Menus Subscribe Search

The Steady Erosion of Science Journalism

• May 02, 2009 • 12:16 AM

Tom Price is blogging live from the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s public policy conference for Miller-McCune.com.

This is the second of two postings from the AAAS conference today. To see the first post, click here.

At a time science has never been more important to the world, science journalism is beating a steady retreat.

There are a lot fewer reporters at newspapers now covering science,” Science magazine reporter Eli Kintisch said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual public policy conference today. “Magazines are in trouble. There are fewer newspaper science sections.”

The number of science sections peaked at 95 in the late 1980s, according to Christine Russell, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Russell, a panelist at the conference’s final session, recently looked at 100 large-circulation papers and found just 25 sections devoted to science in the broadest sense. They’re really “science light,” she said, primarily reporting about health and fitness rather than science and public policy.

The National Association of Science Writers has 2,500 members and is growing, Russell said. But half are freelance writers, and just 80 are full-time newspaper reporters.

Science programs — again broadly defined — fill a lot of television time, Russell noted, but most are animal and nature programs on cable TV.

Cutbacks in the traditional media are not unique to science journalism, Russell pointed out. The problem is particularly acute in newspapers, some of which are closing while others are making drastic cuts. Senior employees are taking buyouts, which leaves papers without experienced journalists on many beats.

USA Today science writer Dan Vergano said he’s noticed an increase in single-source stories, which may lack important perspectives. He suspects it’s because “there are fewer people in the newsroom to make those calls.”

Vergano said he’s especially concerned that the loss of science writers will weaken the quality of science reporting in stories that are primarily about other topics. He often helps other reporters understand the science in their stories, he said.

“I know the difference between fission and fusion, even if the State Department reporter doesn’t,” he quipped.

The swine flu scare dramatically demonstrates the importance of journalists “who are trained to explain the differences between pandemic and epidemic,” Russell said.

Many major public concerns — such as energy, climate change and national security — are science issues at least in part, Russell said.

Science journalism is growing on the Internet, but panelists questioned the ability of Web sites to replace what’s no longer being done in print.

Chris Mooney — a widely published freelance science journalist who writes a blog — lamented the Internet’s fragmented nature and many Web writers’ cavalier attitude toward accuracy.

“If you care about science being part of the common culture in America, the kinds of trends were talking about are pretty disastrous,” Mooney said. “There’s no ‘Cosmos’ in science blogging,” he added, referring to the PBS science series that drew millions of viewers.

While many Web sites deal with science well, Mooney said, “polemicism” is more common than accuracy online, “especially in the blogosphere. The Web empowers good and bad alike. Misinformation not only competes with, but often defeats, good information.”

A growing number of science organizations — and individual scientists — are communicating directly with the public on line, said Joann Rodgers, director of media relations and public affairs for the Johns Hopkins medical institutions. She employs a dozen science writers who increasingly convey information directly to the public, bypassing journalist gatekeepers.

The danger with such direct communication, according to Russell, is it cuts out the disinterested reporter who can add context and differing viewpoints to a story. “There is a role for the traditional church-and-state view — to have journalists who are independent,” she said.

The panelists agreed that science journalism will not disappear. What it will look like remains unclear, however. Nonprofit organizations may play a larger role in providing and supporting science reporting, for instance, Mooney said.

“I really am optimistic,” Rodgers said. “I think there’s still a love affair with science. I think the public wants gate keeping. They still want their information understandable in context.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Tom Price
Tom Price is a Washington-based freelance writer who focuses on public affairs, business, technology and education. Previously he was a correspondent in the Cox Newspapers Washington bureau and chief politics writer for the Cox papers in Dayton. He is author or co-author of five books, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Rolling Stone, CQ Researcher and other publications.

More From Tom Price

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.


September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.


September 15 • 8:00 AM

Atheists Seen as a Threat to Moral Values

New research attempts to pinpoint why non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted.


September 15 • 6:12 AM

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.


September 15 • 6:00 AM

Interview With a Drug Dealer

What happens when the illicit product you’ve made your living off of finally becomes legal?


September 15 • 4:00 AM

A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses

The ability to delay gratification has been held up as the one character trait to rule them all—the key to academic success, financial security, and social well-being. But willpower isn’t the answer. The new, emotional science of self-regulation.



September 15 • 2:04 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Do Places Make People?

We know that people make places, but does it also work the other way?


September 12 • 4:00 PM

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plastic Bags

California wants you to pay for your plastic bags. (FYI: That’s not an infringement on your constitutional rights.)


September 12 • 2:00 PM

Should We Trust the Hearts of White People?

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, revisiting a clip of James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show.


September 12 • 12:00 PM

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you’d be if the government didn’t interfere with your life, but that’s not what the research shows.


September 12 • 10:00 AM

Whispering in the Town Square: Can Twitter Provide an Escape From All Its Noise?

Twitter has created its own buzzing, digital agora, but when users want to speak amongst themselves, they tend to leave for another platform. It’s a social network that helps you find people to talk to—but barely lets you do any talking.


September 12 • 9:03 AM

How Ancient DNA Is Rewriting Human History

We thought we knew how we’d been shaped by evolution. We were wrong.


September 12 • 8:02 AM

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.


September 12 • 8:00 AM

I Walked Through the Financial Crisis

Why are former Wall Street employees guiding tourists around the Financial District? Paul Hiebert signed himself up and tried to find out.


September 12 • 7:05 AM

Scams, Scams, Everywhere


September 12 • 6:17 AM

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.


September 12 • 4:00 AM

Comfort Food Is a Myth

New research finds that, contrary to our beliefs, such foods don’t have any special ability to improve our moods.



September 11 • 4:00 PM

Reading the Camouflage Uniforms in Ferguson: ‘You Are Now Enemy Combatants’

Why are police officers wearing green or desert camouflage in a suburban environment?


September 11 • 2:00 PM

Wage Theft: How Two States Are Fighting Against Companies That Categorize Employees as Independent Contractors

New York and Illinois have passed hard-nosed laws and taken an aggressive tack toward misclassification.


September 11 • 11:03 AM

Yes, I’m a Good Person. But Did You Hear About Her?

A new study tracks how people experience moral issues in everyday life.


Follow us


To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.

Searching for Everyday Morality

Experimenters use text messages to study morality beyond the lab.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.