APS News

Science Journalism Faces Perilous Times

By Michael Lucibella

APS devotes significant resources to “media relations,” aimed mainly at promoting the coverage of the latest physics research in the general media.

But the targets of this effort, science journalists, are an endangered breed. Newspapers have been shutting down their science bureaus while networks have been cutting airtime for science stories. This disquieting trend comes at a time when science and technology play a greater role in people’s lives than ever before. The tumultuous and uncertain state of science journalism today could jeopardize public science literacy in the coming years. 

In late December CNN eliminated its general science desk, opting to focus exclusively on environmental issues. Two reporters, Miles O’Brien and Peter Dykstra, along with five producers, were laid off during the reorganization, touching off a flurry of controversy. The Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, in conjunction with the National Associations of Science Writers, issued an open letter to the presidents of CNN and CNN International criticizing the cuts. They wrote that “The wholesale dismantling of the science unit calls into question CNN’s commitment to bringing the most informative science news to the general public, including the science-minded younger audience.”

CNN may be the most prominent major news source to announce cutbacks in its science reporting, but it is not the only one. The Boston Globe announced in February that it would discontinue its separate Health & Science section. The Los Angeles Times and the Columbus Dispatch have likewise curtailed much of their science coverage. Even specialized publications have felt the pinch. Aviation Week & Space Technology closed its Cape Canaveral bureau, laying off three reporters, each with over 25 years of experience.

These cuts in science staffs reflect the dire financial state of newspapers as a whole. More and more readers have been getting news articles free online, rather than purchasing the physical paper itself. With fewer readers buying the papers, their greatest source of revenue, advertising, has sharply declined. Websites like Craig’s List have also been eating into the once-lucrative classifieds ads.

All of this has left nearly the whole newspaper industry strapped for cash. The Rocky Mountain News recently shuttered its doors for good while the Christian Science Monitor cut back to only a single weekly printed edition.

“The situation is grave,” says science journalist Tom Siegfried. “In the general media, science is at the bottom of the priority list.”

Siegfried had been the science editor for The Dallas Morning News since 1985. In 2004, bowing to financial pressures, the newspaper dismantled the science department. After being laid off, Siegfried went on to become the editor in chief at the bi-weekly Science News magazine.

“There are lots of people who realize how important science is, but there is little attention paid to how important science journalism is,” Siegfried said, “Not having a flow of good information about what science is doing is bad.”

Siegfried’s situation is characteristic of the changes happening throughout the general media. Reporters once at science desks for major publications have frequently either been reassigned to general news beats, or left for more specialized science periodicals.

James Riordon, APS Head of Media Relations and current vice president of the D.C. Science Writers Association, says that while the recent cutbacks in the media are worrying, science journalism won’t completely disappear.

“There’s an added value that makes science journalism less vulnerable,” Riordon said, “As a specialty part of any periodical, it’s going away. But experts like science journalists will likely have to suffer less than other people.”

What the future may hold for the profession is anyone’s guess. The fast paced change brought about by the internet has reshaped the entire news industry in just a few years. The web has allowed for much easier and more direct access to original reports and published papers. Websites are able to “scoop” not only daily newspapers, but even sometimes hourly television news networks. Additionally the spread of online blogs has given individuals who normally wouldn’t be heard a public voice.

Blogger Phil Plait began running his website “Bad Astronomy” in 1993, long before the term “blog” had entered the public lexicon. He has received numerous online awards and “Bad Astronomy” was recently named one of the 25 most influential blogs by Time Magazine. He will also be the featured public speaker at the upcoming APS April Meeting. Plait has been an enthusiastic supporter of the internet’s universal accessibility. 

“Scientists have a voice now,” Plait said, “You’re getting the information directly from the source. That’s not a bad thing.”

Riordon, however, cautions that “Like most things, it’s a mixed bag.” He says “I really like the fact you get a lot more voices,” but notes that sometimes this chorus of information can be either overwhelming or just plain inaccurate. “They’re fulfilling a demand for science but we don’t yet know if it’s very nutritious.”

The move towards predominantly online science news has prompted a great deal of debate over who qualifies as a journalist, and whether blogging counts as journalism. Provided they are accurate and reporting new information, Plait says absolutely blogs count. Siegfried however thinks that though blogs may be popular, journalism needs dedicated professionals to provide the best accuracy and clarity.

“If you call blogs journalism, you’d have to invent a new word describing what journalism used to be,” Siegfried said, adding also that it was uncertain whether an exclusively online news medium was capable of supporting itself.

“The future of science journalism is tied up with the future of journalism in general, which will be electronic,” Siegfried said, “There is certainly a market for science journalism. The question is if there’s an economic way of providing that information to the people who want it.”

One of the great questions surrounding the new online media is whether the economics of the web can allow full-time professional science writers to thrive. Advertising slots on websites bring in much less revenue than traditional print ads, even if they are seen by the same number of people. Plait was only able to devote himself full time to his blog after Discover Magazine hired him for their website.

“If I were just blogging it would not be enough for me to live on,” Plait said, “I wouldn’t recommend this as a career path unless you want to live on the street.”

What shape the science media will take in the coming decades is anyone’s guess. With so much upheaval at the traditional news outlets and the uncertain economics of the web, predicting the future can seem like a fool’s errand. More content will move online, but whether its quality will be any better or worse than what we have today is not yet clear. 

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Editor: Alan Chodos