Why science reporting sucks

I saw Slashdot’s link to this article over at the Columbia Journalism Review, regarding problems with the standard media coverage of science issues.

Many have criticized the “balanced” coverage approach by the mass media. For example, during the election when it came to often outragous claims on the part of partizans, journalists would simply repeat what both sides say. They make no attempt check the facts of the matter, even when it’s simple to do so. It was up to non-media organizations, such as FactCheck.org to evaluate the claims. Somewhere along the line, journalists have abandoned the quest for truth (or, at least, getting closer to the truth) in favor of trying to appear unbiased.

When it comes to science journalism, this artifical balance hurts even worse. The journalist’s need to find a counterpoint to widely accepted and significant scientific studies has elevated crackpots and industry shills to the same level as highly accredited and recognized scientists.

When I was in school, I did a research paper exloring the coverage of several major news stories that delt with science and technology in the major media. I looked at the coverage of major news stories in the late 70’s through the mid-80’s in Time and Newsweek. My conclusion: the larger the science story, the worse the coverage got. When science stories stayed small, the usual science reporter was able write more-or-less freely. When a large story comes along, the mainstream journalists often displace the science journalists. What the science journalists are allowed to contribute is often compromised by the editors who expect the standard “balanced” journalistic approach.

Things seem to have gotten even worse since then. The media’s ambivalence to science is certainly shaping the overall public’s ambivalence as well.

One Comment

  1. Gary,

    No time to write much more at the moment, but I wanted to give yz a shout-out. Thanks very much for this post.

    Actually I’ve already built some of it into the current novel under construction.

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