The illustration is excellent. As Charlie Petit described it: “a crumbling monument topped by a stack of ossified newspapers, overwhelmed by USB and laptop cables.”
Such is the introductory image to Nature’s superb package, published Wednesday, on the troubled state of science journalism. Its central point, described in an editorial and a feature by Geoff Brumfiel, is the decline of science reporting in the “mainstream” media, and concomitant rise of “niche” blogs and Web sites, especially those run by scientists themselves. The reports are buttressed by survey of 493 science reporters, and two other top-notch articles address the challenges faced by science reporters in the developing world and efforts to help them, and scientists’ reluctance to use the Web as an open source platform for communicating and soliciting reviews of their work.
The editorial and Brumfiel’s feature lay out a number of distressing trends that we’ve been tracking at The Observatory as well. At newspapers, newsweeklies, and television stations, science staffs and sections are being cut. Or, as was the case with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer this week and the Rocky Mountain News three weeks ago, whole papers that have long supported coverage of science and the environment are closing. The San Francisco Chronicle, which has a similar track record, may be next.
As the number of science reporters in “old media” declines, so does the quality of the science news coverage that’s left. Brumfiel’s piece laments the rise in press-release reporting that inevitably occurs when complicated stories are farmed out to reporters with little to no science training, or when specialized reporters are asked to produce more and more content for a variety of platforms. On the other hand, there has been rapid growth in science blogs and Web sites, many run by researchers themselves, which has helped to fill the vacuum. Brumfiel does a good job rounding up a variety of those, from news and commentary sites like Ars Technica and Yale Environment 360, to independent blogs like In the Pipeline, to popular destinations in Seed magazine’s Scienceblogs.com community such as Pharyngula. The upshot, according to Nature’s editorial, is that:
In principle, anyone with an Internet connection now has access to more, and better, scientific coverage than ever before. In practice, however, this sort of information reaches only those who seek it out. An average citizen is unlikely to search the Web for the Higgs boson or the proteasome if he or she doesn’t hear about it first on, say, a cable news channel.
The impression one gets from Brumfiel’s piece is that bloggers generally disdain what’s left of mainstream media coverage. He quotes a number of them saying that traditional outlets “peddle crap” that the world would be “better off” without. That may be overstating the situation a bit. The article’s only hedge against that conclusion is Carl Zimmer, a sort of science journalist extraordinaire who, among his numerous gigs, writes books, blogs, and contributes articles and columns to publications such as The New York Times and Discover magazine. Brumfiel does not quote him directly, though, so I gave Zimmer a call to get a better sense of his opinions on all this.
Zimmer points out that people who comment online about the state of science journalism—or any other subject for that matter—tend to be those who are displeased with it. “I can point to lots of mainstream science reporting that’s wonderful stuff and really illuminates very complicated research, but for some reason, it doesn’t trigger that same response,” he says. “And I’d have to say that a lot of bloggers whom I respect, when they criticize science reporting, they’re not making a blanket statement. But they are saying that there are some serious, systemic problems—and they’re right.”