Science Journalism Crisis: It Was Bound to Happen

Posted on World Federation of Science Journalists’ website

http://www.wfsj.org/blogs/wfsj/post.php?id=73

Feb 27, 2009

 

At the AAAS annual meeting in Chicago this February 2009, journalists held a special press briefing titled “Science Journalism in Crisis?” to discuss whether recent cuts of science news staff in some of the larger American media organizations are representative of a possible worldwide trend.

The impression given was that although there do seem to be problems in the US and the UK, this might not necessarily be the case in other parts of the world – especially the developing world.

An informal survey I conducted among Arab and African colleagues seems to support this.

Twenty one fulltime journalists and 14 freelance journalists working in 11 Arab and African countries responded to the survey. The fulltime journalists worked for 20 different media organizations while the freelance journalists worked for several more. Detailed results of the survey can be seen in the powerpoint presentation or by watching the video of my presentation at the session below. But here are some of the more interesting findings:

  • More than half (57%) of the fulltime journalists who responded to the survey said their media organizations have specialized science sections. The remainder said their media produced science news dispersed among other news coverage.
  • Media organizations in Egypt in particular have had science sections for many years – as early as the 1950s and 60s in two cases. New science sections appeared in media in Benin and Cameroon while two of their staff were being trained by the World Federation of Science Journalists. Whether there is a direct correlation is not clear.
  • Media organizations in Africa and the Arab world – if this survey is an indication – are dependent mainly on their staff for science news as opposed to depending on freelance journalists. Some Egyptian media organizations (Al-Manarah Satellite Channel for Scientific Research, Al-Ahram Daily and IslamOnline.net) have relatively large numbers of fulltime science staff (40, 20, and 8 respectively) while the majority of Arab and African media organizations depend on smaller numbers (1 – 3).
  • Freelance journalists in both regions feel that their freelancing opportunities have increased in the past five years. This was supported by the fact that respondents said that although the numbers of fulltime staff and freelance journalists used by their organizations in the past five years have roughly stayed the same, the amount of space dedicated to science by those organizations has increased.
  • Many reasons were given to explain this increase. These include: an increased interest in science by the countries themselves; more training and networking opportunities provided by the World Federation of Science Journalists and local science journalists associations such as the Arab Science Journalists Association; and more international attention to science issues such as global warming.

Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

Why do things seem to be going so well for science journalists in the Arab world and Africa (during the session Valeria Roman from Argentina noted similar trends in Latin America) while they seem to be deteriorating for science journalists in the US and the UK?

The logical assumption is that the developing world is still catching up with the developed world in terms of science journalism. We’re witnessing a phase of our science journalism history that the rest of the world witnessed more than four decades ago. Our countries have finally realized the importance of science in their national development and stuff to report on is actually happening! And as this happens there are more training and networking opportunities for Arab and African science journalists and this is resulting in more importance given to the profession.

But if this is the case, how do we prevent a future crisis from affecting our part of the world as well?

Well for one, let’s hope that we don’t have another economic crisis anytime soon and that we manage to get through this one unscathed.

But what concerns me is that the real problem lies in an increasing trend towards topic specialization in journalism and that this could actually be the death of us.

There is no doubt in my mind that audiences are interested in reading about science. I worked as a science editor for several years at IslamOnline.net and our website statistics attest to this fact (our science pages were better read than our political pages, believe it or not).

But as we journalists become better trained – sometimes with advanced degrees in science journalism – and thus better equipped to cover complex science issues and communicate them to the public, are we also stabbing ourselves in the back because we are at the same time becoming more expensive for our media organizations, which for the most part are pretty poor to begin with?

Scientists themselves are recognizing how hyperspecialization in science can sometimes result in a loss of the big picture and there are now trends towards interdisciplinary collaborations to make up for this defect. Are we also becoming too hyperspecialized as science journalists? I’m still amazed when some science journalists tell me that they are specialized in covering physics or geology, for example. How is this hyperspecialization then perceived by the media organizations that pay them? And along with this hyperspecialization, is it perhaps now the time to admit that our story choices for the general public are gradually going astray? Heck, the titles of some health stories I see in the media scare even me away they are so specialized and I have a degree in medicine! Are hyperspecialized science journalists writing more about the science stories that interest them rather than the science stories that interest the general public? And as we become hyperspecialized, are we losing our ability to recognize what information really needs to be simplified for a non-specialized reader?

Consider me the devil’s advocate. Rather than completely placing the blame on media organizations that are making drastic staff cuts in their science news staff or blaming the current economic crisis, let’s own up to our own roles in the problem. What do we need to do to keep science in the news? And what do we need to do to continue making a decent living? That’s what it all boils down to, right?

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