In contrast to this optimism, panelists at a May 1 roundtable discussion on the “future of science journalism” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual Forum on Science and Technology Policy had mixed feelings about what was in store. “In the near term, things look pretty lousy,” said USA Today science reporter Dan Vergano, who is part of the paper’s health and science team chasing the swine flu story. He worries about the “loss of scientific literacy” at news organizations as they lose science reporters, as well as the “atomization” of the audience in an online jungle with endless opportunities for getting the news in ever-tinier pieces. But he had a rosier perspective on the future: “In the long-term, science reporting looks great … our audience does dig science stories.”
Longtime science journalist Joann Rodgers, who directs the highly respected media relations and public affairs shop at Johns Hopkins Medicine, noted that, increasingly, universities and other institutions are preparing science information that is marketed directly to the consumer through their own Web sites and social media outlets, in addition to providing media assistance to journalists. “There is still a love affair with science,” said Rodgers.
Surprisingly, it was the prolific Chris Mooney, the youngest panelist and a prominent member of the new generation of science bloggers, who was the most wary of the future. Mooney, 31, who runs The Intersection in addition to writing magazine pieces and three books, admitted that he sounded like the “old man” of the group, contending that the other panelists were “way over-optimistic.” Mooney said that the consequences of the “dismal and disturbing” cutbacks in traditional mainstream science journalism “are pretty disastrous” and warned against putting too much stock in the online world. “Does the new media offer any real salvation?” asked Mooney. “It’s a Wild West out there. … I fail to see how it replaces what is being lost.”
He noted that while “science blogs are booming,” there is a lot of competition in the blogosphere from commentators who promote the anti-evolution, anti-global warming, anti-vaccine mindset. “Polemics are more important than accuracy,” said Mooney, and the biggest problem is that people tend to go online looking for things that reinforce their own point of view. “There is a lot of back scratching,” said Mooney, who will spend the next year in Cambridge as part of the new crop of MIT Knight Science Journalism fellows announced this week. Alas, he added, there is also “no money in blogging” at present.
Discussions about the future of journalism will doubtlessly continue, and more cutbacks are undoubtedly in store. But amidst the current round of hand-wringing, there is hope that, as the new world of journalism shakes out in the years to come, there will still be a need for good science reporters to help explain the novel influenzas of the future. While the bells and whistles of the online journalism environment—the interactive maps, the videos from the field, the participatory conversations—will hopefully draw the attention of a new audience hungry for science information, they will still need the traditional content provided by knowledgeable science journalists to keep them there.