This weekend, I’m going to be teaching some science journalism at the following event hosted by Johns Hopkins and the Smithsonian:
Science Writing: From Eureka Moment to Digital Publishing
All Day Seminar — Saturday, May 15 – 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
From cells to stars, from evolution to swine flu, writing about diverse and complex scientific topics is an engaging, challenging endeavor requiring special skills. Today, well-known practitioners discuss how to find ideas, develop essential skills, and thrive in the digital age. Their ideas resonate with people currently working in the science or medical fields, writers who want to re-direct their work toward science or medicine, or anyone interested in how scientific information is communicated to the public.
9:30 to 10:45 a.m. Getting Started
Challenges of science writing. How to target audiences and choose an area of concentration. Ann Finkbeiner, writer, columnist, critic, and director of the Master of Arts in Science Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University; Chris Mooney, author and Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT; Nancy Shute, contributing editor and blogger for U.S. News & World Report and vice president of the National Association of Science Writers.
11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Finding and Developing Ideas
Writing about advances in science and medicine, science policy, and the scientists themselves. Chris Mooney.
Other panels later in the day feature Carl Zimmer, our very own, and Jon Hamilton, a correspondent for NPR. You can see the full roster here. Unfortunately the event isn’t free, but, well, if you visit me on Facebook you might learn something about an, er, discount….
So maybe I will see some folks there.
MediaBistro has the news.
CBS has let go of Daniel Sieberg, its science and technology correspondent.
What I referred to yesterday as the news business’s “science core” keeps on shrinking.
Insert rants below about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket….
As part of a course I’m auditing at the Harvard Kennedy School, I have been reading the teacher’s book: veteran newsman Alex Jones’ Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy. It is quite an amazing, saddening read. The problems with the news industry are not new to me–in fact, they comprise a central component of Unscientific America–but the ways in which they are documented here, in unforgettable narrative (the stories of the decline of papers like the L.A. Times) and ironclad analysis (of the economics of why newspapers are suffering so badly), are superb.
Jones’ central motif is that there is an “iron core” of real news, reported news, produced by expert journalists each day. It is expensive to produce, it requires long-trained journalists, travel and research budgets, libel insurance, and much else. It has strong standards: objectivity, balance, and so on. It has never been more than, say, 15 percent of the total content of a newspaper, and always surrounded and adorned by softer stuff: opinion, commentary, film reviews, sports, horoscopes, crosswords, etc. But when newspapers were highly profitable, the revenue they generated effectively subsidized this public service aspect of the newspaper business, and the “iron core” was strong.
Now, though, the “iron core” is no longer so protected, or assured of being subsidized as it once was. Its total size is shrinking, and it is not being replaced, for the most part, on the web–where the content generated is largely commentary and opinion, rather than real news itself, and indeed, feeds off of what’s left of the “iron core.”
Such is Jones’ thesis, and I found myself wondering exactly where science journalism fits into the “core” argument. I would guess that part of science journalism fits, or would have fit, into the iron core; indeed, it is probably among the parts of the core that is vanishing fastest. But at the same time, science journalism is perhaps a different form of highly subsidized coverage, one that fares even worse than hard news. Call it the “science core.” It is even less protected, I would argue, in the new media context; and it is certainly being no better replaced by the science blogosphere or science on the web.
What do we do about this situation, either to save the “iron core” or the “science core”? Maybe that’s a topic for another post…or something Jones will get to later in the book. Certainly, the situation does not look good out there, and solutions are few, or maybe nonexistent, for restoring these forms of journalism as they once existed.
I just saw this story–it reads very consistently, if also disturbingly, with yesterday’s Andrew Revkin news. Natalie Angier, the celebrated science writer and author of The Canon, among other works, now opines that newspaper science reporting is “basically going out of business.” She ought to know–having reported at the New York Times for nearly two decades. Plus, she ought to know because her husband, Rick Weiss (whose story is discussed in Unscientific America) last year left the Washington Post.
It is a tough world out there for those who produce the content that we here care about. And it is getting tougher. And so far, I have not seen the media-economic model that can save us….
Andrew Revkin, the climate ace, is leaving the New York Times. The trend towards fewer and fewer science journalists in the mainstream media continues….and meanwhile, as we’ve just seen, in their absence we get Fox News style phony balanced coverage and attempts to artificially create scientific “debates” where none actually exist.
The situation is grim out there for coverage of science…just when we most need that coverage to be functional and healthy.
Unscientific America has been adapted as a feature story for The Nation based on a hybrid of chapters 6 and 9 with new reporting on the decline of science in the media. Our article Unpopular Science will appear in the August 17 issue and is now available online. We begin:
For twenty-three years Sabin Russell worked at the San Francisco Chronicle. A top medical writer specializing in global health and infectious diseases, Russell covered subjects ranging from bioterror threats to the risk of avian flu and traveled throughout Africa to report on the AIDS epidemic. He won numerous accolades, including a 2001 Science in Society Journalism Award from the National Association of Science Writers for his reporting on the flaws of the flu vaccine
Then came March 30, 2009–his last day on the job. Russell was at MIT, on leave from his paper for a fellowship. The struggling Chronicle had been cutting staff and now suddenly forced many older career journalists to either take a buyout or risk a reduced pension. At 56, Russell was at the peak of his game, but for him, as for many of his colleagues, there was really just one option. “We have not left journalism; journalism has left us,” Russell remarked recently from San Francisco, where he is setting up a freelance office and looking for work.
Now the painful irony: Russell was pressured out of his job just as swine flu murmurs began to emerge from Mexico. This was his beat; few reporters are better equipped to tackle such a difficult yet urgent story, one so rife with uncertain but potentially severe risk. Russell even tipped off his old employer that the paper might want to get a jump on what was happening in Mexico City. “If I was covering this story now,” he says, “I’d be all over the Southern Hemisphere. It’s flu season there. How is Australia? How is the infrastructure to respond to a new strain holding up?”
Continue reading the full story at The Nation…