This week’s edition of Nature includes a thought provoking piece by Geoff Brumfiel on the decline of mainstream science journalism and the rise of science blogging. The big question: Can one replace the other? It’s a sobering read: Blumfiel paints a picture of old media in crisis—science coverage in the mainstream media is being cut back; talented journalists are leaving or being laid off; and those left behind are having to produce with less time and fewer resources. But what I found equally worrying was the hint of an attitude from the growing science blogging community—that the professional science “hacks” can’t hack it; that they misundersand the science and misrepresent the stories; and more often than not they simply regurgitate what they are fed in the interests of time and efficiency.
As a scientist who works closely with journalists and also runs a science blog, the erosion of traditional science journalism worries me. With the shift from science reporting in the mainstream media to science blogging, loads of people are writing stuff, loads or people are reading it, but I’m not convinced that a whole lot of effective communication is taking place.
Scientists who write well are a precious commodity, but they don’t necessarily have the skill and perspective to either place what they write about in a broader social context, or to communicate to a broad audience. The result (in many cases—not all) is cozy on-line cliques where science-aficionados pat each other on the back while readers who are desperate for accessible, relevant, contextualized information are starved.
Science blogs have an essential role to play in communication and information exchange. I wouldn’t write myself if I didn’t believe that. But I have no illusions about my output matching the relevance and accessibility of that from a professional journalist. Instead, my stuff hopefully provides a personal perspective on emerging technology and society that complements the mainstream media.
It’s fashionable for scientists and bloggers alike to trash mainstream science reporting. But we do it at our peril. Most scientists (I count myself here) are lousy communicators outside their immediate field, and one of the dangers of the web is that it seduces people into thinking otherwise. Rather, we need to make sure that professional communicators are given the opportunities and resources they need to get information to people that can really benefit from it, not just to the cliques and easy targets.