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.