December 10, 2009

Like many journalists who write about science, Natalie Angier worries about the future of her beat. It’s a beat she’s worked on for 19 years at The New York Times, where she’s written features about interstellar space travel, the evolution of the family and bee brains.
Throughout it all, she’s wanted to show people why they should care about science and how it affects their lives. But she worries about the value of her work. She’s grappling with questions that lots of science reporters are asking these days: Do most people even care about science coverage? And if they do, how can mainstream news organizations continue to provide them with this coverage when they have so few resources?
“It’s basically going out of existence,” said Angier of newspapers’ science coverage. She noted that the coverage tends to be more fragmented and less comprehensive than it once was. “There’s something about the human mind that wants to have a sustained story-line,” she said, “and we’re not getting that.”

Several mainstream news organizations in recent years have let go of their science reporters and done away with their science sections altogether. The science section of The New York Times, which is one of the few left in the country, features more health-related stories and fewer hard-science stories than it used to, said Angier, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

She believes part of this change is driven by readers’ interest in issues that they believe affect them directly and that they can have some control over.
Angier aims to help readers see why even more complicated science matters. “One of the things I try to do when writing about science,” she said, “is make it seem like it’s part of your life already by making things into characters and protagonists, even if they’re just molecules.”
Charles Petit, who helps run the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, tracks stories like Angier’s. His job has gotten easier in recent years because, simply put, there are fewer science stories to track.
From his years covering and tracking science, he doesn’t recall seeing very many investigative science pieces that might, say, look into whether a researcher has concocted or knowingly distorted data to reach a conclusion that may not stand up. This type of reporting occurs but isn’t common. Feature writing, he said, has always been a strength of good science writing, even though there’s less of it now.
“Coverage has tended much more toward practical health-related and policy-connected stories,” Petit said, “and there’s less variety in the news we’re getting.”
Science news is common if you consider how often stem cell research, climate change and global warming make headlines. But given that there are fewer reporters specializing in these topics, Petit said science stories nowadays seem less useful because they don’t explain what these complicated issues actually mean.

He pointed to some news organizations, however, that are still doing a good job of reporting on complicated scientific developments — The Associated Press, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Cleveland Plain Dealer and The Albuquerque Tribune, to name a few.
Anecdotally, Petit said, people interested in science seem to be turning to traditional news outlets as starting points and then reading niche publications for greater insight.

October was a record-breaking month for Scientific American, which received 8.9 million page views — a 3.2 percent increase from the previous October, according to editor Mariette DiChristina.

Somewhat surprisingly, scientists make up just 8 percent of Scientific American’s overall audience. The rest, DiChristina said, are people from various backgrounds who want to learn more about the field. Only about 30 percent of the readers are females, though this percentage has steadily increased throughout the past few years, said DiChristina, who just assumed her role earlier this month as the magazine’s first female editor. 
One of Scientific American’s goals, DiChristina said, is to get people excited about science and give them a deeper level of information that most traditional news organizations aren’t providing.

“It behooves us in science journalism to make it clear to readers why science matters to them,” DiChristina said. “They have a sense of this … but I think the media has failed them. Why is it OK to know the specific batting average of a particular player and be proud of that but not be proud of knowing the elements of the Big Bang theory?”

Many of the science reporters interviewed for this story agree that readers tend to have an appreciation for science, even if there’s not a big appetite for stories about it. This theory is in line with the findings from a July 2009 Pew study that suggested Americans like science and believe that it has a positive effect on society.

When it came to the media’s coverage of science, the study found that 76 percent of scientists surveyed say news reports don’t distinguish between findings that are well-founded and those that are not. Nearly 50 percent said the media oversimplify scientific problems.

David Perlman, science editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, can attest to the problem. At age 90, he’s still covering the science beat and has been since 1959. Over the years, he’s seen the paper give far less attention to the beat than it deserves. There’s not enough time, space or money, he said, to cover science stories in an in-depth way.

“A hell of a lot of information about science is crucial for people to run their lives — politically, socially and culturally — and I think news organizations are giving short-shrift to it,” said Perlman, lamenting the loss of the paper’s now defunct science section. “That can’t be a good thing.”

The lack of science sections, many of which were created in the ’80s, isn’t necessarily bad.

“Science stories may not be in stand-alone sections as often as they used to be, but now they are often part of the top news of the day,” said Scientific American’s DiChristina, who is also president of the National Association of Science Writers. “Science sections are great, but I also like it when I see science news outside those pages, in the main section of the day’s edition as part of regular headline news.”

Getting people to see why it’s valuable and why they should care, she said, is an ongoing challenge. Like Angier, DiChristina expressed concern over the “existence” of science journalism at mainstream news organizations. But she remains optimistic.

“Would I like to see more in-depth coverage of science? Heck yes. But I also understand because I live in the real world, that time is really precious,” DiChristina said. “At our best, as journalists we inspire people to want to learn more.”

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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