Is the internet to blame for the decline of science journalism? And can blogs fill the void?


Illustration by David Parkins, Nature

Today, Nature released a news feature by Geoff Brumfiel on the downturn in mainstream science media. We've all known that this is happening; the alarms become impossible to ignore when Peter Dysktra and his team at CNN lost their jobs last year. For mainstream outlets like CNN or the Boston Globe to cut science may seem appalling - but in an unforgiving economic climate which has already triggered the collapse of major newspapers like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, such cuts are logical, because science reporting isn't a big money-maker. The question everyone seems to be asking now is whether independent web media like blogs and podcasts are going to "fill the void" and replace traditional science journalism. The answer to that question is still unclear.

What is clear is that the internet has put a strain on traditional journalism in general - not just science journalism. Web media outlets successfully competed for readers by offering benefits traditional media could not - lightning-fast news cycles; accessibility to non-subscribers; accessibility at work, at home, or on mobile devices; openness to participation by the reader; instant shareability with social networks. As traditional media outlets embraced the Web (in some cases it was more like a shotgun wedding) they started using these traits to their advantage as well, but the question remains: to what extent is the Web compatible with traditional journalism? Can the type of thoughtful, fact-checked, research-heavy science journalism written by veterans like John McPhee survive? Or is that genre an outdated dinosaur, pressed to extinction by a fundamental change in the journalistic climate?

In a recent Science editorial, Christopher Reddy of Woods Hole called for graduate students in science to be better educated on how to communicate with the public and media. It's well known and often lamented that the majority of science graduate programs require no formal training in communication and don't prioritize communication skills in their graduates (or teaching skills - but that's another story). This is by no means a new problem. In fact, it's precisely why some of my fellow grad students and I started the Berkeley Science Review back in 2001: to give graduate students an opportunity to practice and polish their communication skills. Because such opportunities were scarce, we had no dearth of volunteer writers, editors, and illustrators. Today, BSR alumni write and edit at places like Nature. However, If the blogosphere eight years ago had been what it is today, I doubt we'd have felt the same urgency about starting the BSR. Today, anyone can start a blog, write for the public, and get immediate feedback on their efforts. Many grad students and undergrads have outstanding blogs. They're good writers. One could argue that science blogging is directly addressing Reddy's concerns about scientists and public outreach/engagement.

But are science blogs ready to bear the standard of science journalism? I think most traditional journalists, and many bloggers as well, would say no. Different people have different reasons for this answer. One reason, the one I have least patience with, is a blanket distaste for blogs. At a panel a few weeks back, I saw several science reporters speak disparagingly, even bitterly, about blogs. The blogosphere certainly has its blemishes. But is frustrating to hear journalists tar all blogs with the same brush, calling them poorly written, unsourced, blatantly biased and badly researched. It makes one wonder how experienced they are with the blogosphere: are they unaware of the many excellent science blogs out there, or are they simply defaulting to the hoary old chestnut that scientists don't know how to communicate with non-scientists, can't learn how, and don't much care to try?

Scientist-bloggers bristle at such criticisms, because we have among our ranks many talented, compelling writers. We are called to task for small things like typos (byproducts of the fast news cycle/lack of editors in blogging), when many of us wish we had more time to draft posts and someone to do a quick copyedit for us. Many science bloggers work for free, or if paid, make about enough to cover our internet connection. We don't have access to the skilled staff described by veteran science writer John McPhee in his recent New Yorker article about heroic fact-checkers. Keep in mind, mainstream journalists make typos and errors too: they just have someone to catch typos before they go to print! So it left a bad taste in my mouth when the Nature piece called attention to a typo by Larry Moran: "Most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of [sic] without it". Ha ha, Moran made a typo while criticizing bad journalism. It's like he misspelled "misspelled." But most scientists I know would say such a typo, even twenty such typos, are far less of a problem than the inaccuracies, over-generalizations and misrepresentations we see in popular science journalism every day.

On the other hand, the traditional journalists might justifiably reply that a decline in the quality of science journalism is largely due to the loss of experienced science journalists like Dykstra, increased workloads, and too few scientists willing or qualified to explain their work. Few journalists today have access to the heroic fact-checkers and editors of McPhee's era. Journalists are operating under pressure, too - and this isn't just a hobby or sideline for them.

The truth is, scientist-bloggers are not trained journalists. Some scientists may disregard such training, or feel journalistic credentials are unnecessary, because many of the skills that make good scientists are learned through trial and error. Graduate training prioritizes hands-on experience: go in the lab, get your hands dirty, prove your experimental chops. But that doesn't mean one doesn't contemplate experimental design in advance. A scientist's success depends on his/her ability to think scientifically. While the critical thinking skills deployed in science share much with the critical thinking skills deployed in journalism, they are not identical skill sets. Trained journalists have skills and qualities that even talented and enthusiastic amateur journalists don't. And with the support of a solid news organization, professional journalists can create truly investigative, multi-layered stories that are difficult for part-time, independent bloggers to do. It will be tragic if we lose the culture of traditional science journalists and their unique skills.

Consider the role of investigative journalists in ensuring accountability to the public. According to the Nature article, The Wall Street Journal's Robert Lee Hotz "doubts that blogs can fulfil the additional roles of watchdog and critic that the traditional media at their best aim to fulfil." When science bloggers are blogging about their own research, or research within their field, they are both more qualified to discuss it than a layperson, and more likely to be biased in overt and covert ways.

Fortunately, scientists prize and strive for objectivity. In fact, we do so precisely because we know it's hard to achieve. A recent article for The Scientist by Steven Wiley illustrates this problem:

Data interpretations depend on a scientist's underlying assumptions and worldview. For example, a molecular biologist might think of protein expression as an outcome of mRNA levels, whereas a biochemist might think in terms of synthetic and degradation rates. Both are right.

Every scientist has winced as a favorite hypothesis is blown to bits by experimental data. We all have favorites; we all have personal biases. We wouldn't be human if we didn't. That's why at least some investigations into scientific controversies and scientific practice should originate outside science, with trained journalists who don't have a dog in the fight. Those journalists need the help of scientists to evaluate the situation, particularly if it involves esoteric methodologies, but in the end, the non-scientist's independent perspective is valuable precisely because it comes from outside the scientific community. And that's something even the best scientist-bloggers can't offer.

The Nature article also brought up the echo chamber effect - the splintering of media into progressively more specialized (and potentially biased) niches. To be fair, this is hardly the fault of blogs, nor is it unique to the Web: what do you think Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN are doing, if not divvying up market share by catering to and reinforcing pre-existing perspectives among their audience?

Anyone wishing to know more about echo chambers and their potential impact on public literacy should really read Cass Sunstein's Republic 2.0. The point is that the decline of mainstream media means that we are not all getting the same "balanced meal" of news, as we might if we each read the New York Times cover to cover. Instead, we're getting slices of news based on personal interests and biases - what Nicholas Negroponte calls the "Daily Me." We subscribe to RSS feeds, we follow people on Twitter - but likely only those people and blogs we are already interested in or already agree with. We build ourselves cozy Web 2.0 nests, in which we are unlikely to encounter opposing viewpoints or learn about unfamiliar topics.

I'm the first to admit that I don't have enough hours in the day to read everything, and I don't seek out things that will anger me or stress me out. I have certain channels blocked on my television so I don't accidentally stumble upon them and thereby experience dangerously elevated blood pressure. As Sunstein warns, this behavior can potentially lead to group polarization. I avoid this by regularly talking to (or arguing with) people who disagree with me. I read articles I disagree with, including those with a different political bent. In fact, I find that niche blogs are sometimes a really good venue for this type of debate. People drawn together by a shared interest - in art, for example - don't necessarily share identical political views. However, having at least one mutual interest in common may help them be more receptive to a dialogue about other topics. Some blogs, including bioephemera, explicitly target boundary areas like the science/art intersection in order to bring people representing different communities of thought together in one place. In sum, while the Web exacerbates the echo chamber effect, there are also creative ways to use blogs to actively combat the "ghettoization" of science that Peter Dykstra foresees.

Nature's editors also point out that resistance to blogs comes from within the scientific community as much as without:

Blogging will not help, and could even hurt, a young researcher's chances of tenure. Many of their elders still look down on colleagues who blog, believing that research should be communicated only through conventional channels such as peer-review and publication.

Although your peers may well drop by and leave a review in the comments, blogs aren't peer-reviewed publications, and I don't think they are a good platform for peer review. Nevertheless, they are a new and potentially productive way of engaging peer expertise and soliciting constructive criticism - a way of creating a wider network of mentors and colleagues than most scientists have in their home institutions. Unfortunately, blogs and social networks are not yet seen as appropriate professional activities for graduate students and faculty. I don't think this resistance is entrenched; I think it's mostly due to ignorance, and it will probably change. As these attitudes change, we have the opportunity to influence what role blogs will play in undergraduate and graduate education, as well as public science literacy and science journalism.

A few months ago, I wrote a post in which I argued that blogs were by their nature interactive, individual, and idiosyncratic. These three traits pose tough challenges when we try to integrate blogs into academe, government, and yes, journalism. It doesn't mean we shouldn't try anyway - it just means we (scientists, bloggers, and readers) should take a hard look at the strengths and weaknesses of blogging. The illustration of two scientists at the top of this post, by David Parkins, beautifully captures the good and the bad: blogging may be scientists helping and mentoring their peers, learning to communicate, and making previously inaccessible knowledge available, which would be great; or it may promote insular scientific niche communities that talk within themselves, are increasingly out of touch with a scientifically illiterate public, and won't be held publically accountable - which would be not so great.

Today's blogs aren't a replacement for traditional journalism; they're a complement to it. And while science blogs (or Twitter, or wikis, or any of a number of other interactive media) may eventually "fill the void" left by the regrettable decline of traditional science journalism, to do so credibly, they're going to have to evolve into something better adapted to the task.


Bora and John Timmer, who are quoted in the Naturearticle, weigh in.

Filling the void: As science journalism declines, scientists must rise up and reach out. Nature.

Science Journalism: Supplanting the Old Media? Nature.

Scientist Citizens. Science.

The Problem of Perception. The Scientist.

previously on BioE: Will Blogs Reshape the Scientific Process?

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Brilliant write-up, Jess!

I'm curious how you think science blogs can attempt to overcome the "reach" problem (if there are any solutions).

If we do in fact lose science journalism (at least the MSM variety that reaches most audiences) what can we do to prevent the insulation of our niche communities?

I know this question is pretty simplistic, but you seem incredibly well-informed (which I am not). I thought you might perhaps have ideas on "all experiments that could help science better penetrate the news cycle" (from nature's "Filling the void")

I agree, brilliant write up. Obviously, what we think of as journalism is going through a big transformation, and as you say, it has a ways to go. Your analysis of blogs is great, but I want to add that this very posting shows what the blogosphere has added to science journalism -- this piece would have been too long and too deep to run in any newspaper and not in the niche of any mass circulation periodical I know of. Science Blogs in general has done much to enrich the dialog over matters scientific and relating to science. Will we see edited blogs? Or some other way to establish what's reliable? That's the issue, and I think it's very likely better reporting will ultimately come out of the internet than our newspapers have given us especially in fields like science.

Also, please let's not glorify the traditional media! For example, where I live (Seattle) we have seen much irresponsible science journalism -- including a very questionable, sensationalized series attacking the Fred Hutchinson Cancer center several years ago that inspired a lawsuit -- enormous cost and agony for nothing. After a long trial the jury came back with a verdict totally exonerating the defendants (not the usual result when the plaintiffs are survivors of people who died of cancer after being treated by the defendant.) The Fred Hutchinson got its day in court, but the newspaper never gave equal time to its defense of the practices that had been unfairly attacked in the exposes. Then we have the New York Times, which runs a regular column by John Tierney, formerly one of their conservative political columnists, on its science page. Tierney's stuff gives "political science" a new meaning. Not to say the science reporting in the Times isn't helpful, but it's certainly not a model for what science reporting could be. The stuff I see on TV is so dumbed down and politicized you can't tell what to believe anyway. I'm sorry but the more CNN and company devolve into biased blathering talking heads, we're talking about basically a business for cashing in on revving up people emotionally. When people write about the "Daily Me" they overlook the fact that the TV part of "traditional media"has pretty much turned into a series of ideological rants that prepackages a daily "us versus them" Fox for conservatives, MSNBC for liberals, CNN for anyone who can stand to watch Lou Dobbs and his proteges or that guy who does the extremely vapid interviews. Yes there is some very good science reporting out there, but no, not very much of it, and an awful lot of poor reporting about science too.

Finally about fact checking. No daily newspaper has a formal fact checking process. I worked for one several years back, and the fact checking consisted of a copy editor applying his or her fund of knowledge and experience to the articles, but seldom was any independent research done to check what reporters were doing. The New Yorker famously has done careful fact checking and maybe a few other periodicals, but it's too costly for most publications to do in any formal or systematic way. Newspapers are full of errors, and so are most magazines. As journalism turns into a dialog with audience participation, at least we get some comments and questions, even if the quality can be low. But check the New York Times on-line comments when they allow them (the comments are fairly intensely moderated) -- they often provide a very helpful gloss on the story and sometimes important corrections or questions about its content.

By albion tourgee (not verified) on 19 Mar 2009 #permalink

The Internet provides me with daily updates on Archeology news around the world. I no longer have to depend on magazines that come out once a month that share only the few articles that can be compressed into the publication.

Has in-depth fact-checked science journalism gone the way of the dodo? I certainly hope not. I think now, more than ever, there is a need for science stories for the general public, as more of our society is dependent on new technologies and associated science, and there is certainly an interest in science which has an obvious immediate affect on humans (like medical and environmental science).

Things are a little different here in Canada. Our national news has always had documentary-style segments of up to 30 minutes in length. This can allow for some in-depth investigations of a topic.

Though generally when I see short science stories on TV I end up yelling at the screen in frustration at the inaccuracy. I can not remember reading any newspaper story on a scientific topic in which I was not able to find errors or misleading descriptions. So I would have to agree that traditional science journalism is rarely excellent.

I also agree that blogs make a good complement, rather than a replacement. Trouble is that these tend to be preaching to the converted, so to speak. Do you really think that anyone who reads ScienceBlogs is neither a scientist nor a science enthusiast? But science stories which have good graphical displays (beautiful photos or really impressive-looking and expressive diagrams) can get a lot more play and spread infectiously on the internet.

I avoid blogging about my career in science for the general public (and am much more likely to blog about art I make on my own time). This is because there can be repercussions. My field is currently riddled with patent disputes. But I do sometimes blog about ideas in science, books I've read, or the history of science - these, I like to think, I am bringing to a different audience, as most of my friends are in the arts.

It might be useful to distinguish between news reporting and investigative journalism.

Bloggers can often do a very good job of science news reporting. When there's a great news story in Science or Nature or elsewhere, you can find good explanations about them in non-technical terms that explains why these are exciting. Here, bloggers may outperform news organizations.

It's not clear how good a job bloggers can do at investigative journalism. The sort of longer, more in-depth pieces that involve interviewing major players, often several times. For instance, on my blog I have been writing a lot about a few science news stories within my state. But I could not, say, contact the major players and expect them to give me time for interviews in the way that a journalist with a newspaper could. I can aggregate, but not generate.

Irradiatus - Thanks. I think this is a very difficult question. Blogs, certainly, can't expect to reach the national audience that traditional journalism once did. As viewers and readers exercise more control over their own personalized news sources, it will become less likely that people uninterested in science will seek it out. So I do expect science journalism to be a niche market in the future - or more specifically, to occupy a number of niche markets.

The clearest way to solve the problem of reach is to generate more interest in science, so more people will seek science news out in whatever niches it occupies. Fortunately, there is broad interest in health and technology, and science will always be central to those areas. One possible benefit of niche markets is that consumers may encounter science in a social context more often - rather than associating science with the "wonders of nature" type PBS story about basic research, they'll encounter science in practical scenarios like drug development, improving energy efficiency, and coping with climate change. I think that's good because publicly funded science is intended to solve real-world problems and tangibly benefit society, not merely to make wonderful discoveries.

On the other hand, focusing on applied or translational research runs the risk of neglecting a huge part of what science is. So I'd say the mission of those who care about science should be to link the entire scientific process - from hypothesis through basic research through years of neglect or frustrated research to practical result - to tangible benefits and problems in society. The better job we do making science relevant to readers, the broader reach science journalism will have. But this is a job not only for bloggers, but for scientists themselves, educators, and members of scientific organizations.

One of my main concerns with science on the new participatory web is that science is a process of testing ideas, not merely arguing about them. I feel that many laypersons don't grasp the difference between competing experts arguing over how to interpret carefully gathered evidence, as opposed to strictly opinion-based arguments between nonscientists, of the type that more often populate blogs or the comments on blogs. Everyone is entitled to have and share an opinion. But scientific questions should be decided by the weight of data, not the weight of opinion. It can be hard to make this difference clear on the web.

I think crowdsourced science - distributed, volunteer projects (like birdwatching or meterological measurement) in which many individuals gather data points and pool the results - has the potential to at least partially address this problem and improve general science literacy by letting people be involved in scientific debate in a constructive, useful way. Not only do such projects have obvious educational potential, they also fit the categories of community service and socialization. People like to work on large, cooperative labors of love - witness Wikipedia. While crowdsourced science certainly could not fill all research needs, it could be useful in certain contexts, while serving as a massive science education initiative.

"Do you really think that anyone who reads ScienceBlogs is neither a scientist nor a science enthusiast?"

Minouette, I certainly hope some of the people reading my blog are here for the art. ;) I know many of them are not scientists; while they may qualify as "science enthusiasts," I think they're more interested in the interface between science and humanities than in the scientific process per se. Which is precisely why I think interdisciplinary blogs are important to keeping the dialogue broad.

I'm here for this post. And it was very thoughtful and brought up a number of points to which I had only inchoate reactions until now.

One optimistic thing you wrote in the comments was "Fortunately, there is broad interest in health and technology, and science will always be central to those areas." However, that didn't save the Boston Globe Health and Science section.

I know it will be a cold day in hell before this happens in the U.S., but a rather detailed national math and science curriculum might help ensure a higher lowest common denominator of critical thinking in the public. Traditional news outlets, be they online or on paper, are businesses that will sell what their public wants to buy. (Some of them, to be fair, are trying to sell a "one stop for all news that could be important to an informed citizen".) But most of us don't even suspect that we are missing anything.

I'd love it if math and science (and honestly, everything) could be bumped up to a higher level in public schools! When I was teaching college, I had several students who were so poorly prepared by high school, they couldn't do simple math (and thus couldn't do physiology). But I doubt top-down efforts to truly improve science education will fly without the public seeing those efforts as vital to maintain US competitiveness. Emphasizing the real-world relevance of science to health and technology sectors is a way to get support from people who don't necessarily see science education in the abstract as a priority.

I think this is a rather timely debate to have. Our government is making efforts for our school systems to make improvements in science and math, in part by recruiting more teachers in these areas and asking for innovative methodologies to teach these two subjects. It is my hope that this national push will trickle into the news rooms.

However, journalism overall has been in a downward spiral for several years. There is an increasing number of stories that are being overly reported but receive little fact-checking in order to keep up with the 24/7 news cycle--it is disheartening. Therefore, science journalism which obviously requires some in-depth reporting and quality fact-checking would logically be one of the early victims in this paradigm shift that is taking place in news rooms around the country. While journalists are given assignments that are not always a part of their particular skill set, science journalism should always include a reporter that has a knowledgeable background in what they are covering. Therefore, recruiting well-informed and educated reporters for this field is critical to presenting such information for mass consumption.

However, as the author mentions, science reporters are not always the best communicators and perhaps their graduate curriculums should include some communication courses. Nevertheless, as the news industry gets rid of their science reporters or replace their science pages with watered-down tech news, I think blogs can be the vehicle to fulfill the void. Peter Dykstra of CNN now has a blog and I think blogs will continue to be the go to vehicle for news that is being under-reported by the mainstream media. But it will be up to the scientific community to create an authoritative voice that is well respected by their colleagues and by society at-large.

By Lae'l Watkins (not verified) on 28 Mar 2010 #permalink