June 6, 2013

NASA’s many social media products point to an uncomfortable new reality for reporters: the space agency doesn’t really need them to break news.

“We have an obligation to authentically share NASA on social media,” Jason Townsend, deputy social media manager for NASA, said in an email interview. “When we have news — a big discovery or mission activities — we will be covering it on social media. We know that many reporters follow us and get their information directly from social media instead of waiting for it to show up on the wire.”

NASA now has accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube and Flickr, through which the agency can tell followers about the latest discovery, or share interesting content in general. It’s its own media outlet.

A Soyuz rocket with Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency and Karen Nyberg of NASA lifts off from Kazakhstan on May 29, 2013. (Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls)

That approach reflects a larger reality in science journalism: There aren’t nearly as many science reporters as there were years ago.

“One of the really big issues in science writing at the moment is the decline in science sections or the decline in resources devoted to us in the conventional media,” Ron Winslow, president of the National Association of Science Writers, and health and medical science reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal, said in a phone interview. “The explosion of knowledge in science right now is amazing. … The idea that we don’t really devote enough journalistic resources in translating this to consumers is a real dilemma for us.”

Winslow explained why he thinks the decline is occurring.

“It is a big challenge to translate what to most people is a foreign language into understandable English… Personally, I think that editors and news organizations generally underestimate the interest and ability of readers to handle and be interested in science topics,” he said.

There are other issues facing science reporting beyond fewer column inches and writers, however. Winslow said access to government agencies can be hard to obtain beyond talking with a communications or public relations official. For example, speaking with someone who runs social media at NASA may be easier in the digital age, but it may still be difficult to talk with a scientist or someone actively involved in research.

“There’s always tension in that arena,” he said.

Dennis Overbye, a “cosmic affairs correspondent” with The New York Times, told me that another issue with science reporting is that stories can be overhyped.

“There are a lot of ‘holy grails’ and ‘missing links’ that you read about that aren’t holy grails and aren’t missing links,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s hard to be balanced and discriminating and still convey some excitement to the reader.”

Overbye said some of the hype comes from government agencies trying to “stay alive and promote their programs. … Some of the stuff you get from them is over the top and you have to dial it back.” However, now that those agencies have social media accounts, reporters don’t have power as gatekeepers to decide whether or not something is newsworthy, as they did in the past.

“We now take questions from social media during news conferences and often invite social media followers to sit in and participate with journalists during NASA news events. What was once reserved only for news media, such as participating at the press site during a rocket launch, is now open to members of the public who are actively engaged on social media,” John Yembrick, social media manager at NASA, said in an email interview. “This allows us to connect with non-traditional audiences to tell NASA’s story for us from their perspective.”

NASA’s social media and Internet presence comes amid an increase in nontraditional news platforms, some of which have fostered science reporting. MATTER, an online publication that was recently bought by Medium, is an example of this.

“We felt there was a missing link in the broad scope of science and technology journalism,” Bobbie Johnson, a MATTER co-founder, said via email. “Stories about complex subjects — and science is nearly always a complex subject — require greater depth and rigour than most media outlets can really provide. … We thought there was a new shape for digital publishing that could be explored; the same kind of shape that was already being shown by The Atavist and others.”

I asked Winslow about his thoughts on sites and blogs like MATTER that are wholly devoted to science reporting.

“There’s a lot of… really good and really interesting stuff in the blogosphere,” Winslow said. “A question for me is, how many of those writers are reaching a broader audience — or are they just reaching an insular audience?”

Johnson spoke to MATTER’s audience.

“If I had to characterise our readers, I’d say they’re super-smart, voracious consumers of ideas who crave a little bit more than they kind find elsewhere. Many of them work as professional scientists, researchers, technologists, engineers, programmers — but not all.”

Johnson said working with Medium gives them access to a new audience, and that the publication is giving them the opportunity to move forward with existing plans.

“These will allow us to broaden our coverage and try more innovative, experimental approaches to the work we do,” he said.

Moving forward, science reporting’s presence in the blogosphere is indicative of its success as shareable content.

“Science stories and medical stories we write are frequently among the most emailed stories of the day,” Winslow said of his experience as a reporter. If online content is targeted toward audience interests and increased shareability, science reporting may be saved.

And at least as far as NASA is concerned, social media platforms are a new way of spreading science news and engaging followers.

“While we can always wow our audience with a pretty picture of the universe from the Hubble Space Telescope or any number of other science missions,” Townsend said, “we can also use that picture to showcase and talk about the science behind the image.”

Related: The 10 biggest science-reporting mistakes (and how to avoid them) | Angier: Newspaper Science Reporting Is ‘Basically Going out of Existence’

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