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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 an ideal world, important science news would be covered as it happens in the daily news pages, and science writers would cover spot news and write indepth analytical pieces that compete for the front page. But science and health sections provide a reliable opportunity for viewing trends in science and science policy in more depth and with more perspective than may be realistically available in the front-section news hole. By hiring specialty health and science writers, the sections also offer a safety net of trained reporters who are well equipped to cover unpredictable spot news, particularly threats such as the disastrous Gulf of Mexico deepwater oil drilling accident, an outbreak of H1N1 influenza, or a bioterrorism incident, when the need arises. Existing sections need to encourage more substantive and timely science policy and issue stories, rather than settling into covering primarily the more comfortable and timeless “gee whiz” science or consumer health stories.

Newsmagazines, struggling to maintain their audiences, have also shifted their emphasis strongly toward consumer health and medicine and “green” stories, with pure science a casualty here as well. In 2005, ten of the fifty Newsweek covers were on health issues, such as lung cancer, autism, and heart disease, according to a Newsweek cover story on “Diet Hype,” subtitled “How the Media Collides with Science.”18 The story also noted a potential economic connection: pharmaceutical companies spent $1.3 billion in magazine advertising in 2005, with another $2.4 billion on network and cable television.19 Time has taken a strong pro-environment editorial stance and sounded early alarm bells on climate change, championing these causes on its covers and inside its pages. U.S. News and World Report heavily promotes consumeroriented products, such as its “best hospital” rankings, but has cut back most of its senior science and medical staff, as have its sister magazines.

While print opportunities in both newspapers and newsmagazines are far more limited than in the past, science magazines largely targeted to educated audiences already interested in science still provide high-quality content. The venerable Science News, a nonprofit started in 1922 but revamped in 2008, continues to provide biweekly news and analysis of science and society in print and daily updates online.20 Monthly science magazines like Discover and Scientific American offer in-depth science features and online coverage that can’t be found in mass media publications.

In the electronic media, television network and cable news coverage of science continues to dwindle, with health and environment the mainstays of the limited coverage. CNN caught flak when it fired its entire science, environment, and technology team in late 2008.21 National Public Radio mainBarbara Kantrowitz and Claudia Kalb, “Food News Blues,” Newsweek, March 13, 2006.

19. Ibid.

20. Science News is published by the Society for Science & the Public, http://www.sciencenews.org.

21. Curtis Brainard, “CNN Cuts Entire Science, Tech Team,” December 4, 2008, http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/cnn_cuts_entire_science_tech_t.php.

–  –  –

The Rise of Online Coverage and the “Blogosphere” The biggest growth industry is online, offering the print and electronic news media opportunities to expand their Web coverage of specialized topics in science and technology, health and medicine, and energy and the environment.

Online sites, blogs, and social media tools are becoming the twenty-first-century version of the science section, and in many cases have already replaced or augmented the print version of science and medical sections in newspapers as well as in newsmagazines. In theory, they have the potential to update and personalize science stories that appeal to newer, younger audiences and to give the public a chance to participate in the dialogue. Multimedia video, graphics, and other visuals can also bring the stories to life in a way that words alone cannot.

Unfortunately, given the troubling economic status of mainstream news media, online science-related sites often fall short of their potential, even among the most trusted news brands. Catering to popular interests, they overemphasize consumer interests in health and medicine, depend heavily on the latest wire coverage (where newness is the premium) to replace staff-generated content, go for “gee whiz” science visuals, and fall short in terms of serious analysis of science-policy issues.

With science staff cutbacks at most media institutions and a smaller news hole in print editions, those specialty newspaper and magazine reporters and editors that remain find themselves juggling their limited time. At this point, the Web is winning. Updating blogs, feeding online coverage, and promoting visibility through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter often mean that longer, in-depth reporting projects are put aside (or never attempted in the first place). In addition, these online and social media sites tend to appeal to niche audiences, rather than the broader audiences that mainstream media have traditionally attracted.

The Washington Post’s science coverage, for example, has suffered with the loss of several senior science writers due to staff reductions and buyouts in recent years. Its twenty-five-year-old Health section now includes some environment and science coverage, but it has limited staff to do so. Online, the Post’s current coverage tilts heavily toward health care reform and consumer health, environment, and technology. Of about a hundred blogs listed on the Post’s website,22 two are devoted to health news and health care reform; two to environment, energy, and climate change; and two to consumer technology and policy. None focuses on basic science itself, although there are twenty blogs devoted to sports.

22. The Washington Post has a comprehensive list of the paper’s blogs posted at http://blog.washingtonpost.com.


However, award-winning sites like MSNBC’s Cosmic Log,23 written by respected science editor Alan Boyle, show the potential for combining serious reporting and commentary on space, astronomy, and science in a popular way that appeals to a broad mainstream audience.

Another trend is media partnerships with other organizations and outside experts who contribute to science, environment, or medical coverage. Many papers and magazines are “outsourcing” their Web content, buying coverage in areas like the environment and energy from specialty news and feature services and utilizing outside experts to blog or conduct online sessions with readers. The Washington Post’s blog The Planet Panel brings in outside experts to talk about climate change, while The New York Times supplements its staff energy and environment coverage with stories from an independent subscriptionbased service, Energy and Environment Publishing, LLC.24 However, such partnerships can also raise red flags, as lines blur between independent journalism and sponsored content. U.S. News and World Report, for example, now features science content sponsored and generated by the federal government’s National Science Foundation (NSF)—a decision that calls into question the traditional divide between mainstream journalism outlets and the agencies they cover.25 Major specialty monthly magazines such as Discover, Scientific American, and Wired complement their glossy print editions with lively websites that tend to be newsy, fast-paced sources of science and technology content. Discover has also cultivated a small set of distinctive blogs by ten scientists and science journalists, with its most popular one, “Bad Astronomy,” written by astronomer and author Phil Plait.26 In contrast, ScienceBlogs,27 started by Seed Media Group in 2006 with fifteen blogs, has grown to more than eighty blogs from diverse disciplines, providing “a digital science salon” that its founders say is now “the largest online community dedicated to science.” The site is a rich source of unedited commentary on all things science (often accompanied by unvarnished language that would never pass mainstream media muster). But there is considerable competition in the wild, woolly world of the Web, as the widespread use of search engines like Google leads the public to a vast array of often unreliable, inaccurate sites run by organizations or individuals with a variety of agendas. Particularly troubling is the growth of a highly polarized blogosphere in the most controversial areas of science: from climate change to evolution. This trend led Harvard Kennedy School professor Sheila Jasanoff to team up with science author and Discover blogger Chris Mooney for an April 2010 workshop on “Unruly Democracy: Science Blogs and the Public

23. Cosmic Log, started in 2002 by MSNBC Science Editor Alan Boyle, covers “quantum fluctuations in space, science, exploration, and other cosmic fields”; http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com.

24. Brainard and Russell, “The New Energy Beat,” 44.

25. U.S. News and World Report, http://www.usnews.com/science.

26. Discover blogs, http://blogs.discovermagazine.com.

27. ScienceBlogs in English can be found at http://scienceblogs.com.

22 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA Sphere.”28 They explored their concern that the unruly nature of science blogs may have severe negative consequences for scientific communication when distorted information masquerades as scientific truth and uncivil, often ugly, exchanges occur.

Perhaps the most dramatic example has been in the arena of climate change. Partisan blogs fuel anti-science sentiment and further undermine public belief in the scientific consensus that the planet is threatened by global climate change resulting from human-generated greenhouse gas emissions.

Public confusion is heightened by misleading sites and blogs labeled as science when they are decidedly not. For example, two of the most popular “science” blogs listed by Wikio,29 a site that monitors blog traffic, are Watts Up with That? and Climate Audit. Both are anti-climate science, conservative sites that deny that climate change results from human activity. In contrast, two of the other top-ranked science blogs listed by Wikio,30 Climate Progress and RealClimate, strongly support both climate change science and a political agenda to curb carbon emissions. Both the pro- and anti-climate science bloggers

preach to far different constituencies, but they have something in common:

they frequently attack climate coverage by the mainstream media and individual journalists. Once again, it’s easy to make the media a scapegoat.


History of Scientists’ Involvement with News Media Traditionally, scientists have viewed the media with suspicion and the prospect of being interviewed by a reporter akin to a visit to the dentist. In fact, such interviews often felt like pulling teeth, as reluctant researchers measured their words and feared being misquoted. Part of the tension stemmed from the scientific tradition of presenting research first to colleagues at scientific meetings and later to the scientific world through peer-reviewed journals. Only then was it considered appropriate to talk to the public through news media translators.

Early scientific popularizers like the late astronomer Carl Sagan, whose riveting books and television documentaries brought the “Cosmos” to the average American, were often viewed critically by their peers for talking directly to the public. However, times changed as the struggle for federal research funds became ever more competitive, and public and political criticism of the products of science and technology—from environmental pollution to nuclear power—put many parts of the scientific enterprise on the defensive. Increasingly, academic institutions and scientific organizations hired communications

28. Held at the HKS by the Program on Science, Technology & Society. A video of the workshop can be found at http://www.hks.harvard.edu/sts/events/workshops/unrulydemocracy.html.

29. Wikio top-ranked science blogs, as of May 2010 based on links from other blogs; http:// www.wikio.com/blogs/top/sciences.

30. Ibid.


experts to prepare press releases on their scientific work and publicize the findings to a broader audience. Groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the nation’s largest general scientific organization, as well as specialty science organizations, set up elaborate pressrooms and briefings for their annual meetings and publications, with particular attention paid to topical or controversial science that was under public scrutiny.

Through it all, many scientists have felt uncomfortable with press coverage, worrying about being misquoted or having their research taken out of context. Although they place the blame on the media and its shortcomings, a large part of the problem is that many prominent scientists do not see this as part of their job and are not trained to deal with the media. Veteran science reporter Cornelia Dean, a former science editor of The New York Times, notes that scientists complain bitterly about the “poor quality of science journalism” and “what I always say to them is, ‘You’re right. But the only people who can do anything about it are you, the scientists.’ As a group, they are not very good at communicating with the lay public or with reporters.”31 Dean, who designed a Harvard University course for scientists and engineers, feels that scientists’ training should include science writing: “I don’t think people should get a doctorate in science without some exposure to how to tell an ordinary citizen what they’re doing. Scientists have an affirmative obligation to take part in the debate. Their absence is one of the things that has debased the national dialogue.”32 “There is an uneasy tension between reporters and scientists,” admits University of Maryland professor Rita R. Colwell, who headed the NSF for six years. “We have slowly matured from the situation twenty years ago when good scientists simply refused to talk to the press. Frankly, they didn’t know how, and they were afraid of being misquoted and ridiculed by their colleagues.

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