Around the block from the Miracle of Science café, in a corner of Cambridge surrounding the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a few hundred of the world’s most accomplished science journalists gathered this week to celebrate history, and spend a lot of time talking about the road ahead.
The occasion was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships, a prestigious program that brings a handful of mid-career professionals to MIT for a year of concentrated study. The program, titled The Future of Science Journalism, was a series of talks about past, present, and upcoming trends in the field-some terrifying, some terrific. As the fellowships’ director, Boyce Rensberger, put it in a welcome speech that could not resist at least one science crack, “With respect to the ghost of Stephen Jay Gould, there has been a punctuation in what we thought was a relatively comfortable equilibrium.”
It is undoubtedly a momentous occasion in the history of science journalism-the challenge of climate change, the advertising of major pharmaceutical companies, the muzzling of government researchers-but a lot of journalists’ and outside pundits are unsure whether the journalism is improving or deteriorating. History, after all, will judge us, Rensberger reminded the crowded ballroom in a fascinating, opening-day lecture chronicling the field’s prior phases. The profession as we know it today, he said, began in the late nineteenth century, steadily gaining seriousness of purpose until 1930s, when (ironically) the foundation of the National Association of Science Writers ushered in the “cheerleader or gee-whiz age of science journalism.” The next several decades saw a lot of credulous “boosterism,” many conflicts of interest, and other ethical breaches on the part of the press. This lasted until the 1970s, when the environmental movement began and The New York Times launched its venerable, weekly science section. At that time, Rensberger said, journalism moved from, “science lapdog to public watchdog.” This condition lasted until roughly eight years ago (when the Bush administration’s antipathy toward science and science journalism, as well as the spread of digital media, shook the profession’s foundations), and now it is unclear what will become of the profession.
As the media industry undergoes great, digital metamorphosis, the turbulence of transformation has made a lot passengers sick. But needlessly so? Perhaps. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and vice chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, told the audience that there is “a golden age of science journalism ahead.” But many people in the crowd seemed disconcerted by his description of that future, Internet-centric world. There, he said, journalists’ work will be not be the “final destinations” for readers; instead, journalists will be acting more as navigators, aggregators, explainers, and referees for all the other available information. That characterization, though perhaps taken to be more pervasive than Rosenstiel meant it to be, provoked quite a few reactions. David Dobbs, a freelancer who writes about neuroscience for The New York Times Magazine and Scientific American, asked, “If we’re pointing out the best dishes in the buffet, who’s cooking the pressed duck?”
It’s too bad, given his background, that Rosenstiel didn’t discuss how to maintain or elevate quality standards as journalism goes digital. All the talk about the changing roles of journalists and the new skills and responsibilities that come with new media platforms got much more insightful and specific treatment in later talks. In fact, after the first morning of the conference, the focus shifted quickly from the past, touched briefly on the present (Cristine Russell, the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, presented interesting data on the dwindling number of science journalists in the U.S., the growing number worldwide, and the current mix of challenges and opportunities facing field), and fixated on the future.