News of science: Choose wisely

A provocative piece in the Aug. 17 Nation by author/blogger Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, a marine biologist from Duke University, suggest science reporting isn’t valued as it once was. One measure of this: declining numbers of seasoned journalists covering research – and a declining number of column inches and broadcast minutes of science coverage.

How can this be? You’d think we’d want more and better research news with the growing threat of climate change; a need for newer and more efficient energy technologies; threats of flu pandemics; a migration of U.S. jobs to high-tech firms in the developing world; and chronic illnesses that are eating up an increasing share of the U.S. gross domestic product. In fact, the public may have a big appetite for news on such topics. But these days, media coverage and the human resources devoted to science and technology issues are not dictated by surveys of audience preferences.

A meteoric three-decades rise in S&T coverage, beginning in the immediate post-Sputnik era, “sought nothing less than to bring science to the entire public, to mediate between the technical and the lay, the wonky and the approachable,” Mooney and Kirshenbaum argue. “The thinking was that translating scientific knowledge into a form everyone could understand would help forge a more enlightened citizenry and, ultimately, a stronger democracy.”

Hard to argue with that.

But several trends have been conspiring to erode S&T media performance. First, a move to turn the media into big revenue generators. The fact that the reporting and producing of news is an expensive operation appears to have escaped the attention of the idiots who have recently been investing in newspapers and broadcast networks. After buying into enormous debt to acquire news operations, media moguls have suddenly realized that they can’t raise the money to easily pay off that debt. Especially as ad revenues have been moving away from the mainstream media, or MSM, and onto the Internet. The result: Experienced (and better paid) reporters and editors have been jettisoned over the past two years in favor of more (and lower cost) newbies.

I can understand why this strategy might appeal to a media owner because those newbies can fill a news hole as effectively as their predecessors did. Unfortunately for news consumers, what inexperienced newbies offer is often no more than a succession of bite-size reports on developments devoid of context and perspective. Mooney and Kirshenbaum describe this trend pithily: “As a rule, journalists are always in search of the dramatic and the new. When it comes to science, however, this can lead [inexperienced reporters or editors] to pounce on each ‘hot’ new result, even if that finding contradicts the last hot result or is soon overturned by a subsequent study. The resulting staccato coverage can leave the public hopelessly exasperated and confused.”

The approach that works in much political coverage – a search for balance by providing the arguments of one side contrasted against those of the “other” side – sometimes falls on its face in S&T reporting.

First, sometimes there aren’t two sides. There might be essentially just one. To contrast it against one or more largely uninformed or misinformed fringe groups won’t provide balance. It will just serve to elevate the credibility of groups that don’t deserve it.

Or there may be more than two sides. Perhaps five or more. To focus on any one or two – to the exclusion of the others – also does the public a disservice and again falls far short of the “balance.”

Or sometimes the news is not a controversy – with spicy competing quotes – but a slowly emerging trend that strengthens from some conventional wisdom into a general truth. Reporting this may not be as sexy as covering some political debate on climate change or the ethics of cloning. Still, the emerging truth may be what we need to hear. Even if it’s not what we hoped or wanted to hear. And that’s “how much of the press managed to bungle the most important science-related story of our time: global warming,” Mooney and Kirshenbaum contend. They covered quotes or developments that appeared to contradict conventional wisdoms. They didn’t cover the steady transformation of a “wisdom” into a truth.

Trend two: Over the past three decades, the news media has splintered from a few major local newspapers and a handful of national networks into a proliferating universe of free or near-free cable and online sources. At least initially, those alternative media parasitized the MSM for content. Today, online and cable media are increasingly doing their own reporting and often well. But most have focused on political or niche topics. Few offer full-service reporting on the universe of issues that shape our lives – especially science and tech. And the vast majority of “news” on the Internet amounts to blogs.

Blogs can be well researched and reasoned. But most instead are mere snippets of fact or some anecdote wrapped in a blanket of opinion. And most consumers don’t appear to have figured out how to separate the one from the other. In fact, Mooney and Kirshenbaum maintain, “The web . . . empowers good and bad alike. Accurate science and the most stunning misinformation thrive side by side . . . and there is no reason to think good scientific information is somehow beating [the bad] back.”

Commentary has its place. But it should augment sound reporting, not attempt to substitute for it. Indeed, the Best Science Blog, last year, came down to a confrontation between two “polemical” sites – one that assaults religious faith and another that challenges mainstream interpretations of the science of climate change. Conclude Mooney and Kirshenbaum: “the Internet is not unifying our culture around a comprehensive or even reliable diet of scientific information, and it isn’t replacing what’s being lost in the old media.”

On July 13, Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s new book came out, “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future” (2009, Basic Books, 224 pp.). I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. But it seems to tackle in greater depth the issues they bring up in The Nation.

So what’s the solution? The pair argue for a move toward nonprofit reporting and commentary. They recommend encouraging the reporting and analysis of S&T developments by universities, research-interest groups and others. I guess we, at Science News, fall into that general rubric.

But what we really need are more challenging and discriminating news consumers.

Learning how to discriminate news from cherry-picked data, commentary and polemicism may need to start in elementary school and continue on into college. Local community groups should offer refresher courses for those who finished their formal education ages ago.

We need to accept that the definition of news is morphing – as is its delivery and quality. Increasingly, it’s up to all of us to choose our sources of that continuing education wisely.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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