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Critical views of science in the news

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

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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