Science Journalism

Past, present, and futuristic

Around the block from the Miracle of Science cafĂ©, 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.

The discussion of what’s next was organized around two major themes: blogging and interactive multimedia packages. Despite all the buzz about these topics over the last few years, there is obviously still a lot of uncertainty and trepidation surrounding them. Why, when, and how to launch a blog or Flashy (like the software) graphic are not the only unresolved questions. The more fundamental puzzlement-are these products journalism?-still pops up surprisingly often, and many journalists seem to struggle with what should, by now, be a pretty simple answer: sometimes.’s Alan Boyle, who runs the blog Cosmic Log and has spent a significant amount of time developing impressive multimedia packages, tried his best to dispel some of the remaining fog about the increasing frequency of graphical elements used to buttress traditional reporting. He offered a nuts-and-bolts presentation of what is possible with varying degrees of interactivity, and the minimum newsroom resources and know-how (a three-person team with a point man, which he likened to Charlie’s Angels) to pitch and produce such a project.

Boyle’s matter-of-fact lecture contrasted with a talk the next day by Henry Jenkins, the co-director of MIT’s comparative media program, whose talk moved farther away from the realm of traditional journalism. Jenkins stressed the lessons for reporters in modern pop culture, highlighting video games like Spore, a Sim City-like product that allows users to create a life form and put it through the rigors of evolution. “This is usually something that’s covered on the entertainment page,” he told the crowd, “But shouldn’t science journalists be engaging with a game like Spore on the science page and explaining the underlying principles?” It was good point, but Jenkins doesn’t want reporters to merely cover these games, he wants them to emulate them in news packages. “Traditional journalism doesn’t ask [readers] to do anything,” he said, and creative new Web sites, “teach the public to think scientifically rather than just report science.” But many of Jenkins’ examples seemed to blur the line between genuine reportage and educational toys.

“I feel a bit queasy about the role of science journalism in this-it feels like too much PR,” said a reporter from the journal Science. “Is there a way to define journalism that is separate from all these other worlds?” asked another.

Mindy McAdams, who teaches journalism technology at the University of Florida, spoke after Jenkins and reinforced a few of his points while drawing the discussion back to the type of story-telling that most people in the room were familiar with. Like it or not, she said, “Journalists need different hooks to communicate with today’s YouTube and videogame generations.” McAdams, however, was very careful to point out that she was “not saying that you should stop writing long stories,” but rather was encouraging journalists to think about “layering” their stories in ways that were not possible before, and “letting the reader choose what he or she wants to do next.” The conference-goers seemed fairly impressed, or at least more comfortable, with McAdams’ suggestions and examples, although a few questioned whether research data supports the contention that fancy graphics actually boost readership of long stories and encourages people to spend more time on a publication’s Web site.

The subject of multiple layers of multimedia came off as more unfamiliar and unconventional than blogging, which Rensberger only half-jokingly referred to as “old-fashioned” by the end of the conference, and which got less attention overall. Clive Thompson, who runs the blog Collision Detection and contributes to The New York Times Magazine and Wired, talked up many of its benefits, however, saying that it keeps him “hungry for fresh material” and improves the way he thinks and acts as a journalist. “There’s a cognitive advantage in having a blog,” he said. Thompson stirred up a little disagreement, though, when he pointed to a post he’d written the day before, titled “Why C-section births might cause eczema in babies.” It was based on the press release for a study in a clinical journal, which reported that babies that do not pick up enough of a certain bacteria during vaginal birth are more likely develop eczema. The release didn’t actually mention caesarean sections, however, and a few audience members questioned the responsibility of extrapolating such a conclusion. Thompson defended blogs as a place to explore ideas and pose logical questions.

Another of the meeting’s contentious moments came when Dianne Lynch, dean of the communications school at Ithaca College, delivered a speech about independent journalism. She suggested that communities without an aggressive local news outlet could hire a reporter to investigate local issues, such as school governance. This raised ethical flags with a number of journalists.

It was a lot to absorb in one conference. But despite a few misgivings about certain data, trends, and proposals, the journalists in attendance were generally optimistic about the future. There is a lot of pessimism and prognostication about the decline of science journalism at the moment, as there is in the media industry at large, but it’s hard to worry too much with such large group of talented reporters who are determined to both innovate and elevate standards.

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