Science Groups Protest CNN Cuts

CASW, NASW, SEJ, and WFSJ issue first-ever joint letter

Four of the world’s largest science and environmental journalism groups issued their first-ever joint statement today in a letter sent to CNN protesting the network’s decision to cut its entire science team this month.

The presidents of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the World Federation of Science Journalists signed the letter, which was addressed to CNN’s Jim Walton and Jon Klein, the network’s worldwide and U.S. presidents, respectively. (Full disclosure: CASW president Cristine Russell is a frequent contributor to The Observatory and the joint letter cites two Observatory articles.) The letter is posted at the WFSJ’s Web site, and will be posted on the three other group’s sites as well. The full text is here:

Dear Mr. Walton and Mr. Klein,

We are writing on behalf of several national and international science journalism organizations to express our strong concern about CNN’s shortsighted decision to cut its science, technology and environment unit in one fell swoop. In wielding this ax, your network has lost an experienced and highly regarded group of science journalists at a time when science coverage could not be more important in our national and international discourse.

The environment, energy technology, space exploration, and biotechnology are crucial ongoing stories that will have growing prominence as a new American president takes office and nations confront a wide range of science-based global issues. As the impacts of climate change intensify, shows like “Planet in Peril” cannot make up for informed daily coverage of this important issue and other science topics in the public eye. As with political and policy reporting, it is important that the underlying science be covered by journalists with the skills and knowledge to sort out competing claims.

Concerned as we are about the dismissal of our colleagues—including the award-winning science reporter Miles O’Brien in New York; Peter Dykstra, head of CNN’s science unit in Atlanta; and five other science producers there—this letter is not about individual journalists. Rather, the wholesale dismantling of the science unit calls into question CNN’s commitment to bringing the most informative science news to the general public, including the science-minded younger audience. If CNN wants to be truly international, it will be at odds with the trend toward increased science coverage in many parts of the world.

It is difficult for us to imagine why CNN, which has earned a justifiably strong reputation for its science journalism in the past, has opted to widen the gap in science coverage rather than strive to fill it. We would hope that you would reconsider your decision and reassemble a cadre of well-trained science journalists that would enable you to expand unfolding science news and in-depth coverage, not shrink it.

Your action is an unfortunate symbol of recent widespread cutbacks in specialty science journalism. Our groups will continue to push for more science coverage by the major media and to do our part to promote the highest possible professional standards for communicating complex science-based issues across the spectrum. We plan to publicize this letter as widely as possible to encourage further discussion of the future of science journalism. Thanks for your attention.

These four groups have for years provided wonderful support and resources to journalists in an effort to improve the quality and quantity of science and environmental journalism. It is exciting to see them banding together to protest the demise of yet another desk. The concerted effort could not come at a more urgent time.

On Saturday, President-elect Barack Obama officially announced his new science and technology team. His speech made it clear that he intends to restore a respect and admiration for scientific knowledge in the White House.

“Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry,” Obama said. “It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us.”

Yet here we stand at this great turning point in history, with politicians finally giving scientists some of the respect they deserve, and our nation’s editors and publishers don’t seem to get it. What a shame.

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