It’s Tanking; I’m Teaching…

And other current events in the tumultuous world of science journalism

Following the fiftieth fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing two weeks ago, The Observatory ran a short round-up of the coverage, arguing that the uncertain and controversial future of human spaceflight makes NASA “fertile ground” for space reporters right now.

While that is undoubtedly true, we forgot to include one tragically important caveat: fewer and fewer space reporters are left to evaluate this critical juncture in the agency’s history. An excellent essay in the August 17 edition of The Nation, headlined “Unpopular Science,” reminded me of this sad fact. The piece, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, mentions the recent layoff of Mark Carreau, who spent more than twenty years covering NASA for the Houston Chronicle. The authors could have added CNN’s Miles O’Brien and Aviation Week and Space Technology’s Craig Covault to the list of space-related casualties, but suffice it to say they included plenty of other examples bound to cause dismay. The piece, after all, isn’t focused on space reporting, but rather on the general decline in all forms of science journalism. It’s a long, worthwhile read, but the key graphs are these:

It’s no secret the newspaper industry is hemorrhaging staff writers and slashing coverage as its business model collapses in the face of declining readership and advertising revenues. But less recognized is how this trend is killing off a breed of journalistic specialists that we need now more than ever—science writers like [Sabin] Russell [a veteran health reporter recently laid off by the San Francisco Chronicle], who are uniquely trained for the most difficult stories, those with a complex technical component that are nevertheless critical to politics and society.

We live in a time of pathbreaking advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology, of private spaceflight and personalized medicine, amid a climate and energy crisis, in a world made more dangerous by biological and nuclear terror threats and global pandemics. Meanwhile, advances in neuroscience are calling into question who we are, whether our identities and thought processes can be reduced to purely physical phenomena, whether we actually have free will. The media ought to be bursting with this stuff. Yet precisely the opposite is happening: even in places where you’d expect it to hold out the longest, science journalism is declining.

If that’s not enough to bring you down, one could always dig into Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s recently published book, Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future. On the other hand, if you need some of that silver lining, turn to a couple recent posts at The Loom, Carl Zimmer’s all-purpose science blog at Discover magazine. There, you’ll find proof that all is not lost. Next week, Zimmer will be teaching a science writing class at Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore Island. Sounds like he has quite the lesson plan worked out:

I’m not sure the students realize how good they’ll have it. They’ll be learning to write about science by going on four field trips in a week–one to collect hagfish, one to the island’s intertidal pools, one to an archaeological site on a nearby island, and one to a bird banding station.

That kind of training certainly bodes well for science journalism (assuming that those students will one day be able to find outlets for their work, that is, which is far from certain). Another reassuring sign is the class’s recommended-reading list. Zimmer had “blegged” (that’s right, begged on his blog) his readers to help him compile a number of book and article titles for inclusion in that list, and they “did not disappoint.” The comments section below his post is full of good suggestions, which Zimmer compiled into almost thirty top reads. A number of the recommendations are older titles; still, the list serves not only as a useful guide for those seeking some end-of-the-summer reading, but also as a reminder that good science journalism still happens.

Admittedly, for all those glimmers of hope, the outlook for science journalism remains bleak. But it’s important to count the goods with the bads at any rate. Mooney, Kirshenbaum, and Zimmer are themselves good examples of the modern reporter—writing independently, freelancing for a variety of media platforms, and supplementing their incomes with teaching and talking whenever they can. With the loss of so many staff jobs, that entrepreneurial spirit is the only way that science journalism stands a chance.

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