NSF “Underwriting” Coverage…

And other controversies from the World Conference of Science Journalists

LONDON — The sixth World Conference of Science Journalists got off to an enjoyably controversial start here on Tuesday afternoon.

The event takes place against the backdrop of concurrent editorials in the world’s leading scientific journals, Science and Nature (the former by CJR contributing editor Cristine Russell), exploring the ongoing “crisis” and potential “swan song” of science journalism. To be sure, these dire perspectives are no mere exaggerations.

The opening session of WCSJ featured three provocative speakers, introduced by BBC News correspondent Nick Higham, who posed the questions: “Do we need a new kind of science journalism?” and “Where do traditional journalists fit into the new media landscape?”

The ensuing discussion quickly revealed that regardless of whether or not we need a new type of science journalism, we are surely getting one, and that traditional science journalists are being marginalized in the process. Of the three speakers, it was perhaps Jeff Nesbit—the director of the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs at the National Science Foundation—that most riled up the audience.

The consternation stemmed from the fact that the NSF—a federal agency that funds twenty percent of all federally supported, non-medical basic research in the United States—is now “underwriting” a wide array of media projects. Some of these are fairly traditional in nature. For example, the NSF has provided major funding for a number of PBS reports and plays no role in the editorial process or creating the final product. In partnerships with U.S. News & World Report and LiveScience, however, the outlets are posting content created by the NSF, researchers, or public information officers (all of which is labeled as having come from the NSF). There are also a few miscellaneous projects, such as Science Nation, a video series produced by members of CNN’s former science team (which the network axed last December); a recent panel event with Discover magazine; The Discovery Files, a series of podcasts that air on about 1,500 commercial radio stations in the U.S.; and Science 360, a Web site which aggregates all NSF-generated content (which, being publically funded, is available to anybody that wants to use it).

A number of audience members stood up to challenge Nesbit, arguing that the NSF is dangerously blurring the lines between journalism and PR, and is attempting to “disguise” publicity as objective reporting. Higham, the panel’s moderator, also asked whether or not it is “healthy for science journalism to be supported by NSF.”

To his credit, Nesbit, a former journalist, seems to be well aware that the NSF’s media endeavors pose a threat to journalism. “We realize that there is high risk,” he said in response to Higham’s question, “but at this point I would say that it’s a necessity.”

Indeed, LiveScience senior editor Robin Lloyd was in the audience and stood up to say that the outlet, which has recently lost about half of its editorial staff, “appreciates” the content that NSF provides. In an interview after the panel she added that the NSF maintains a high standard of quality, but also acknowledged that posting pre-packaged content is not an “ideal” situation. “We are throwing up their press stuff,” she said.

Nesbit wasn’t the only controversial figure on the opening panel. Ben Hammersley, associate editor at Wired Magazine UK, made a powerful case that the problems engendered by the rise of new media have, in fact, been chipping away at traditional journalism for ten to fifteen years. “We’ve been chased down the street by a snail,” he said. As such, Wired is “not asking what to do about new media, but what to do in the post new media age.”

Hammersley argued that there would eventually be a “re-specialization of journalists.” The current popular wisdom that the modern journalist should be a jack-of-all-trades, fluent in writing, video, radio, Web production, and a host of other skills is a flight of fancy, he said. If we ask journalists to do everything, they will fail. Eventually, Hammersley believes, we’ll come to understand that readers and audiences follow those who can produce “extreme quality” in individual disciplines from feature writing to Twittering.

“The market is about to shake out even harder than it did five years ago,” he said, and from its applause, most of the audience seemed to agree with him. But some took issue with Hammersley’s further conclusion that “the appearance that we don’t need science journalists comes from the uncomfortable conclusion that we had too many to start with.”

While most conceded that there will be, unfortunately, fewer journalists overall, some conference goers found Hammersley’s perspective defeatist. One questioned why he is ready to concede jobs rather than examining why new publications have failed to sustain more of them—a fair point.

With so many pressures on the journalism industry as a whole, such anxious debates are to be expected and desired. Case in point was the session’s third panelist—Krishna Bharat, the principal scientist at and founder of Google News. Bharat said that the Web site’s mission is to “get people to read more news, bring the best information to people who need it, and to promote freedom of speech.”

Yet while many in the audience lauded the utility of Google News, a number questioned its impact on the industry (such as news outlets’ efforts to improve search engine optimization at the expense of quality, or criticism that Google should share some of the money it makes off news links). One person pointed out that, for all Bharat’s noble goals, Google has done little to engage journalists at major outlets in an effort to find wasy to alleviate some of the industry’s woes.

Among the 800 or so participants at the WCSJ there are clearly many differences of opinion about whether these trends will prove to be banes or boons for informing the public about the relevance of science. One thing is happily certain, though—nobody is taking any of it lightly.

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