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.
“The loss in your part of the world is a gain in our part of the world … Journalism is growing in developing countries,” said Akin Jimoh, a former newspaper science reporter in Nigeria who now heads Devcoms Network, a media-training group in Lagos for science journalists. Argentinean science journalist Valeria Roman agreed: “We are in the beginning. Science journalism is increasing fortunately.”
Egygtian science journalist Nadia El-Awady presented findings from an informal survey, which found growing numbers of Arab and African science journalists. For the past two years, El-Awady has been involved in an exchange program in which the U.S. National Association of Science Writers has partnered with the Arab Science Journalists Association as part of a larger mentoring program for African and Arab journalists organized by the World Federation of Science Journalists, of which the BBC’s Ghosh is president. The federation’s membership has grown to forty associations of science journalists worldwide. The changing fortunes of global science journalism will be amplified at the federation’s 6th World Conference of Science Journalists, to be held this year in London June 30 to July 2.
“I’m thrilled with the globalization of science journalism,” said New York science journalist Robin Lloyd, a senior editor for LiveScience.com and other Web sites. Like the international science correspondents, online science journalists like Lloyd and the prolific Ivan Oransky, who contributed to the 60-Second Science Blog and Twittered (hashtag: #aaas09) for Scientific American during the meeting, had a hopeful view that innovative, multimedia technologies will help create a better future for science journalism.
But the rapidly failing fortunes of the American print media, and specialty science reporting in particular, provided an underlying sense of gloom and doom at the annual science gathering. In what would normally be an exuberant ceremony, weak gallows humor repeatedly surfaced Saturday night at the Art Institute of Chicago, as the winners accepted their 2008 AAAS Science Journalism Awards, which are independently judged by respected U.S. science reporters. (The melancholy art of Edvard Munch on exhibit there seemed somehow appropriate.)
Veteran journalist Terry McDermott, winner of the “large paper” award, noted wryly that getting his hefty four-part series, into the Los Angeles Times had been a long struggle involving five top editors at the beleaguered paper. The series finally appeared in August 2007, but McDermott said he was fired in 2008 after being told he was a “luxury” the paper could not afford, because his in-depth projects took too long to complete. Kara Platoni, a younger reporter and winner of the “small paper” award, suffered a similar fate. She said she was laid off from the East Bay Express after her series, “In Search of Life,” appeared.
Nonetheless, the evening ended with a moment of cheer when the AAAS surprised my revered friend and colleague David Perlman, long-time science editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, with an unannounced award for career science journalism. Long-term is an understatement, since Perlman, who recently turned 90, has been reporting since he started a mimeographed paper in junior high, worked on the college paper as a Columbia University student (B.A., 1939; Journalism M.A., 1940), and became a copyboy at the Chronicle before going off to war.
“Writing about science is the best thing you can do because you’re learning all the time,” said Perlman, who has traveled the globe from the Galapagos (1964) to Ethiopia (2005), writing about everything from evolution to astrophysics, and has no plans to retire.
Interestingly, in an interview I did with him recently for ScienceWriters, the quarterly publication of the National Association of Science Writers, Perlman said he thought the biggest science story on the horizon “would be the discovery of earth-like exoplanets with habitable zones and then the discovery of some kind of life on them.” Just the kind of story that has long been a staple for science writers at the AAAS meeting.Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.