Thursday, March 19, 2009

Science journalism: Supplanting the old media?

This week's issue of Nature has an interesting article on scientific blogging. Geoff Brumfiel asks whether science blogging will replace a declining scientific journalism.

In part because of a generalized downturn, especially in newspaper revenues, the traditional media are shedding full-time science journalists along with various other specialist and indeed generalist reporters. A Nature survey of 493 science journalists shows that jobs are being lost and the workloads of those who remain are on the rise (for full results see At the same time, researcher-run blogs and websites are growing apace in both number and readership. Some are labours of love; others are subsidized philanthropically, or trying to run as businesses.
I think diversity in media is a great thing. Throughout the 80s and 90s, it was apparent that the media was coming under the control of a few large corporations e.g. the News Corp, Time Warner etc. Controlling the media means controlling the message. The rise of the internet makes monopolizing the means of communication more difficult.

However, the article cites the example of Robert Lee Hotz, a science journalist for The Wall Street Journal, who doubts that blogs can fulfill the additional roles of watchdog and critic that the traditional media at their best aim to fulfill.

I seriously doubt this. In my opinion, investigative journalism is best a bottom-up enterprise. With the advent of venues such as wikileaks and reddit, anyone can be an investigative journalist.

Others say that science reporting will fail to reach a broad audience.
Press releases and blogs will not find the same broad audience once served by the mass media, says Peter Dykstra, who was executive producer of CNN's science, technology, environment and weather unit until it was closed down last year. Now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, an independent think tank in Washington DC, he says that science and environment news will be "ghettoized and available only to those who choose to seek it out".
So citizens will have to be active consumers of media rather than spoon fed "the news" during a 6:30 PM nightly broadcast? Oh catastrophe!

The idea that science journalism will suffer because major newspapers and tv stations are dropping coverage is ridiculous. What was that coverage anyway?
"You get a press release that is slightly rehashed by somebody in the newsroom and it goes in the paper! It's wrong, its sensationalist, it erodes the public trust in scientific endeavour," says Bora Zivkovic, author of A Blog Around the Clock on ScienceBlogs and an online community manager for the Public Library of Science journals. Myers takes a similar view. "Newspapers realize that they can get their audience by peddling crap instead of real science," he says. Not surprisingly, those who came to blogging from journalism — such as Carl Zimmer, who writes for a range of publications, including The New York Times, and blogs at Discover — tend to disagree. But Larry Moran, a biochemistry professor at the University of Toronto, Ontario, who blogs at Sandwalk, seemed to speak for many bloggers when he recently wrote "Most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of [sic] without it".
If anything blogging has enhanced scientific coverage. PZ Meyer's Pharyngula is getting 500k hits per week. The best thing is that scientists are generating news, reporting it, commenting on it and interacting with the general public in a manner that was impossible pre-web. Talk about tearing down the Ivory Tower! Readers can ask questions of actual scientists in the comment box, receive expert answers and opinions, and the end result will likely be a more science literate, engaged society.