Online and Overseas

Less hand-wringing over state of science journalism

SAN DIEGO—What a difference a year makes. The intense handwringing over the future of science journalism in the wake of job losses in traditional print media seems to be waning, as the focus in this transition era shifts toward how to do more with less, increase global coverage, launch innovative Internet content, and get back to the basics of reporting and good storytelling. But anxiety over the quality and content of science news and information on the Web and overseas, and underlying questions about what constitutes science journalism, percolated beneath the surface of the annual gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) here.

There is no question that there are fewer staff jobs, especially in print media, for science journalists in OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries that have been hard-hit by the global economic crisis, including the United States, United Kingdom, other European countries, Canada, and Australia, said Pallab Ghosh, a veteran science reporter at BBC News in London. But he said that a recent U.K study on the state of the science journalism field there found no crisis, and instead saw a gradual shift to more use of new media.

In many developing countries around the world there is no similar job market shrinkage reported, but there is a tremendous need for journalism training, said Nadia El-Awady of the Arab Science Writers Association, based in Cairo, Egypt. At a session on “facing the uncertain future of international science journalism,” she said that a survey of science journalists working in Arab countries found no change in the number of journalists working at media organizations, and reports more space in print and broadcast outlets for science news. Similarly, science journalism is on the increase in India, according to a colleague who emailed El-Awady.

The real problem in international science journalism is that there are “only a few pockets of excellence in an ocean of mediocrity,” El-Awady said. “There is a real problem in the quality of journalism as a whole. It’s not just science journalists. This affects the quality of science reporting. Science journalists require more general journalism training so if they’ll be reporting on science, they’ll do it in a much more professional way.” Some new science journalists lack basic journalism skills and values, “or think they don’t apply to science reporting,” said El-Awady, who is also president of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ), which represents forty-one associations of science and technology journalists around the world. She is co-organizing the next international conference of science journalists, in Cairo in June 2011.

El-Awady announced at the AAAS meeting that the Federation is launching a second round of its mentoring project for science journalists, known as SjCOOP (Science journalism COOPeration), this time with a focus on training sixty journalists in the African and Arab world to cover health, environment, agriculture, science and technology, and another fifteen as trainers in science journalism. The WFSJ announcement said “the training will address issues that are common to the Africa and Middle East contexts, such as a short fall of competent journalists needed to cover scientific and technology issues, lack of interest from editors for science and research, and deeply entrenched scepticism of scientists and policy-makers towards the media.”

The lead donor for the proposed $4.3 million (Canadian) project is the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, with funding also promised by the International Development Research Centre of Canada, where the federation is based. The first round of the program resulted in the formation of more than a dozen new science beats, and mentees won forty-four science journalism awards, she said.

“This goes to show how training science journalists can really have an effect,” she said. “What we really need to focus on is how to improve the quality of our reporting, not necessarily the quantity.”

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Other speakers at the conference focused on the need for more high-quality, awe-inspiring science stories, while raising an eyebrow at the impact of digital media on journalism outlets. “A 400-year-old business model was destroyed in fifteen years by the delusion that quality contents come for free,” said Scientific American’s new editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina, quoting from a report (pdf) titled “The Sense of Crisis Among Science Journalists,” based on a survey which was conducted at the World Conference of Science Journalism in 2009. “That delusion only applies to things that people see as commodities. Are we producing commodity content?”

Journalists must move beyond slavish coverage of breaking news and packaged press releases and “focus on things that inspire wonder,” said DiChristina, the current president of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). For instance, a recent report found that the theme of New York Times online stories that visitors e-mail to their friends “wasn’t all about ‘Do I drink wine for resveratrol,” she said.

The BBC’s Ghosh, a past president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, agreed that new media has driven down the cost of content, and hence editorial budgets are more stretched for all media. “We start to become the victims of what is in our inbox,” he said. “We start doing what everyone else is doing because it’s easier, and we can get more stories out this way. We lose the awe and wonder. And we lose the important role of being the trusted guides our audience want us to be.”

Online formats prevail and confuse

In any case, the online era for science news has arrived, and will soon be the dominant way that the public gets its science news and information, said Sharon Dunwoody, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, at a panel on communicating science in the information age. Television news is still the leading source of science information, but not for long, said Dunwoody. She cited the latest data in the recently released National Science Foundation’s “Science & Engineering Indicators: 2010” report. The results show that television and the Internet are the primary ways that people receive science and technology information today. The Internet trumps for topics such as climate change and biotechnology, although some Internet users question the accuracy of information found online.

Panelists at the meeting indicated that some blogs are gaining acceptance and admiration among science journalists at least, although there is no consensus on whether they provide news in the classic sense—or, rather, potentially valuable information, education, or opinion that fails to meet the traditional standards of journalism. Long-time science communicator Dennis Meredith, author of a new book, Explaining Research (Oxford University Press, 2010), noted during his presentation that a handful of blogs that he admires include Blog Around the Clock, Sciencebase, RealClimate, Small Things Considered, and the University of Chicago Medical Center’s Science Life.

“Science journalism is not dying,” said multimedia science journalist Jane Stevens, who sees “the growth of niche online sites” fueling the future of science journalism and perhaps redefining what journalism is. A former newspaper science journalist who went on to teach multimedia journalism at the University of California Berkeley and develop innovative Web sites, such as The Great Turtle Race, Stevens is generally critical of the newspaper industry: “They really haven’t gotten it yet … I want to see more integration of the community with what journalism does.”

She recently became director of online strategies at The World Company in Lawrence, Kansas, and this week is launching a new hyper-local, health-oriented online forum, called Wellcommons, for the daily paper there, the Lawrence Journal-World. In what she hopes will be a model for other community sites, the site mixes the work of trained journalists with social media input from the local community.

“The community is a lot smarter than we give them credit for,” said Stevens. She also spoke at a decidedly upbeat program on “Communicating Science,” broadcast live from the AAAS meeting in San Diego on NPR’s Science Friday and archived online.

A similiar sentiment was sounded by Bora Zivkovic, a brash North Carolina science blogger who writes “A Blog Around the Clock,” a site read by many science writers. “The whole war between journalists and bloggers is over and whoever mentions it is a dinosaur who has missed that the 21st century is already ten years in,” he said. Zivkovic is also the online discussion expert for the open-access online-only journal PLoS.

Ironically, Zivkovic says that he was initially turned down for press credentials at AAAS due to confusion over his status. He had already received a meeting credential as a speaker affiliated with PLoS, which resulted in confusion because AAAS does not issue newsroom badges for editors of scientific journals (nor are credentials issued to scientists, investment analysts, advertising or marketing professionals, lobbyists, representatives of advocacy and special interest organizations). Credentials are offered to “career science communicators,” including working reporters, producers, editors and freelancers as well as public information officers for universities and research institutions, journalism professors and journalism students, according to the AAAS Web site.

Zivkovic, who blogged about his experience Monday evening after being contacted by CJR to obtain details, was later granted press privileges, said AAAS Senior Communications Officer Earl Lane. “I questioned whether [Zivkovic] was a journal editor. He assured me he was a member of the communications staff at PLoS, and we offered him a newsroom credential on that basis,” Lane said.

Overall, press credentials for the AAAS annual meeting are offered to bloggers on a case-by-case basis, Lane said, and like other approved applicants for credentials, bloggers “should not have dual affiliations as marketing professionals, lobbyists, representatives of advocacy groups, or journal editors,” he said. “The online world continues to evolve and our newsroom policies will evolve as well. Bloggers who do original reporting and adhere to the standards of traditional science journalism are more than welcome at the AAAS Annual Meeting.”

He said that this year about 700 people registered with the AAAS newsroom, including about 200 from the international media. Even with increased online representation, there were nonetheless many U.K. and European newspaper and magazine reporters as well as traditional U.S. media, including the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as coverage by the local daily paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Editor’s Note: Cristine Russell organized and moderated the AAAS Symposium, “Facing the Uncertain Future of International Science Journalism.”

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Robin Lloyd and Cristine Russell are freelance science writers. Lloyd is currently on contract as the online editor for Scientific American and was previously a senior editor at and Russell is a CJR contributing editor, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.