the observatory

Science Journalism’s Crystal Ball

Whither the expertly reported content of yore?
May 7, 2009

In covering a crisis, it is crucial to quickly separate reliable information from speculation and hype—or, in the case of the fast-moving swine flu story, an epidemic from a pandemic. It’s easier, of course, if you have strong science and medical reporters on board.

From the first days of this latest public health emergency, the specialty reporters were often the ones who helped inform the frightened public about the emerging details of the story, the potential risks of the novel influenza A(H1N1) virus, the potential for a pandemic, and what individuals could do to protect themselves. Experienced health and medical reporters often provided the best perspective in front-page stories, as well as the 24/7 online updates and backgrounders that went behind the news.

At The New York Times, managing editor Jill Abramson says she relied upon the paper’s health editor, Barbara Strauch, and the extensive team of health and science reporters to guide the paper’s global coverage. Veteran reporters like Donald G. McNeil Jr., a truly global science and health reporter “specializing in plagues and pestilences,” and Denise Grady, whose long tenure in health reporting includes a 2006 book for young people about emerging viruses, were among the Times reporters who provided a steady hand. The Washington Post had reporter David Brown, a physician as well as journalist, at the ready to help bring perspective to the unfolding, unpredictable story. NBC News had its chief science and health correspondent, Robert Bazell, whose advanced degree in immunology and more than 3,500 television reports make him the dean of television science reporters.

Not all news organizations were as well prepared. Many science and health reporting staffs on newspapers, magazines, and television had already fallen victim to the declining economic fortunes of American mainstream media, which have decimated the ranks of staff science journalists. But when a crisis like swine flu strikes, it helps to have reporters who actually know what the word pandemic means and how to find out what the potential risks are.

As with other specialty areas, the future of science journalism has received a fair amount of scrutiny recently in media and scientific circles, including two panels in which I participated over the past week in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, there was general agreement about the need for consistently accurate and informative coverage at a time when many of the key issues in the news, including climate change, alternative energy, stem cell research, HIV/AIDS, and the teaching of evolution, have a strong science and technology component.

Surprising, perhaps, was the air of optimism among the science journalists at the evening forum of the third annual Cambridge Science Festival, held at the MIT Museum. New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin spoke about the widespread impact that he has had by writing for the print edition and engaging with a growing global online audience that follows his blog, Dot Earth. Ivan Oransky, the online managing editor for Scientific American, was also optimistic about the potential reach of the Web (even though his venerable 160-year-old publication recently took its own hit with staff layoffs). A medical doctor, Oransky manages to keep content short and to the point with features like the 60-Second Science blog and frequent Twitter postings.

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Evan Hadingham, senior science editor of the perennially successful NOVA public television series, reported that, from his perspective, it is in some ways a golden age for science documentaries. Shows that are broadly categorized as “scientific,” particularly those in the popular “nature” genre, are doing well on cable channels such as National Geographic and Discovery. Meanwhile, NOVA is trying to expand its reach with a presence on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and YouTube, as well as online viewing, podcasts and interactives at its own PBS Web site.

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.

Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.