the observatory

CJR Launches The Observatory

A new department to critique the coverage of science and the environment
January 15, 2008

Columbia Journalism Review is proud to announce the launch of The Observatory, a full-time department dedicated to critiquing the press coverage of science and the environment. The Observatory will launch on CJR’s Web site,

In 2007, climate change and, by extension, the nation’s energy future, moved to center stage in our national discourse. The mainstream press coverage of these issues, too, took something of a step forward last year, abandoning much of the false balance that has long characterized the coverage of climate change-that maddeningly reflexive need to give the fringe-dwelling skeptic equal weight against overwhelming scientific consensus. But this is not to say that press coverage of climate change doesn’t still have problems, such as a tendency toward alarmism, or that there isn’t still a crucial need for a smart, intellectually honest critique of that coverage-and coverage of science, environmental, and medical issues broadly. Indeed, climate change is hardly the only crucial scientific issue that the world needs help from the media to understand. From stem-cell research and the AIDS epidemic to a shortage of clean water and food safety, from the quality of epidemiology research to the future of space exploration, the need for credible and thorough journalism will only become more crucial as the new century unfolds.

The science desks at our nation’s newspapers are shrinking or disappearing, just as the number of foreign bureaus and correspondents, investigative teams, and other costly (and thus “expendable”) facets of the journalistic enterprise have been shrinking to bolster profit margins. Meanwhile, a vast array of Web sites and blogs has emerged in recent years to crank out a daily torrent of scientific, environmental, and medical news and information. To a certain extent, these new gateways are making up for the loss of traditional platforms for science news. Grist magazine’s blog, Gristmill; Seed magazine’s community; Scientific American‘s 60-Second Science; the Knight Science Journalism Tracker;; and The New York Times‘s Dot Earth blog are but a few examples of novel experiments that have seen mounting success in the last few years.

The Internet and mobile technologies, such as podcasts, are still unfamiliar to many news consumers, however, and the quality of science news varies wildly online. Stem-cell research has engendered political and legal battles, and environmental science has encouraged financial profiteering. But in delivering unsurpassed access to news and information of such issues, the Web has blurred the lines between advocacy operations and true journalistic endeavors, and “experts” in both categories often fail to undergird their opinions with evidence and reporting.

Bearing in mind all of these industry trajectories, The Observatory will monitor science journalism-covering the coverage-with an eye toward improving the journalism and thereby improving the discourse. It will be a guide to the best and worst of science and environmental journalism; it will tell you where the press excels and makes bold innovations. And it will point out where it falls victim to spin, engages in alarmism, perpetrates false balance, misrepresents the science in peer-reviewed literature, or displays questionable priorities in news judgment.

Our democracy needs a steady supply of high-quality news and information to function properly, and thus our journalism-on the environment, medicine, and everything else-needs to be as sharp as it can be. Working to ensure that it is has been Columbia Journalism Review’s mission for nearly fifty years, and we are now extending this mission to the world of science journalism.

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