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«Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES Science and the Media Please direct inquiries to: American Academy ...»

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In the 1990s and early twenty-first century, an international effort to determine the structure of the entire human genome, as well as the cloning of animals such as the sheep Dolly, drew attention to the benefits and risks of genetic technology and the global nature of the scientific enterprise. Along the way, some science reporters were required to cover the whole gamut of science, from basic research to the public-policy implications of the use and potential misuse of science. Others specialized further in sub-beats of science writing, from neurobiology to earth sciences. Print journalists at major newspapers, magazines, and wire services provided the most in-depth coverage, with the electronic media (with the exception of public television and radio) often limited in content and dominated by the need for compelling visuals. In recent years, the rapid growth of the Internet has provided a new venue for public access to both scientific developments and writing about science, as well as opportunities for citizen journalism. The 24-hour electronic news cycle has also put more pressure on all journalistic outlets to release information more quickly than ever before, often with little time for in-depth reporting.

Today, those who cover science and technology range from full-time science reporters to general-assignment reporters who literally catch the story on the run. In addition to news and science sections, science and policy stories increasingly appear in less traditional arenas, including business, education, religion, and political coverage. The biotech, pharmaceutical, and energy industries have become a staple of business news. Debates over the teaching of evolution and intelligent design have dominated some local school board and court coverage, while state and local ballot initiatives force legal and political reporters to cover a variety of scientific, medical, and environmental issues, from stem cells to climate change.

Throughout these stories, there has been a growing emphasis on the intersection between science, policy, and politics. As the introduction to a recent science-writing guide notes, science has become “more a part of daily life. Some of the leading issues in today’s political marketplace—embryonic stem cell research, global warming, health care reform, space exploration, genetic privacy, germ warfare—are informed by scientific ideas.”5

Number of Staff Science Writers and Newspaper Science Sections Declines

It is ironic that as science writing has matured as a profession, both in sophistication and numbers, the traditional media outlets for reaching the general public have shrunk. Cutbacks in the news business, particularly newspapers, have brought a severe decline in the number of jobs for full-time staff science writers as well as a drop in the number of weekly science sections. Those that remain have become increasingly consumer-oriented, specializing more on soft health-and-fitness trends than on research information based on scientific

5. Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson, and Robin Marantz Henig, A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), vii.

16 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA studies. From its humble beginnings seventy-five years ago, the NASW is now the largest membership organization devoted to professional science writers, with about 2,250 members in 2010.6 But only a small number are employed as full-time news media staff, while the ranks of freelance science writers have greatly expanded. An analysis of NASW membership records from 2005 conducted for this paper found that only about 4 percent of members were staff reporters and editors for newspapers; 2 percent for popular magazines; and 1 percent for radio and television. Nine percent worked for specialty magazines or newsletters. About 40 percent of NASW members were freelance writers for a variety of publications. Another 42 percent wrote or edited science information or worked in public affairs for universities, companies, government, and other institutions, or taught and studied science journalism. By far the most dominant specialty among this science-writing group is medicine and health,7 although all branches of science writing are represented.

Newer specialty journalism organizations are also encouraging better coverage of crucial issues, such as the environment and health care. However, many of their members focus primarily on policy and politics, with far less emphasis on the underlying science or research. The Society of Environmental Journalists has grown to about 1,500 members since its founding in 1990.8 The Association of Health Care Journalists, incorporated in 1998, has nearly 1,000 members, about one-third of them from newspapers.9 One traditional measure of the interest in science coverage and the willingness of newspapers to showcase it is the decision to run dedicated print science sections—usually produced on a weekly basis with a range of stories, from short takes to in-depth features. The New York Times’ Tuesday “Science Times” started in 1978; it is still the gold standard of science sections, both in space, content, and the size of its contingent of highly skilled science reporters.

Fourteen full-time staff science and medical reporters, seven editors, and a host of outside contributors work on science coverage for the Times’ news pages and Science section.10 The weekly section’s topics range from the arcane—the latest in dinosaur bones and black holes—to the pressing personal and public policy issues of the day. The space devoted to health and fitness has grown significantly, as have online science and medical blogs.

6. NASW, http://www.nasw.org. Membership numbers accessed April 30, 2010.

7. NASW Membership Directory and Database, July 2005. Membership in NASW is only one measure of the number of full-time science reporters since membership is voluntary and not all staff science reporters choose to join their professional organizations. NASW did not have a breakdown of members’ work affiliation, so the 2005 Membership Directory and Database was reviewed for the 2006 Shorenstein paper.

8. Society of Environmental Journalists, http://www.sej.org, and email message to author from Executive Director Beth Parke, April 29, 2010.

9. Association of Health Care Journalists, http://www.healthjournalism.org, and email message to author from AHCJ. As of April 30, 2010, AHCJ membership totaled 974, with about onethird from newspapers and about one-fifth each from broadcasting and magazines.

10. Laura Chang (Science Editor, The New York Times), email message to the author, May 4, 2010.


In addition, the paper has other reporters working for the business section on pharmaceuticals, energy and technology, and for a separate cluster created in early 2009 to coordinate environmental coverage across the paper, from local to international stories.11 (Two of the Times’ senior environmental reporters chose to leave their newspaper staff positions in late 2009 as part of a newspaper-wide round of staff cutbacks, and the popular DotEarth blog by veteran environmental journalist Andrew Revkin shifted to the paper’s opinion section after he left the paper.) While the Times’ Science section has largely held its own, other newspaper science sections have not fared as well over time. Popular in newspapers across the United States in the 1980s (corresponding, in part, to computer ads), weekly science sections reached a peak of ninety-five in 1989 but dropped precipitously thereafter. By 1992, only forty-four papers continued to run weekly science sections, according to surveys done by the now-defunct Scientists’ Institute for Public Information (SIPI).12 Since then, science sections have continued to decline in number and size, particularly among smaller papers. Those that remain have shifted much further toward consumer health and fitness coverage. In 2005, there were at least thirty-four daily newspapers in the United States that ran weekly health and science sections, according to an analysis for this paper using the Editor & Publisher International Yearbook.13 Of them, more than two-thirds focused primarily on health in their titles, up from about 50 percent in 1992. In comparison, the sections that self-identified as “science” dropped from 30 percent in 1992 to 12 percent. The rest—18 percent in 2005 versus 21 percent in 1992—were listed as a combination of “health” and “science.” Of the forty-four papers with science sections in the 1992 survey, only twenty-four remained in 2005. Ten additional sections started between 1992 and 2005 among the nation’s top fifty papers in terms of circulation, with eight out of ten of them focused exclusively on health. A preliminary update suggests that since 2005 the number of papers known to have science and

11. Curtis Brainard and Cristine Russell, “The New Energy Beat,” Columbia Journalism Review (September/October 2009): 44.

12. Scientists’ Institute for Public Information, SIPIScope 20 (1) (Fall 1992). In 1992, only forty-four newspaper dailies published weekly science sections, but three of these papers published two different weekly science and health sections. There was, therefore, a total of fortyseven different science sections published in forty-four papers.

13. Editor & Publisher International Yearbook, 85th ed. (New York: VNU Business Media, Inc., 2005). Editor & Publisher includes information on special sections from 2004 submitted by individual newspapers. Our 2006 project survey examined information from the forty-four papers that had science sections in 1992 and found that twenty-four of them still had science sections.

In addition, research assistant Maria Alvarado examined entries from the top fifty newspapers in terms of circulation and found another ten new sections, for a total of thirty-four newspapers with special weekly sections involving science, health, or medicine. There may be additional science and/or health sections that were started by smaller newspapers, as the full directory was not reviewed.

18 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA health sections has dropped slightly, down from thirty-four in 2005 to thirtyone papers in early 2009.14 This includes the loss of the prestigious Health/ Science section in The Boston Globe in March 2009, after a twenty-five-year run, with science, technology, and environment coverage moved to its Monday Business section and health and medicine shifted to the Lifestyle section.15 Hit by the sinking newspaper economy, the Globe nonetheless kept the bulk of its science, environment, and medical team: six full-time science reporters and an additional part-time medical writer for its “White Coat Notes” medical news blog.16 At newspapers around the country, much of the science and health news coverage has also moved into the “lifestyle” sections and out of the news pages.

USA Today, the United States’ largest general circulation national newspaper, puts most of its science, health, and environment coverage at the back of its Life section, although it frequently features medicine and health on its front page. The Wall Street Journal regularly puts health, science, and technology coverage in its Personal Journal feature section and has added a regular science column in its news pages that looks broadly at new research and its impact on society.

Some critics, including science reporters, question the need for separate sections, arguing that they have the danger of preaching to the converted by sequestering important science and health coverage in a section that may be read primarily by readers who are already interested in science. Robert Lee Hotz, the Journal’s science columnist and a former president of NASW, worries that science sections are “often divorced from the news. They favor lovely but arcane exploration pieces on the wonders of research that may or may not have any connection to the events of the day.... We do ourselves a disservice when we set up picket fences that say ‘keep out, science writer inside.’” Hotz feels that science coverage needs to be pushed to the front of the paper, competing in the news section with other national and international stories, and that science writers themselves need to be stronger advocates for science and technology coverage. “If we put ourselves in competition with the news of the day, science is extremely successful at elbowing its way onto the front page,” he says.17

14. The science/health section update was based on the 2009 edition of Editor & Publisher International Yearbook (New York: Editor & Publisher, 2009). The yearbook is up-to-date as of September 30, 2008. In addition, in early 2009, the Rocky Mountain News ceased publishing and The Boston Globe discontinued its health/science section.

15. Cristine Russell, “Globe Kills Health/Science Section, Keeps Staff,” Columbia Journalism Review (March 4, 2009), http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/globe_kills_healthscience_sect.php.

16. Interview with Gideon Gil (Health and Science Editor, The Boston Globe), April 30, 2010.

The Globe currently has five health and science reporters, one editor, and a part-time medical blogger.

17. Robert Lee Hotz, telephone interview by the author, April 17, 2006.


However, promoting more science and science-policy coverage in the daily news columns and in weekly science sections is certainly not mutually exclusive.

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