Scientists, Research Institutions May Have Larger Role in Science News Distribution


Chris Mooney

Journalism has recently had much to lament, with shrinking advertising revenues, reporter layoffs and buyouts, transformations to online-only formats and declarations of bankruptcy. Some speculate that internet sources and blogs will become the new source of science news, but a prominent author and blogger on science and science policy told a AAAS audience that blogging, by itself, is not necessarily the answer.

"It's the Wild West out there; I participate in it daily," said Chris Mooney, contributing editor at the blog Science Progress. "But I fail to see how it replaces what's being lost." Discussions on blogs, which can often veer toward inflammatory, are no substitute for "the standards and careful nuances of traditional science journalism, which is dying." said Mooney, author of "The Republican War on Science."

Mooney was among five science writers in a 1 May panel discussion on the future of science journalism at the 34th annual AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy in Washington, D.C. The Forum, organized by the AAAS Science & Policy Programs, is the nation's most highly-regarded meeting for science-related policy issues.

Science blogs are booming—some are even making money—but Mooney described how they can sway more toward polarizing views rather than conveying accurate science information. For example, anti-evolution, anti-vaccine, anti-global warming communities thrive online. "It's not 'I'm going to give accurate coverage about science.' It's 'I'm going to get everyone psyched to bash religion' or 'I'm going to get everyone psyched to think global warming is wrong,'" said Mooney, who co-blogs with Sheril Kirshenbaum for The Intersection on Discovery.com. Mooney and Kirshenbaum co-authored "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future," which is due out in July.

Blogging has some benefits, though, Mooney said. Bloggers can mobilize quickly and lobby the mainstream media if they detect inaccurate reporting. But the disadvantages of blogging can outweigh the benefits. "The web empowers, but it empowers good and bad alike," Mooney said. "Misinformation not only competes with but often defeats good information."

Panelists in the AAAS session on the future of science journalism discussed how the public will obtain accurate science news if traditional news outlets disappear. More than two dozen journalists were among the 600 attendees of the two-day science and public policy forum, which also attracts scientists, policy-makers and students. The 30 April-1 May forum took place at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, just a few blocks from the White House.


Cristine Russell

Panelist Cristine Russell, senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, pointed to media coverage of swine flu as an example of the value that trained journalists have in conveying accurate information to the public. "We have been reminded of the need for science and medical journalists who are trained to explain the differences between pandemics and epidemics," she said, emphasizing the importance of journalists "writing every day to provide the best and soundest information about the fast-changing story."

Apart from swine flu coverage, climate change, stem cells and genetic engineering are other science topics in the news all the time, said Russell, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. "Across the board there's a need for science reporting, as there's always been, but particularly today." Science news content is shifting, creating what she called "science-lite" in the traditional news media. "Health and fitness are way over-covered as compared to science and public policy," Russell said. And while environmental coverage appears to fare better, "the overuse of 'green' and lack of scrutiny of what 'going green' really means" is a concern, she said.


Dan Vergano

The future of science journalism may look "pretty lousy" in the near-term, said panelist Dan Vergano, a science reporter at USA Today. But Vergano said he's "very optimistic" for the field in the long-term. "I think everyone who's thought about it for a minute can see the way that science reporting can be delivered better through the broadband world," said Vergano, He also writes the Science Fair blog for the newspaper's website.

Online stories can deliver scientific studies, videos of scientists doing experiments, podcast interviews with scientists, and more to the public, Vergano said. Another ray of hope for science journalism is how science stories remain popular. "What keeps me employed is that our audience does dig science stories," he said.


Joann Rodgers

Panelist Joann Rodgers, director of media relations and public affairs at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, is also optimistic for the public's appreciation of science journalism. "There's still a love affair with science. I see it everyday," she said, noting increasing web traffic when the website she oversees has good science stories.

Rodgers said that the public needs gatekeepers and context-providers to distill science information and to sort out the reliable sources. With traditional media outlets dwindling, panelists pointed out that universities and science non-profit organizations may start producing journalism-like resources. Rodgers, who spent 20 years as a national science correspondent for Hearst newspapers, discussed how some research institutions now communicate science news directly to the public, instead of going through mediators such as science journalists.

But the science news communications from research institutions also have to be branded and strategic, and therefore institutions' communications with the public may have an agenda. That's where independent reporters in mainstream media are important to provide the public with analytical, accurate, informative reporting but without an agenda, Russell said. "I think we've shifted really far toward agenda reporting: personal agendas, political agendas, even good agendas," she said.

Another concern as mainstream media changes is that if there isn't a science section in the newspaper, "how can we tell that people are really paying attention to science?" Eli Kintisch, a reporter at Science and moderator for the AAAS discussion asked the panelists. In the blogosphere, Mooney said that the biggest problem is "the fact that those who tend to go looking for science online are not really the public. They are particular slices of the public, those already interested in science."

Russell noted that in the print media world, there was a common problem of preaching to the converted. She suggested a serendipitous approach by putting "science into more things that people don't think is science." Energy, climate, and national security are examples of issues with science, technology and medical components but that might not be obvious science stories to reporters. Rather than bemoan the loss of science sections in the newspaper, science reporters should work more often with colleagues who aren't science specialists and in writing public policy stories, said Russell, a former science reporter for The Washington Post. "It's time for science journalists to shake it off and get in the mix," she said.

At USA Today, Vergano said, science reporters are routinely used that way. For example, he said, if North Korea dropped a test bomb, he and his newspaper's reporter at the U.S. State Department would collaborate and the story end up with a strong science component. "I know the difference between fission and fusion, even if the State Department reporter doesn't," he said. Vergano isn't as worried about the loss of science trend stories as much as he is "worried about the loss of science literacy at organizations delivering news to the general population." If you lose science reporters, the general audience loses that science perspective, he said.

Throughout the AAAS discussion, panelists described how scientists are becoming more involved in communicating their discoveries directly to the public. "I'm all in favor of scientists being more accessible and reaching out to the public," Russell said. Mooney said that "some of the best science blogs are ones that facilitate communication between scientists."

From the public affairs perspective, Rodgers noted that researchers at Johns Hopkins are blogging and interacting directly with reporters and the general public through blogs. "It's an odd twist maybe that the fates of science journalists are ever more closely intertwined with scientists' willingness to engage in conversation. And I think that's all to the good," Rodgers said.

Scientists are getting greater access to the general public, and tools to help them do so are available. "More and more scientists are seeking out ways to improve their communication skills with the general public," said Tiffany Lohwater, AAAS public engagement manager, said in comments after the Forum. Lohwater coordinates at least five communications skills workshops each year for hundreds of researchers around the United States. "Scientists see that they can contribute to public engagement with science. Many are especially interested in using new media, such as blogs and Twitter, as a tool to share their scientific knowledge and interact directly with the public."