RLM Finsbury, an international communications firm, issued a press release on March 21 announcing that it had hired Potter, who had worked as an on-air correspondent at ABC News from 1987 to 2006 (and for CBS from 1980 to 1986) and as a science editor for ABCNews.com since 2006. The next day, NBC News announced that Bazell, who had been an on-air correspondent since 1976, would be leaving the network to become an adjunct professor of molecular biology at Yale University.
Potter and Bazell are both well-respected and decorated journalists, with over 70 years of reporting experience between them, including matching Emmy and Alred I. duPont awards—two of the biggest prizes in broadcast and digital journalism. Their departures are a loss for science reporting, although representatives of ABC and NBC said they would replace the correspondents.
“Bazell was given a fantastic opportunity by Yale University that he couldn’t pass up,” said an NBC spokesperson, adding that while the network plans to hire a new science reporter soon, it already has a strong team covering that beat.
NBC News has three on-air correspondents who specifically focus on these issues: Dr. Nancy Snyderman, our Chief Medical Correspondent, who covers everything from breaking news in the medical field to health related tips and takeaways for viewers; Anne Thompson, Our Chief Environmental Affairs Correspondent, who covers a myriad of science issues; and Tom Costello, whose beat includes aviation, transportation and NASA, among other things.
At NBCNews.com, we have a designated Technology and Science section as well as a dedicated science blog called “Cosmic Log” written by our NBCNews.com science editor Alan Boyle. Linda Dahlstrom is the NBCnews.com Health Editor.
A spokesperson from ABC News would only say that the network was in the process of replacing Potter, but the prospects for science coverage are less reassuring than they are at NBC. Starting in 2006, Potter became an editor of ABCNews.com and began appearing much less frequently on air, and it is not clear whether ABC intends for his replacement to report on air or only for the website.
Network news has never excelled at science coverage. Accurately explaining complex research to a mass audience over three minutes of b-roll of scientists at work in labs is not easy. ABC and NBC have an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment by swiftly replacing Potter and Bazell with new correspondents that are well qualified and eager to try new approaches to reporting for TV. They may not go with journalists, however.
Last June, CBS News hired M. Sanjayan, lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy, as its science and environmental contributor, filling a slot that had been vacant for almost two and a half years. The decision epitomized the longtime tendency in TV news, which goes will beyond science, to bring on subject-matter experts from the private and public sectors, but it can create undisclosed conflicts of interest. Only two months after hiring Sanjayan, for instance, CBS ran a report in which he interviewed a fire ecologist from The Nature Conservancy without mentioning that he for works for the group as well.
Hopefully, ABC and NBC will be more careful and go with experienced science journalists instead—reporters who understand how to report scientific discoveries accurately without sensationalizing them, as TV is wont to do. Indeed, Bazell and Potter’s departures have given the two networks a chance to re-examine and improve their commitment to science coverage. They should take it.Peter Sterne is an editorial intern at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @petersterne. Tags: ABC, CBS, conflicts of interest, NBC, science, TV