Why Science News is Getting More Worser. . . . .

Why Science News is Getting More Worser. . . ..

It’s all a matter of opinion — severalexcellent links at the web page. . . .

Janet Ralot’s excellent blog from ScienceNews: http://snurl.com/or8si  [www_sciencenews_org]

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By Janet Raloff
A provocative piece in the Aug. 17 Nation by author/bloggerChris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, a marine biologist from DukeUniversity, suggest science reporting isn’t valued as it once was.One measure of this: declining numbers of seasoned journalistscovering research – and a declining number of column inches andbroadcast minutes of science coverage.
How can this be? You’d think we’d want more and better researchnews with the growing threat of climate change; a need for newer andmore efficient energy technologies; threats of flu pandemics; amigration of U.S. jobs to high-tech firms in the developing world; andchronic illnesses that are eating up an increasing share of the U.S.gross domestic product. In fact, the public may have a big appetitefor news on such topics. But these days, media coverage and the humanresources devoted to science and technology issues are not dictated bysurveys of audience preferences.
A meteoric three-decades rise in S&T coverage, beginning in theimmediate post-Sputnik era, “sought nothing less than tobring science to the entire public, to mediate between the technicaland the lay, the wonky and the approachable,” Mooney and Kirshenbaumargue. “The thinking was that translating scientific knowledge intoa form everyone could understand would help forge a more enlightenedcitizenry and, ultimately, a stronger democracy.”
Hard to argue with that.
But several trends have been conspiring to erode S&T mediaperformance. First, a move to turn the media into big revenuegenerators. The fact that the reporting and producing of news is anexpensive operation appears to have escaped the attention of theidiots who have recently been investing in newspapers and broadcastnetworks. After buying into enormous debt to acquire news operations,media moguls have suddenly realized that they can’t raise the moneyto easily pay off that debt. Especially as ad revenues have beenmoving away from the mainstream media, or MSM, and onto the Internet.The result: Experienced (and better paid) reporters and editors havebeen jettisoned over the past two years in favor of more (and lowercost) newbies.
I can understand why this strategy might appeal to a media ownerbecause those newbies can fill a news hole as effectively as theirpredecessors did. Unfortunately for news consumers, what inexperiencednewbies offer is often no more than a succession of bite-size reportson developments devoid of context and perspective. Mooney andKirshenbaum describe this trend pithily: “As a rule, journalists arealways in search of the dramatic and the new. When it comes toscience, however, this can lead [inexperienced reporters or editors]to pounce on each ‘hot’ new result, even if that findingcontradicts the last hot result or is soon overturned by a subsequentstudy. The resulting staccato coverage can leave the public hopelesslyexasperated and confused.”
The approach that works in much political coverage – a search forbalance by providing the arguments of one side contrasted againstthose of the “other” side – sometimes falls on its face inS&T reporting.
First, sometimes there aren’t two sides. There might be essentiallyjust one. To contrast it against one or more largely uninformed ormisinformed fringe groups won’t provide balance. It will just serveto elevate the credibility of groups that don’t deserveit.
Or there may be more than two sides. Perhaps five or more. To focus onany one or two – to the exclusion of the others – also does thepublic a disservice and again falls far short of the”balance.”
Or sometimes the news is not a controversy – with spicy competingquotes – but a slowly emerging trend that strengthens from someconventional wisdom into a general truth. Reporting this may not be assexy as covering some political debate on climate change or the ethicsof cloning. Still, the emerging truth may be what we need to hear.Even if it’s not what we hoped or wanted to hear. And that’s”how much of the press managed to bungle the most importantscience-related story of our time: global warming,” Mooney andKirshenbaum contend. They covered quotes or developments that appearedto contradict conventional wisdoms. They didn’t cover the steadytransformation of a “wisdom” into a truth.
Trend two: Over the past three decades, the news media has splinteredfrom a few major local newspapers and a handful of national networksinto a proliferating universe of free or near-free cable and onlinesources. At least initially, those alternative media parasitized theMSM for content. Today, online and cable media are increasingly doingtheir own reporting and often well. But most have focused on politicalor niche topics. Few offer full-service reporting on the universe ofissues that shape our lives – especially science and tech. And thevast majority of “news” on the Internet amounts toblogs.
Blogs can be well researched and reasoned. But most instead are meresnippets of fact or some anecdote wrapped in a blanket of opinion. Andmost consumers don’t appear to have figured out how to separate theone from the other. In fact, Mooney and Kirshenbaum maintain, “Theweb . . . empowers good and bad alike. Accurate science and the moststunning misinformation thrive side by side . . . and there is noreason to think good scientific information is somehow beating [thebad] back.”
Commentary has its place. But it should augment sound reporting, notattempt to substitute for it. Indeed, the Best Science Blog, lastyear, came down to a confrontation between two “polemical” sites -one that assaults religious faith and another that challengesmainstream interpretations of the science of climate change. ConcludeMooney and Kirshenbaum: “the Internet is not unifying our culturearound a comprehensive or even reliable diet of scientificinformation, and it isn’t replacing what’s being lost in the oldmedia.”
On July 13, Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s new book came out,”Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens ourFuture” (2009, Basic Books, 224 pp.). I haven’t had a chanceto read it yet. But it seems to tackle in greater depth the issuesthey bring up in The Nation.
So what’s the solution? The pair argue for a move toward nonprofitreporting and commentary. They recommend encouraging the reporting andanalysis of S&T developments by universities, research-interestgroups and others. I guess we, at Science News, fall into thatgeneral rubric.
But what we really need are more challenging and discriminating newsconsumers.
Learning how to discriminate news from cherry-picked data, commentaryand polemicism may need to start in elementary school and continue oninto college. Local community groups should offer refresher coursesfor those who finished their formal education ages ago.

We need to accept that the definition ofnews is morphing – as is its delivery and quality. Increasingly,it’s up to all of us to choose our sources of that continuingeducation wisely.


      37 Years of Environmental Service toSmall Tropical Islands

About Bruce

Work for sustainable development of small islands and the Chesapeake Bay; ex-Peace Corps (Volunteer and staff) in LA & Caribbean; cruised Caribbean on S/Y Meander for three years; like small tropical islands, French canals, Umbria, Tasmania, and NZ. Married 52 years to the late Kincey Burdett Potter (see Kincey.org). President of the now-sunsetting Island Resources Foundation.
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