20 January 2008

Science journalism through a telescope

For many years, the excellent Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) has spasmodically picked over the entrails of journalism . Science journalism has featured in its pages many a time. this aspect now has a blog, The Observatory, in which Curtis Brainard sets out to "to critique the coverage of science and the environment".

The "manifesto" for this new slot tells us that "The science desks at our nation’s newspapers are shrinking or disappearing, just as the number of foreign bureaus and correspondents, investigative teams, and other costly (and thus “expendable”) facets of the journalistic enterprise have been shrinking to bolster profit margins." In their place we have "a vast array of Web sites and blogs [that have] emerged in recent years to crank out a daily torrent of scientific, environmental, and medical news and information".

Some would argue with the assertion that "To a certain extent, these new gateways are making up for the loss of traditional platforms for science news." As Dave Tebbutt, a writer on IT rather than science has said in his own blog, much of blogdom is "ego-driven dross". Science blogs are not immune to this all too accurate observation.

The propensity of bloggers to drivel, and Brainard's spot on view of the decline of mainstream science journalism, reinforce the need for something like The Observatory. In his note launching the slot, Brainard says that:

"The Observatory will monitor science journalism - covering the coverage - with an eye toward improving the journalism and thereby improving the discourse. It will be a guide to the best and worst of science and environmental journalism; it will tell you where the press excels and makes bold innovations. And it will point out where it falls victim to spin, engages in alarmism, perpetrates false balance, misrepresents the science in peer-reviewed literature, or displays questionable priorities in news judgment."
You have to admire anyone who sets out with such high ambitions as "improving the journalism". To achieve this, if blogs really are taking over from journalism, let us hope that Brainard finds time to criticise them with the same rigour.

It might be nice if CJR also looked beyond the USA. They may have turned science journalism into a recognised profession, and something that you can actually study at degree level, but their style of journalism is not the same as that practised elsewhere on the planet. That's not a value judgement, just a fact of life.

While science journalists in other countries cannot fail to observe, and perhaps learn from, what goes on in the USA,
the insularity of the locals there suggests that this is unlikely to be a two-way process. Perhaps the CJR can bring this home to the locals from time to time.

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