Elephant Diaries: Science Journalism Edition

Chris Mooney had a nice piece this week on Science Progress about the decline in science specialist journalists at major mainstream media publications. I think Chris nails the problem squarely, but I’d like to elaborate on the implication, because it applies much more broadly. Here’s Chris’s key point:

Science journalism, at its best, should also be a vehicle for making ongoing advances in science relevant to non-scientist members of the public.

Despite the declines Chris bemoans, there is, and I suspect always will be, a lot of great science journalism available. Publications aimed at what I call the “sciency” audience are available in print and on line in staggering volume, and will continue to be so. Science is an area where non-journalist bloggers have made an enormous contribution, every bit as worthy as what the journalistic pros do – often more so.

It’s not a lack of good science information that’s the problem here. It is the need to get that information to a non-science audience – the folks who would not, on their own, click through to a science blog or subscribe to New Scientist.

Chris’s complaint is a specific case of a general problem. Whatever issue you care about – we’ll call it issue “X” – you want information available not to others who also care and self-select to seek it out. You want to get it to the rest of the people, so they’ll understand how important it is.

This goes back to the issue of bundling. The newspaper (or CNN) is a bundle of unrelated topics packaged up and delivered to a broad audience. You get whatever issue you care about (the Britney stuff, crime, sports, the city council votes), and I get a chance to also expose you to some science, something you never would have self-selected. Or, if you’re self-selecting for the science, my colleague Dan McKay has a chance to get you to think about what the city council did. That model worked when there were few choices available for an information consumer other than subscribing to a morning newspaper or watching CNN to get the latest flow of news.

With the unbundling made possible by the Internet, people can self-select, and we lose that opportunity. So it’s not so much a loss of science journalism, as Chris suggests. It’s the loss of the opportunity pre-Internet bundling provided to trick people into reading it. There’s a long list of people saddened right now about the decline of the old bundled model because their X has less of a chance to get the exposure they believe is so vitally important.

(I thank a helpful reader on the terrific New Mexicans for Science and Reason mailing list, full of smart people who don’t need to be tricked into thinking about science, for bringing Chris’s piece to my attention.)

One Comment

  1. Very interesting analysis and it sure makes sense to me.

    I derive a lot of “news” from the internet but I love holding a newspaper and reading through the entire bubdle. I want local news first, then I putter around with national & international and the editorials. As you remarked, occasionally my eyes wil spot something I wouldn’t ordinarily find of interest…but I am hooked and read.

    I don’t do Britney Spears or sports or the comics. A scientist, I find good science writing (is that called science journalism?) so refreshing and wish there were more like you throughout the States.

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