The Steady Erosion of Science Journalism

Tom Price is blogging live from the American Association for the Advancement of Science's public policy conference for Miller-McCune.com.
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This is the second of two postings from the AAAS conference today. To see the first post, click here.

At a time science has never been more important to the world, science journalism is beating a steady retreat.

There are a lot fewer reporters at newspapers now covering science," Science magazine reporter Eli Kintisch said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual public policy conference today. "Magazines are in trouble. There are fewer newspaper science sections."

The number of science sections peaked at 95 in the late 1980s, according to Christine Russell, a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Russell, a panelist at the conference's final session, recently looked at 100 large-circulation papers and found just 25 sections devoted to science in the broadest sense. They're really "science light," she said, primarily reporting about health and fitness rather than science and public policy.

The National Association of Science Writers has 2,500 members and is growing, Russell said. But half are freelance writers, and just 80 are full-time newspaper reporters.

Science programs — again broadly defined — fill a lot of television time, Russell noted, but most are animal and nature programs on cable TV.

Cutbacks in the traditional media are not unique to science journalism, Russell pointed out. The problem is particularly acute in newspapers, some of which are closing while others are making drastic cuts. Senior employees are taking buyouts, which leaves papers without experienced journalists on many beats.

USA Today science writer Dan Vergano said he's noticed an increase in single-source stories, which may lack important perspectives. He suspects it's because "there are fewer people in the newsroom to make those calls."

Vergano said he's especially concerned that the loss of science writers will weaken the quality of science reporting in stories that are primarily about other topics. He often helps other reporters understand the science in their stories, he said.

"I know the difference between fission and fusion, even if the State Department reporter doesn't," he quipped.

The swine flu scare dramatically demonstrates the importance of journalists "who are trained to explain the differences between pandemic and epidemic," Russell said.

Many major public concerns — such as energy, climate change and national security — are science issues at least in part, Russell said.

Science journalism is growing on the Internet, but panelists questioned the ability of Web sites to replace what's no longer being done in print.

Chris Mooney — a widely published freelance science journalist who writes a blog — lamented the Internet's fragmented nature and many Web writers' cavalier attitude toward accuracy.

"If you care about science being part of the common culture in America, the kinds of trends were talking about are pretty disastrous," Mooney said. "There's no 'Cosmos' in science blogging," he added, referring to the PBS science series that drew millions of viewers.

While many Web sites deal with science well, Mooney said, "polemicism" is more common than accuracy online, "especially in the blogosphere. The Web empowers good and bad alike. Misinformation not only competes with, but often defeats, good information."

A growing number of science organizations — and individual scientists — are communicating directly with the public on line, said Joann Rodgers, director of media relations and public affairs for the Johns Hopkins medical institutions. She employs a dozen science writers who increasingly convey information directly to the public, bypassing journalist gatekeepers.

The danger with such direct communication, according to Russell, is it cuts out the disinterested reporter who can add context and differing viewpoints to a story. "There is a role for the traditional church-and-state view — to have journalists who are independent," she said.

The panelists agreed that science journalism will not disappear. What it will look like remains unclear, however. Nonprofit organizations may play a larger role in providing and supporting science reporting, for instance, Mooney said.

"I really am optimistic," Rodgers said. "I think there's still a love affair with science. I think the public wants gate keeping. They still want their information understandable in context."

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