Unpopular Science

Unpopular Science

Intelligent science reporting has been gutted–just when we need it most.



For twenty-three years Sabin Russell worked at the San Francisco Chronicle. A top medical writer specializing in global health and infectious diseases, Russell covered subjects ranging from bioterror threats to the risk of avian flu and traveled throughout Africa to report on the AIDS epidemic. He won numerous accolades, including a 2001 Science in Society Journalism Award from the National Association of Science Writers for his reporting on the flaws of the flu vaccine industry.

Then came March 30, 2009–his last day on the job. Russell was at MIT, on leave from his paper for a fellowship. The struggling Chronicle had been cutting staff and now suddenly forced many older career journalists to either take a buyout or risk a reduced pension. At 56, Russell was at the peak of his game, but for him, as for many of his colleagues, there was really just one option. “We have not left journalism; journalism has left us,” Russell remarked recently from San Francisco, where he is setting up a freelance office and looking for work.

Now the painful irony: Russell was pressured out of his job just as swine flu murmurs began to emerge from Mexico. This was his beat; few reporters are better equipped to tackle such a difficult yet urgent story, one so rife with uncertain but potentially severe risk. Russell even tipped off his old employer that the paper might want to get a jump on what was happening in Mexico City. “If I was covering this story now,” he says, “I’d be all over the Southern Hemisphere. It’s flu season there. How is Australia? How is the infrastructure to respond to a new strain holding up?”

Those are stories Russell won’t be writing.

It’s no secret the newspaper industry is hemorrhaging staff writers and slashing coverage as its business model collapses in the face of declining readership and advertising revenues. But less recognized is how this trend is killing off a breed of journalistic specialists that we need now more than ever–science writers like Russell, who are uniquely trained for the most difficult stories, those with a complex technical component that are nevertheless critical to politics and society.

We live in a time of pathbreaking advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology, of private spaceflight and personalized medicine, amid a climate and energy crisis, in a world made more dangerous by biological and nuclear terror threats and global pandemics. Meanwhile, advances in neuroscience are calling into question who we are, whether our identities and thought processes can be reduced to purely physical phenomena, whether we actually have free will. The media ought to be bursting with this stuff. Yet precisely the opposite is happening: even in places where you’d expect it to hold out the longest, science journalism is declining.

Take Mark Carreau, until recently the space reporter for the Houston Chronicle. He spent more than twenty years covering NASA, whose Johnson Space Center (JSC) lies in the Chronicle‘s backyard. Such expertise, however, failed to outweigh the need for newsroom cuts, and Carreau was laid off earlier this year. As one space wonk lamented on a blog on the occasion of Carreau’s departure: “I’m guessing there are now more people in space than there are reporters in the JSC newsroom.”

Or take the ailing Boston Globe, situated in a global center of science that leads the biotech industry. In March the paper dumped its specialized Monday “Health/Science” section, transferring health coverage to its arts and lifestyle pages and folding science reporting into its Monday business section. Soon after, the paper reduced staff significantly on its science desk. The Globe‘s decision wasn’t about the relevance of science to readership; it was about the underlying economics.

The death of specialized newspaper science sections like the Globe‘s is a long-term trend–one that appears to be accelerating. From 1989 to 2005, the number of US papers featuring weekly science-related sections shrank from ninety-five to thirty-four. Many of the remaining sections shifted to softer health, fitness and “news you can use” coverage, reflecting the apparent judgment that more thorough science or science policy coverage just doesn’t support itself economically.

And the problem isn’t confined to newspapers. Just one minute out of every 300 on cable news is devoted to science and technology, or one-third of 1 percent. Late last year CNN cut its entire science, space and technology unit. The most prominent departure: Miles O’Brien, who covered the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster for the network.

How did the US media–serving a country that leads the world in virtually every aspect of science–reach this point? Certainly it wasn’t always this way.

Science journalism began as a specialized beat in the early twentieth century but burgeoned in the United States after World War II. The 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik was an especially galvanizing event; in response, US newspapers ramped up their science content, and a generation of writers cut their teeth covering the “space race.” Another boom came in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series reached 500 million people globally, and fifteen new science magazines, eighteen new newspaper science sections and seventeen new science TV shows were launched in the United States.

This “popular science” movement sought nothing less than to bring science to the entire public, to mediate between the technical and the lay, the wonky and the approachable. 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.

That ambition didn’t last: deregulation and technological change would soon dramatically reshape the media industry. Policy moves during the Reagan and Clinton years, epitomized by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, helped foster mass media conglomeration, as a relatively small number of corporations began to pull together diverse media sectors–movies, television, book publishing, music, magazines, radio and many newspapers–and cram them into massive firms. Serious science journalism often fared poorly in this climate. Producing it required seasoned, highly trained journalists who expected to receive salaries commensurate with their experience and expertise. The conglomerates had a different plan–more revenue, less cost, rising stock prices.

Even as science coverage became squeezed in service to the bottom line, another trend emerged that made it increasingly difficult to reach broad swaths of America with scientific information–the loss of common media sources shared by large segments of the populace. During television’s so-called golden age, the broadcast networks–ABC, CBS and NBC–provided a shared cultural experience and news environment and featured plenty of science. PBS joined them: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, its greatest science program, was a product of this era.

Then along came cable TV, providing myriad channel alternatives for those who wanted to detach from serious news, and increasingly politicized platforms like Fox News and MSNBC for those who remained plugged in. And already the Internet’s transformative powers seem likely to make cable’s impact on the media seem trivial by comparison. Newspapers are on the verge of extinction, but we have millions of blogs to suit every interest and political persuasion, Google News to sift our headlines and Twitter to titillate.

In this context, science media outlets like the Discovery Channel still exist, as do programs like PBS’s NOVA–but only as one niche among many. Even the pinnacle of newspaper science journalism, the New York Times‘s Tuesday science section, reaches only perhaps a million people once a week, a small slice of America.

The problem with the decline of science journalism is not just that there is less attention overall to science; it’s that the remaining science coverage is less illuminating. Instead, it indulges in a variety of journalistic pathologies that thwart an improved public understanding of science.

As a rule, journalists are always in search of the dramatic and the new. When it comes to science, however, this can lead them 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. Should you drink more coffee or less? Does global warming increase the number and intensity of hurricanes or not? Are vaccines safe, or can they cause an autism epidemic? Experienced science journalists know how to cover such topics by contextualizing studies and deferring to the weight of the evidence. Inexperienced journalists, though, are likely to leave audiences with a severe case of media whiplash.

Then there’s the problem of “balance”–the idea that reporters must give roughly equal space to two different “sides” of a controversy. When applied to science, especially in politicized areas, this media norm becomes extremely problematic. Should journalists really grant equal time to the small band of scientists who deny the causal relationship between HIV and AIDS when the vast majority of researchers accept the connection between the two? Should they split column space between the few remaining global warming “skeptics” and scientific experts who affirm the phenomenon’s human causation? Again, experienced science journalists will know best how to cover such stories and will be aware of the scientific community’s very justifiable abhorrence of unthinking “balance.”

For a disturbing glimpse of what to expect from a media world with vastly fewer trained science journalists, we need only recount how much of the press managed to bungle the most important science-related story of our time: global warming. We were warned and warned again about climate change, yet for decades did nothing as the problem steadily worsened. In large part, that’s because the US public continues to rate global warming as a low priority, and politicians respond to that public. Both have been getting their cues about what matters from the media.

The mass media, however, got the climate story wrong in multiple ways–first, by covering it as a “he said, she said” controversy during the 1990s (bowing to pressure from special interests and their pet scientists, who strategically attacked the scientific consensus) and then, even after moving away from such “balanced” coverage, by providing far too little attention to the story overall–hardly proportionate to the grave planetary danger it poses. Climate change keeps worsening, yes, but how often is it the kind of news that can trump all the other urgent matters demanding media attention?

In fact, though coverage of climate change in the worldwide newspaper media rose sharply in 2005 and 2006, it declined after that, apparently overshadowed by the economic collapse. But scientists are growing increasingly terrified of what global warming could do–among other things, submerge coastal cities–and are now contemplating further meddling with the climate system (so-called geoengineering) as a last-ditch effort to reverse it. We may yet escape such worst-case scenarios, but if we do, it won’t be thanks to the press.

Here an obvious question arises: if the Internet is most directly responsible for the decline of newspapers, then can science blogs and science-infused websites fill the gap?

Science content on the web is certainly booming. It’s estimated that there are some 1,000 science blogs, and that’s undoubtedly a very conservative figure. Science blogs often focus on hot-button topics such as vaccination, the teaching of evolution and the politics of climate change, and devote considerable time to parsing new research findings. Often written by scientists or science journalists, they’re highly attuned to the many problems that have plagued the coverage of science, like phony “balance,” and tend to avoid or even denounce them–with verve and attitude.

In other ways as well, the Internet has become the go-to place for science. According to the National Science Foundation, it ranks second only to television among the leading sources of science information for the average citizen and is leaving other, older sources far behind. In particular, when Americans want to find information about a specific scientific topic, they go to the web far more often than they open a research book.

Undoubtedly, one can find excellent science information on the web, but the question is whether most people will find it. Newspaper science journalists in their heyday wrote for a broad and diverse slice of the public. On the Internet, though, it’s all about finding your particular micro-community. The web atomizes us–and while it certainly empowers, it empowers good and bad alike. Accurate science and the most stunning misinformation thrive side by side–anti-vaccine advocates, anti-evolutionists and global warming deniers all have highly popular websites and blogs, and there is no reason to think good scientific information is somehow beating them back.

This problem was on full display in the 2008 Weblog Awards, a popularity contest that featured a tight race for Best Science Blog. The two leading contestants: PZ Myers’s Pharyngula (scienceblogs.com/pharyngula), the online clearinghouse for confrontational atheism, and Watts Up With That (wattsupwiththat.com), written by former TV meteorologist Anthony Watts, a skeptic of the scientific conclusion that human activities have caused global warming. Both sites are polemical: one assaults religious faith; the other constantly attacks mainstream understanding of climate change.

In the end, Watts Up With That defeated Pharyngula, 14,150 votes to 12,238. The “science” contest came down to the religion-basher versus the misinformation-machine, and the misinformation-machine won. That speaks volumes about the form science commentary takes on the Internet.

That’s not to say blogs lack any benefits; they have many. But 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. Perhaps Sabin Russell put it best, on the very day he took his buyout from the San Francisco Chronicle. At 4:44 pm he posted his second entry on a social networking site that some tout as journalism’s future. It read: “This is the way my career ends. This is the way my career ends. Not with a bang, but a Twitter.” Russell had fourteen followers at the time.

Given that the decline of science journalism is being driven by overwhelming technological and economic forces, it might seem unstoppable. But perhaps instead, the answer lies outside the free market: with the creation of not-for-profit sources of science journalism and commentary, meant to last for long periods safely insulated from market upheaval. An example might be Climate Central, a new nonprofit that supplies a variety of journalistic content relating to climate change, including footage for television programs like PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

Another group of nonprofits–universities–can take the lead in institutionalizing new priorities so that communication, a subject given notoriously short shrift among scientists in the past, becomes a focal point. Especially among the youngest generation of researchers–graduate students, recent PhDs and postdocs–there’s a hunger for training in media outreach. These scientists want to obtain the skills that can help them explain their work to a broader public, and there is hardly a time when they will have greater need for them than now, when the journalists who might once have been expected to do this work simply don’t have jobs any longer.

For such communication training to become more common, however, we’ll need a paradigm shift among the nation’s population of brilliant scientists. Immersed in vital research, they have paid relatively little attention to the business side of the media and how it affects them. They’ve tended to view the press as having a high moral “responsibility” to cover research–period. In some sense, they still think we’re in the age of Edward R. Murrow. In fact, it’s the age of Bill O’Reilly.

In light of the media upheaval, scientists can no longer assume that a responsible, high-minded press will treat their ideas with the seriousness they deserve, delivering them to policy-makers and the public for sober consideration. Instead, partisan media will convey diametrically opposed versions of where science actually stands on any contentious subject–consider, for example, the difference between how Fox News and NPR cover climate change–even as most of the public (and many policy-makers) will tune out science more or less completely, besieged by other information options.

That’s the media reality we live with, and facing it head-on is necessary not only for scientists but for everyone who cares about the impact of science and good information on public policy. We must stop assuming today’s media will dutifully carry the best and most reliable knowledge to policy-makers and the American public. Rather, it falls to us to shift gears and carry that knowledge to the entirety of the remaining media, and well beyond. In the latter endeavor, we may have to create media of our own.

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