The Science Writer’s Lament
The Missing Section in Your Daily Paper
Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture from Los Angeles, California. He is author of two previous books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs at The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum. (Photo: flickr.com/sarahfelicity)
Peter Calamai describes himself—and only half jokingly—as a “grizzled veteran” of the newspaper industry. Over the course of his forty-year career, he has covered a wide range of subjects, but for the past decade Calamai served as the dedicated science reporter for Canada’s most widely read newspaper, the Toronto Star. That’s until June of this year, anyway, when along with one tenth of the paper’s staff, he took a buyout—an all too common occurrence these days, as newspapers cut back on resources in the face of declining subscriptions and ad revenue thanks to competition from the Internet. Today the Star retains medical and environmental reporters, who of necessity do science-related writing in the course of their work, but has not hired another science-centered journalist since Calamai’s departure.
Indeed, the treatment of science at the Star was shrinking long before 2008. As Calamai explained to me recently in Montreal—where we were both participating in a panel discussion about science and the media at McGill University—up until a few years ago the paper ran pages labeled “Science” in its Saturday and Sunday editions. But when those fell by the wayside, the rest of the paper didn’t make up for it; Calamai could still file science feature stories, but the total column space for science coverage declined noticeably.
In a time of media industry upheaval, Calamai’s story sounds achingly familiar. Indeed, the only recent study that I know of on the subject, undertaken by longtime science reporter Cristine Russell on behalf of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, showed that large numbers of newspapers are making cuts similar to those made by the Star. Russell found that between 1989 and 2005, the number of U.S. newspapers featuring a weekly science section declined precipitously, from 95 to 34.
I fully believe there’s a professional (and perhaps even moral) duty, on the part of the media, to cover science and cover it well.
It may be understandable that newspapers are cutting back on total coverage in light of the economic challenges they face; it may even be understandable that they see science as one obvious area where they can save dollars and space. But still, one behind-the-scenes detail that Calamai related in Montreal just blew my mind. When the Star got rid of its formal science section, he remembered, almost no one called in to complain. Sure, there were a handful of protests—Calamai estimates about 12 at most—but certainly nothing like the kind of volume that might prompt the paper’s management to reconsider its decision.
It’s a fact which puts a troubling gloss on the not-unfamiliar narrative of declining science content in the media. That it’s happening isn’t in doubt; neither is the cause (economics). But the question of whether there will be anything resembling a concerted response to the phenomenon from the people who most notice and lament it remains very much up in the air.
My sense is that many scientists and science aficionados are very unhappy with the terrible shake their subject often gets in the press. Certainly I’ve certainly heard scientists complain about media coverage countless times. But if science’s dedicated coterie of followers aren’t willing to pick up the phone and raise hell when Canada’s biggest newspaper cuts back science coverage, is it any surprise that many media outlets fail to give science its due?
Don’t get me wrong: I fully believe there’s a professional (and perhaps even moral) duty, on the part of the media, to cover science and cover it well. And here I’m talking about the mass media; not just the science magazines, not just the newspapers. I also believe there are more than enough people in the U.S.—and in the world—who care about such coverage to make it economically viable (if done engagingly and entertainingly enough). Yet if these two realms, the media and science, are so disconnected that the latter won’t make a ruckus about bad moves by the former, then it’s hard to see how sciencecould ever compete with sports, or even the horoscope, for newspaper space. Rather, we should fully expect that newspapers, facing hard times, will keep making decisions much like the one the Star made.
So perhaps we should acknowledge the fact that pointing fingers at the press, and taking principled stands about its obligation to elevate national discourse, serve democracy, and so on, represents a type of idealism that we can no longer afford. These media companies are moneymaking businesses, and struggling ones at that. So of course they can’t always stick to the loftiest goals, even though many folks within the news business themselves regularly bemoan the way things are headed.
Isn’t it time, then, that those of us who care about science, and who think it belongs in the media, start doing something about it? Because while the Toronto Star no longer has a science section, and neither do many other papers, others still remain.
One suggestion is to be preemptive: If your paper still carries a regular science section, write the editors and tell them that it’s important to you as a reader, and that you value the content. It’s particularly critical that lay readers outside of the formal scientific community make this clear, thereby underscoring that it’s not just a small scientific elite that appreciates such coverage. And don’t think for a second that just because your paper carries a fair amount science, it has proven impervious to the market forces affecting the industry as a whole. The science journalists who remain at newspapers are facing the pressure too: I’ve heard from several that they’ve increasingly been transformed into part-time bloggers, compelled to post constant story updates to the paper’s website. Inevitably, such new duties leave these journalists with far less time to dig in for in-depth stories of the sort that really inform, educate, and can have large policy repercussions.
Editors should also recognize what my colleagues at the ScienceDebate2008 coalition have impressed upon the presidential campaigns: that the health, wealth, and safety of the nation depend upon science and technology, and consequently the American people deserve to know about it. So not only should media outlets cover science, but they should cover its intersection with these other spheres, which should, in turn, help broaden the subject’s appeal.
And finally, let’s just admit it: If the longstanding for-profit economic model of journalism cannot survive in this day of free content on the Web, then perhaps some major news organizations need to become nonprofit 501(c)3 organizations, committed to serving as neutral, educational, public service institutions essential to the maintenance of democracy. This trend, too, has already begun—witness the launch of Pro Publica, a nonprofit investigative journalism outfit—and over time, perhaps it will change the media landscape considerably. But in the meantime, if we care about science journalism, the bottom line is clear—we have to fight for it.
Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.
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