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The Regression—and Ongoing Redemption—of Journalism’s Role in Science


The ability to communicate science accurately, concisely, and in a comprehensible manner to a non-expert public is critical for science’s continued role in society.  It is insufficient for scientists to merely excel at explaining their science to peers well versed in their fields.  Science relies on both public funding and public opinion to further its own momentum, as we’ve seen in controversial fields such as stem-cell research and climate change.  In both cases, a misinformed public has affected the federal government’s inclination to provide funding for research, greatly hindering the fields. But whatever civic value we attach to reporting on scientific issues, countless major media outlets have either downsized or eliminated primary science reporting from their bailiwicks.

Dietram A. Scheufele reported in a paper published last August in PNAS that the number of major media outlets with a weekly science section has dropped from 95 in 1989 to just 19 in 2013.  Further, even the most stalwart of newsrooms participated in this downsizing, as CNN cut its whole science, technology and environment staff, while the New York Times dismantled its environmental science staff.  In a Nature commentary this week, Susan Watts affirms the important role media plays in explaining science to the public.  It is not enough, she argues, that scientists be left to their own devices to sensationalize (or minimize) their studies.  News media plays an integral role in telling the truth about science and translating it into a language the public can understand.

I believe the increasingly partisan and click-bait framing of science for public consumption plays a part in this regression. Science is too often another front in the culture and troll wars; consequently, the public might be increasingly conditioned toward knee-jerk reactions to new science and less willing to indulge nuance.  This is wrong!  We must reaffirm the importance of science to society, and society to science.

Ed’s Note: The good news? Science blogging is everywhere. For example, to read Ed Yong writing about the worst places to get stung by a bee is to understand that science journalism is in capable hands. Moreover, the long-form science-writing ecosystem has never been healthier: online outlets like Matter, Aeon, Byliner, The Atavist, Nautilus and Mosaic consistently run stories about science that are at once complex and accessible, nuanced and direct, and full of complicated people doing and experiencing amazing things.  Meanwhile WNYC’s Radiolab overflows with audio renderings of extraordinary science stories that never fail to dismantle facile stereotypes of socially awkward brainiacs in white coats in pursuit of the boring, the abstract and/or the amoral. More often than not these outlets do what a good novel or film does: they provoke us, entertain us, make us laugh, and make us cry. They remind us that science is, finally, a human endeavor.

Edited by Misha Angrist