Science reporting: Evolving before our eyes

“Independent science coverage is not just endangered, it’s dying,” according to the Wall Street Journal’s Robert Lee Hotz.

Increasingly, science news will be “ghettoized and available only to those who choose to seek it out,” argues Peter Dykstra, an executive producer of CNN’s science, technology and environment coverage — until his division was canned en masse last December.

These quotes are among the more provocative observations that Geoff Brumfiel has compiled in his news feature on evolutionary changes in science journalism. It appears in the March 19 Nature.

With the drying up of ad revenues — the money that subsidizes your TV news, daily paper and online magazine — media of all sizes and stripes are hurting. And laying off employees. Many of which include science reporters and editors.

To provide some meat for Brumfiel’s piece, Nature surveyed 493 science journalists. It found that some 30 percent work for organizations that have cut the size of their workforce in the past five years. On the other hand, 27 percent noted that their publication had added science writers and/or editors (our publication falls into this category).

But however many people are now working in journalism, the majority are working harder. Roughly 60 percent said they are covering more items in a given week than five years ago — 18.5 percent said they were covering “dramatically” more stories. (The staff here at Science News certainly would have checked off that latter category.)

The survey indicates that part of our increased workload comes from feeding the Web’s gaping maw. Eighty-some percent of respondents have been steadily writing and editing science stories for print publications over the past five years. The number of science journalists working in radio, though a far smaller share of the total (16 percent), also remain unchanged. But today 31.5 percent of respondents blog — up from just 4 percent in 2004. Fifteen percent of the journalists take part in podcasts, about six times the number in 2004. And those of us whose stories appear online has increased by 50 percent in recent years — from 49 percent, five years ago, to 76.5 percent today.

Brumfiel reports that science journalism in Europe (which contributed 50 percent of respondents to the Nature survey) “has not yet reached the level of crisis seen in the United States.” So those figures would have looked more dire if the survey had been more heavily weighted toward American journalists (they accounted for 42 percent of those questioned).

Of course science news isn’t going to die. Blogs will be around for quite a while, I suspect. And organizations who want attention or to spin an issue will continue to issue press releases that can be picked up in part or in whole by the media and public at large.

Indeed, a number of scientists are now blogging with news of their work — or comments/analyses of interesting research by others. One problem, these often aren’t really written for the general public. A bigger obstacle: These science portals can be hard to find in a Web populated by gazillions of bloggers (and with millions more coming online each minute — or so it seems). For people with dial-up service (yes, there still are many such Internet users), flitting from site to site to reach each site can be cumbersome.

But what concerns me most about this trend toward citizen and citizen-science “journalism” is that these people tend to comment on science more than uncover details of new developments. There’s usually no editor to ask if a story really hangs together or to suggest that perhaps soliciting perspective from someone in a slightly different but allied field would strengthen the piece. Few bloggers contact the scientists whose work they’re writing about to make sure they understand what has been discovered — or what followup work is now underway.

Perhaps most importantly, few bloggers or citizen journalists hunt down research related to the news item on which they’re focusing. Nor do many scout for trends. For instance,

— I’ve been accused more than once of being a matchmaker: introducing people doing somewhat related work but beneath the radar screen of each other. A few years later these scientists were now regularly coauthoring papers.

— When I became intrigued by a paper finding pharmaceutical pollution in an alpine lake, well upstream of its production, I probed to find out how unusual this was and what it seemed to indicate: which was that urinary excretion could prove a significant source of drugs in water. I tracked down everyone who had heard of a colleague who had collected such data (and they were, invariably, in Europe). The result was the first ever story on this diffuse type of water pollution. Afterward, several scientists said they used my piece as part of their proposals to get the first North American grants to investigate the issue.

— When the World Wildlife Fund issued photos in 1999 showing evidence that the Vietnamese rhino was not extinct after all, news organizations ran the animal’s glamour shot along with a brief caption. But that’s not journalism. I spoke for hours by phone to biologists in Asia and to rhino experts elsewhere to flesh out why science had assumed the animal was extinct, what new data suggest about the species’ extant population, how perilous this rhino’s survival appears to be — and why. I even persuaded a scientist in Ho Chi Minh City to take photos of the park rangers in Vietnam. His images provided a graphic indication of the tough environment in which the rangers fight to guard endangered species. Now that is journalism.

Such stories risk never emerging when full-time professional journalists (freelancers and staff-employed ones alike) are replaced by press releases and the mental perambulations of the scientist-blogger.

There’s room for both journalism and citizen communiqués. They actually complement each other. I just fear we will increasingly lose the time-consuming, expensive-to-report journalistic offerings and have to largely settle for quick-and-dirty blog posts and photocaps.

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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