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On the media (or press)

November 6, 2009, 5:44 AM

It seems like I've been stepping on a lot of people's toes lately, so in an effort to foster more camaraderie and less belligerence between the "old media" (this is not derogatory, but rather refers to anything pre-internet news source or classic journalistic source) and "new media" (this includes internet-era news sources, bloggers and the like), I'd like to put down my thoughts on the state of science journalism on the internet today.

  1. I do not think all media is bad at science. There are a multitude of great science sources out there that handle the issues quite well, mostly associated with professional societies like AGU or APS or through more popular-slanted journals like Science or Nature.
  2. I do think that science journalism (not science writing) is vital in news media and bloggers cannot fully replace - heck, I don't have time to track down and talk to all the players regarding a specific issue and that is where science journalists earn their bucks.
  3. That being said, if you just look at an aggregator like Google News and look up a current interesting science topic, you'll find that a vast majority of sources are just not very good. Sure, there are the Live Sciences of the internet that handle the material well, but on the whole, there is a lot of misinformation being disseminated.
  4. In my opinion, the problem is that many of these news sources are second-, third- or more-handing the news rather than looking at the primary source. This is because (a) they might not have anyone that can understand it; (b) they don't have the time to do it or (c) they don't care.
  5. I also think that many media sources will look for the "hook" before looking for the real ramifications - this is the "eyes" problem with internet news: you need to get people's attention and fast. It started in TV news, with sensationalist coverage (Al Capone's vault anyone?) and the internet has embraced the format.
  6. I also think the rampant antiscience sentiment in a lot of the US, combined with a lack of proper science education has promoted a generation (or more) that either (a) doesn't care about science and/or (b) doesn't understand enough to question some of these questionable sources.
So, how do we solve this?
  1. We need to make science fascinating again. It has become so myopic in many fields - mostly thanks to the current academic structure to publish or perish. People are interested in science, just maybe not the Nd isotopes of minerals found in a specific hydrothermal pool in upper Mongolia.
  2. We need our new Carl Sagans, Arthur C. Clarkes or Stephen Goulds - people who understand science and can advocate for it. I have trouble thinking of anyone filling those roles anymore.
  3. We need to strength science education at all levels - and I'm not talking about standardized tests. I'm talking about teaching the scientific method and making people want to think about science and how it is done. That is what makes people interested, not memorizing the formulas for 100 minerals, but rather how they form and what that can tell us about the Earth. Science should be a hands-on event that fosters thinking rather than memorization - the current educational system in the US emphasizes the later thanks to the love of testing we now have.
  4. We need people who understand science and have been trained to become journalists. I hate to say it, but maybe we don't need another 1,000 science Ph.D.s trying to become professors, but rather they should try to bring their love of science to the public through journalism and writing.

I think that covers a lot of what I think about the state of science journalism on and off the internet. I think the real problem is likely the deeper, societal anti-science sentiment that doesn't foster scientific thought. I also think that we've taken a lot of the wonder out of science - that sort of Victorian mentality that anything is worth pursuing because it might be interesting. The business model that only science that will have a practical end result or that will have a successful outcome has neutered a lot of the ingenuity of science. Science is about looking at the universe and thinking "this is amazing, how does it work?" and somehow we need to get back to that both in science as a discipline and society as a whole.


On the media (or press)

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