Blogging the demise of science journalism

by Andrew Maynard on March 20, 2009

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.

1 Mike Spear March 20, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Don’t sell yourself short on your abilities because this is a good OpEd piece worthy of the mainstream press.
But I definitely agree that as blogs rise in popularity and science journalism (not to mention the actual outlets themselves ) wanes we have a problem.
Context and relevance are key to communicating science and answering the “why do I care” question for the general public. A good news outlet can do that for its ‘hometown’ audience which is where scientists who blog struggle sometimes. There are some killer science blogs out there and if things settle out to a mix of the best of both life will be grand. The alternatives are far less grand.
Science journalism can come into play in the form of documentaries, radio news, or feature pieces for television but those too are becoming fewer and farther apart.
Geoff Brumfiel’s piece also raises the point about journalists simply rewriting Press Release but that is a problem that crosses a lot of subject areas. Just look at the state of political reporting during recent elections. As a PR flak for a non-profit science organization and as a former journalist I honestly try to walk the line and give the media information worth using and providing interview subjects that help them do their job but I am still surprised to see something I’ve written appear pretty much intact in the media.
A PR dream, a journalist’s nightmare.

2 Andrew Maynard March 20, 2009 at 3:27 pm

The regurgitation of press releases is a real problem as it removes the critical filter a good journalist brings to process of communicating information. Although interestingly (and perhaps ironically) it probably brings news outlets that follow the practice closer to the blogging community – the information being crafted by the source primarily.

Agree btw that a mix of the best would be a great thing – there are definite roles here for old and new media

3 Vrishali Subramanian March 21, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Andrew, you raise an important issue. My experience is that the real gems in science writing are in books- some of them are insightful and well written. This is in part due to the medium itself- a book allows a writer to cover more ground and be more thoughtful, which are tougher in a breaking news (sometimes), get-all-the-information-out there science journalism format. However, fewer people read books. So there is a real need to improve the quality of science journalism. And scientists like yourself who can communicate well REALLY should!

4 Captain Skellett January 9, 2010 at 6:21 am

Hey, I think Inhecevef is a spammer (I shall be pleased? Who talks like that?) Could you delete his comment?

Interesting article btw. I see blogging as a form of science journalism, but both brands have their good points and bad points… I don’t know which is better, really. I guess it depends which media outlet / blog you’re talking about. Some blogs are great, and some newspapers terrible, and vice versa.

5 Andrew Maynard January 9, 2010 at 8:54 am

Thanks – it’s a while since I’ve checked the comments here, and didn’t catch that.

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