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The Genuine Articles: Why I’m Upbeat about Science Journalism’s Future

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Which topic are science journalists most likely to talk about when they get together? A) The epistemological issues raised by multiverse theories; B) The revival of social Darwinist ideas in Tea Party rhetoric; C) The relevance of experiments on sea slug brains to the debate over free will; D) Statistical evidence linking global warming to this spring’s tornado outbreak; or E) None of the above. The answer is E, because what science journalists usually talk about when they get together is the sorry state of science journalism (including health and technology).

This wasn’t always the case. As recently as the late 1990s science writers were riding a wave of high prestige and remuneration, and they were too cheerful and busy for navel-gazing. But in the past decade or so, the economic vitality of the media in general and science journalism in particular has plummeted, and science scribblers have become increasingly anxious and self-absorbed. We gossip about the perilous status of this publication or that writer and whine about how we’re undervalued by U.S. culture, which prefers sordid celebrity scandals to AI and black holes.

I’m susceptible to this sort of gloom and doom myself. It’s not my own fate that concerns me but that of my profession, which I believe the public—even if it doesn’t realize it—needs now more than ever. (I know I’m preaching to the converted here. I should be writing this column for Gawker.) But every spring I get a mood boost when I serve as a judge for science writing awards given to students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, which gave me a degree in 1983.

My friend and former Scientific American colleague Marguerite Holloway teaches at the J-school and oversees the science writing award. This year Marguerite sent me more submissions, 35, than in any of the previous dozen years I’ve served as a judge. The admissions were also better than ever. And as I told the J-school grads last week when I handed out the awards, I’ve never said that before—or if I did, I was lying. Some of the submissions were so well-written and reported that it was hard to believe rookies produced them, not seasoned pros.

In my previous post I divided science journalism into two categories, critical and celebratory. Most of these young writers worked in the critical mode, revealing the limits of science, medicine and technology. A sampling of topics: challenges of coping with sickle-cell anemia; the debate over treatments for convicted child molesters; causes of high infant mortality in inner cities; pros and cons of genetic testing for Alzheimer’s and other diseases for which there are no cures. Sure, some of these subjects are familiar, but every article told me something I didn’t know.

The three prize-winning articles represent the kind of hard-nosed investigations that many journalism pundits have feared is becoming obsolete. First place went to Nathan Hurst for an expose of international wildlife smuggling; second place to Karla Zabludovsky for an examination of the toxic effects of a gigantic Third World smelting operation; and third place to Elliot Ross for a report on how Big Pharma touts its products with ghost-written articles in medical journals. I can’t describe the articles in more detail, because I don’t want someone running away with their ideas (although Ross already got a condensed version of his piece published).

Pardon my hokeyness, but reading the work of the J-school grads fills me with hope. If these talented young folks want to be science journalists, they will surely find audiences and make a living, one way or another, and the profession will not only survive but thrive.

Photo of the class of 2011 courtesy Columbia Journalism School

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  1. 1. Soccerdad 12:11 pm 05/23/2011

    Which topic are science journalists most likely to talk about when they get together? I always thought it was global warming, booze and hookers, not necessarily in that order.

    Or was that when world leaders got together?

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  2. 2. Deuterium1 9:45 pm 05/23/2011

    Science journalism and writing discredited? You don’t say! You don’t suppose a couple decades of uncertain science about man-caused global warming cold be the cause, do you? Two groups of people sold themselves and their professional reputations out to cash in this unproven mess: grant writers and journalists. The lying uncovered at East Anglia was the capstone of the entire sordid tale. Twenty more years without bald greed and politicking will probably help, but I really don’t see it ever coming back.

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  3. 3. timothywmurray 1:08 pm 05/24/2011

    Science journalism, like all journalism, has suffered in the internet age from a lack of formal citations to articles publisher in scientific journals. And let’s face it: j school teaches really bad habits in this area. Every piece of science journalism should have specific formal citations to formal scientific publications, and these should include hyperlinks to the online version of the publications (or the most complete version freely available to the public).

    When science journalism uses as it’s source a press release, as well as the science, the press release should also be cited and linked to.

    In this internet connected world readers are often happy to read the journalist version, which in some cases spans the content of several peer reviewed sources. Science journalism relies on not only the facts but the reputation of the source. Which peer reviewed publication published it? who funded the research? what credentials do the scientists bring, and what bonafides does the journalist bring?

    J schools teach a sort of cryptic half citation style, which occasionally stumps my ability to Google.

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  4. 4. hungry doggy 10:53 am 05/26/2011

    I agree with Deuterium1′s comment. The biased reporting about global warming has cost science journalism its credibility.

    There is an enormous amount of junk being written about global warming, there are substantial problems with what passes for the temperature measurement data and computer models, and problems have been found with the statistics used and the graphical presentations.

    Instead of being out in front exposing these problems, most so-called scientific journalists are part of the rah-rah chorus.

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  5. 5. Chris Miller 1:04 pm 05/26/2011

    With a few honourable exceptions, general news media seem to find it perfectly OK to have science/technology stories covered by reporters who clearly have no knowledge whatever of the subject. This does not seem to happen (at least, not very often) in other subjects. Sports reporters are expected to understand the difference between football and baseball; music reporters are expected to be able to differentiate between a guitar and a drumkit. No motoring column would ever appear containing a statement such as: "the Whizzo SuperFast has a top speed of 200mph – for comparison, that’s twice the distance between London and Birmingham".

    Yet the (London) Times recently lifted a story from the Asahi Shimbun that said: "radiation levels of 500mSv/hr, which is twice the permitted dose of 250mSv", without realising what a howler they had perpetrated. Surely there must be at least one subeditor who took physics at school?

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  6. 6. 2008RealityCheck 12:57 am 06/1/2011

    Your depiction of the Tea Party in this manner "B) The revival of social Darwinist ideas in Tea Party rhetoric;" illustrates your lack of objectivity. Such partisanship is why journalism has deteriorated.

    Most Tea Party members believe in fiscal restraint, yet liberal journalists paint TP members as wanting to throw grandma over the cliff. Do you understand the hypocrisy of your article?

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  7. 7. 2008RealityCheck 1:04 am 06/1/2011

    And as for your lack of understanding about weather related events "D) Statistical evidence linking global warming to this spring’s tornado outbreak;" For your edification, unusually cold air continuously flowing out of the north and northwest, and a lower jet stream are what caused the severe weather. It’s the temperature extreme difference between the two layers that matters. And this is attributable to La Nina, not Global Warming. And for your information, this extreme weather is likely to continue for awhile because we in Washington State have been living in temperatures well below average for months. We have 204% of our average snow load in the Cascades as a reference point.

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