years found that while journalists were nailing a few key categories of quality reporting, they’d been falling down on the most important ones, like the costs, harms, and benefits of care.—a website that reviews news stories about specific treatments, tests, products, or procedures—released the “scorecard” on the occasion of its fifth anniversary this week. The site uses a standardized, satisfactory/unsatisfactory rating system based on ten criteria to evaluate articles from a roster of the country’s top news agencies. In a heartening twist, however, a follow-up analysis by the site found “clear signs of improvement in health news grades,” however. See also Dr. Search Engine and Critics Slam PBS, NYT Autism Reports.

Arab Spring to Arab Summer: The Arab Spring that toppled governments in North Africa and the Middle East turned into an Arab summer for science journalism, as more than 700 attendees from ninety countries gathered for four days last week in this Persian Gulf city to discuss the importance of covering science in a rapidly changing world and the crucial role of a free press in doing so. The first such gathering in the Middle East, the conference was originally scheduled to take place in Cairo, but the unanticipated political revolution in Egypt brought planning to a halt, as some of the organizers put their own lives on the line in the Tahrir Square protests that brought down the reviled government of former president Hosni Mubarak.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,