“Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber? Chamber? Chamber?” Ed Yong, an award-winning science blogger at Discover, wondered in a mid-January post about new media’s ability to attract general-interest readers to special-interest topics.
Yong’s question is the latest episode in a decades-old debate about how (or even if) the media can move science news from the margin, where it gets seen only by science aficionados, to the mainstream. The decline of traditional media has reinvigorated the debate, and Yong summed up the conventional logic underlying concerns about the echo-chamber argument:
With newspaper sales on the decline, people aren’t exposed to science stories nestled among other topics at the turn of a page. It’s hard to achieve the same effect in the heavily tagged and increasingly specialized world of the Internet. Surely, it is said, only people already interested in science will subscribe to a science blog’s RSS feed, or click on the Science section of the Guardian or the New York Times.
However, “This is a fairly limited view of how the modern Internet works,” Yong, writing on his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, continued. In fact, new media may mobilize sequestered science and allow it to spread even more efficiently than before:
You don’t expect people to come to you. You go to where they are or, better still, you get other people to take you there.
When I link to a post on Facebook or Twitter, it reaches a few thousand people. Some of them will pass the link on to their friends and followers, and it ripples outwards. At every iteration, the stories land in front of more potential eyes, with increasingly diverse interests.
Moreover, Yong emphasized, the niche audience problem has deep roots in print media. Indeed, long before the term “echo chamber” was employed, journalists worried about the “ghettoization” of science in the easily discarded pullout sections of newspapers. Specialized magazines face the same dilemma, and Yong quoted two prominent editors to make the point:
Mariette DiChristina, editor of Scientific American, says that while most of the magazine’s subscribers already had some interest in science, fewer than 10% of them are scientists. The same is true for New Scientist. Its editor, Roger Highfield, told me that most of the magazine’s print readers have a science degree or higher, but most are not directly involved with science any more.
While it appears that these magazines aren’t catering solely to scientists, they may not exactly have the ear of the mainstream either. Far from exacerbating the problem, however, DiChristina told Yong, “Digital media give us lots of new ways to engage our audience.” Apps and link-swaps now complement traditional syndication partnerships and marketing efforts.
Yong’s post came on the heels of the ScienceOnline 2011 conference, which inspired numerous reflections on the state and direction of science writing on the Web. In fact, it was Emily Anthes, who writes the Public Library of Science (PLoS) blog Wonderland, that first asked about the echo chamber in a post headlined, “As Science Bloggers, Who Are We Really Writing For?”
There are a variety of ways to try to answer that question. Dr. Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who runs the blog Context and Variation, used SurveyMonkey. Yong merely asked his readers to post something about themselves in the comments section of his blog. He’s done it three times since 2008 (here, here, and here), drawing almost 500 responses in total. Most of those people had a background in science, engineering, or computer programming, but certainly not all of them did.
Beneath Anthes’ post, veteran science writer Paul Raeburn (who now blogs for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker), wrote “ as a journalist, I’ve always thought of myself as writing for a broader audience, and I still do. I spent much of my career at the AP and BusinessWeek, places I liked to work in large part because they addressed a general audience.”
Raeburn’s comment touched on an important question: when it comes to escaping the echo chamber, does it matter whether you define yourself as a “journalist” or “blogger”? After the ScienceOnline conference in 2010, Yong argued that conversations about the distinction had grown “sterile and unhelpful,” but not everybody is ready to close the door on that debate.