CHICAGO — The story was too good to miss. When cosmologist Paul Davies proposed launching a “mission to earth” to search for hidden life on our planet—life forms different than anything we have ever known before—the large contingent of British and Australian science journalists here jumped right on it.
“Forget little green men on Mars. Aliens could be right here on earth,” Fiona Macrae wrote for the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail. A number of British publications went for the alien teaser, in fact, explaining afterward in more serious science-speak Davies’s belief that we need to look for signs of microscopic “shadow life” in poisonous lakes and boiling deep sea vents—maybe even inside the human body—that have thus far escaped traditional scientific scrutiny.
The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which ended here yesterday, has long been a mecca for journalists searching for stories of all shapes and sizes—from basic brain research to broad environmental policy issues involving land, oceans, and the atmosphere. Particularly remarkable was the increasingly international focus of the 175th meeting, aptly titled “Our Planet and Its Life, Origins and Futures,” which attracted about 6,800 participants, including roughly 800 members of the science media.
The number of science reporters and journalists-in-training from far-flung parts of the world—the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America, as well as Canada, the U.K., Germany, Sweden and other parts of Europe—has expanded at AAAS. At the same time, the presence of working American science reporters from major newspapers and magazines has declined over time, their ranks often replaced by a diverse group of freelancers and digital journalists who write, blog, and Twitter for a variety of startup and established news and information Web sites.
This year in Chicago, there was the usual representation from key international wire services, including The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse, among others. But other standard features of the meeting, like a live, on-site show of National Public Radio’s “Science Friday” with veteran radio reporter Ira Flatow, were gone. Local newspapers, which often blanketed the meeting in years past, were hit and miss—mostly miss—with Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times staff reporters covering the irresistible Valentine’s Day special on the science of kissing, but skipping some of the big picture stories. The Sunday Tribune, for instance, chose to cede coverage of an important climate-change story to AP science writer Randolph E. Schmid.
Veteran Australian Broadcasting Corporation science correspondent Robyn Williams, who has covered AAAS meetings since the 1980s, noted that these days “the working international science reporters usually seem to outnumber the Americans,” and that the first five questions at press conferences there tend to come from foreign reporters, particularly the U.K. contingent often found in the front rows of the briefing room. An AAAS welcome reception for the international media, once a small low-key affair, is now a big, bustling event.
The Times (London) science editor Mark Henderson, who often covers science in the U.S., admitted that there was “a bit of a pack mentality” among the U.K. camp, but said that he had no problem getting science news from the meeting into his paper. “Science is something that sells newspapers,” he said.
At “Science Journalism in Crisis?”, an informal AAAS press briefing (in which I participated) put together by several science writing organizations, Pallab Ghosh, a senior BBC News science correspondent, urged science reporters to avoid being seen as “luxury items” or “just space-and-dinosaur correspondents” by covering important and timely global issues with a science, technology or health component. “Our skills are still needed … [at a time when] science journalism as a whole is under threat,” said Ghosh.
At the briefing, concerns abounded about the loss of staff jobs in American media, as well as the difficulties of surviving as a freelance science writer, a theme sounded at several other journalism events over the past week. But some people expressed a remarkably refreshing sense of optimism over the opportunities opening up in other parts of the developed and developing world to write about crucial scientific topics such as global warming, agriculture, water resources, and infectious diseases like HIV and polio.