The Future of Science Journalism
author: Philip J. Hilts, Knight Science Journalism, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Cristine Russell, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
author: Andrew Revkin, New York Times
author: Ivan Oransky, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, New York University (NYU)
author: Evan Hadingham, NOVA Science, PBS Foundation
published: Aug. 13, 2010, recorded: April 2009, views: 4006
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Susan Hockfield states that science journalism “is now, and in the decades ahead, absolutely indispensable.” As we confront global warming and health pandemics, science reporting must be sustained, Hockfield says, “in its rightful place, at the top of the profession and in the thick of the national conversation.” But dismal economic times throw doubt on this aspiration, as these journalists attest.
At the nation’s flagship newspaper, The New York Times, there’s a relentless commitment to high-quality journalism, whether print or digital, Jill Abramson maintains. “The fact that people have come to expect news on the web to be free has certainly challenged journalism’s business model,” she acknowledges, but The Times is better positioned than other publications to weather the changes. Indeed, “decades from now, the quality newspapers left may not be on paper, but journalism will continue to thrive,” Abramson asserts. In particular, this means ramping up science coverage, whether examining climate science or common medical treatments and health policy.
Abramson draws a clear distinction between science blogs, which are “often for the deeply engaged,” and “coverage pitched to the intelligent general reader.” Penetrating reporting with great breadth comes at a steep price: the paper must support reporters who dig deep into protected government files, are on perilous assignments, or must take a year to glean all dimensions of a complex story. She asks, “How do we prevent the collective muscle of investigative journalism from being gutted?” Whatever the answer (and one solution may involve nonprofit funding), Abramson sees a robust, continuing appetite for “trustworthy information on the world we live in.”
Cristine Russell sees a “best of times, worst of times” scenario for science journalism, with a glut of opportunities beyond print to chat and blog about science, or more frequently, health and fitness, and deep cutbacks in print science departments. Andrew Revkin admits the days when The Times could bring in $1 billion a year in ad revenue are gone forever, and hopes its staff “won’t be in a museum of recently extinct journalists.” But holes in science coverage mean “scientists have a greater responsibility to take the bull by the horns…and engage more fully in a conversation with society.” Ivan Oransky characterizes some online science sites as a kind of “curation,” with “a lot of people covering single events periodically.” He cites Twitter as a positive example of “democratizing coverage,” getting a new generation “to get back into science.” Evan Hadingham suggests we might be “in a golden age of popular science communication on TV.” Yet, in a 500-channel world, public TV science producers face “the ghettoization of science,” worried about how to mix serious science with entertainment.
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