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Systemic issues in science journalism – the reinforcing cycle of niche reporting

April 9, 2010

Alrighty. It’s fun time. This is the rough draft of my “big” story and I would really, really, really, appreciate any feedback or comments on it. And with that….

This story has been edited and updated – the most recent version can be found here.

Sirens are blazing down on the road near the border of the East Village and the Lower East Side in New York City – music to the ears of a seasoned journalist. The drama, the tension, the race against time. Sirens are a sign of breaking news.

For a journalist like Ferris Jabr, however, the drone of the sirens outside his apartment is just another part of living in the Big Apple. To Jabr, the sound of breaking news is the soft thud of the journal Science hitting doorsteps around the world every Friday morning.

Jabr is a science journalist – one of the few forsaken souls who try to bridge the distinct cultures of art and science.

“Science has always been a presence in my life,” he said over the phone early on a Saturday morning.

“Different personalities are attracted to different things, and I was sort of the kid who would sit down with the encyclopaedia about animals and just pour through that for hours,” he said.

“The things I would ask for for Christmas were like: a gemstone collection, or something I could use to collect insects. I was just really interested in the natural world, and I was attracted to science as a way to explain how things work.”

Jabr went to university to be a scientist – his goal was to get his PhD and do research. During his senior year at Tufts University, where he was studying psychology and English, he started to question his plan.

“I was thinking a lot more seriously about, ‘What do I actually want to do post-graduation?’” he said.

“I obviously want writing or communication to be the centre of my career if possible, but I also don’t want to abandon the psychology and biology that I am interested in and have spent some time studying. So when I looked more into the different science writing programs in the country and internationally, it seemed like a really good way to combine those interests.”

Jabr found his way into the prestigious Science, Health and Environment Reporting program at New York University – where he now spends nights writing under the persistent clamour of emergency sirens.

You would think Jabr and his colleagues in the graduate science writing program would be ideal candidates for the lofty goal of communicating science to the public. And that would be almost entirely true.

His program focuses on reporting science news and exploring science culture. It’s a niche journalism program attracting those who are interested in science writing, and training them to be science translators; bringing science to the masses.

“It’s definitely an emphasis on, “What is happening in the science world?” Everything you write about has to be connected to science somehow,” he said.

NYU’s science writing program does what it sets out to do, and it does it exceptionally well. Students in the program learn to share the marvels and awe-inspiring findings of science with the world – much like one of Jabr’s favourites: author, blogger, and New York Times journalist Carl Zimmer.

Zimmer has secured his role as one of the world’s most trusted and celebrated science writers. Zimmer has won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Kavli Science Journalism award multiple times, he’s the author of several books, and he’s done it all because of a passion for science.

“I see my role as telling stories that have to do with science. As new research comes out, I try to explain, essentially tell the story, in a way that non-scientists can understand,” said Zimmer. “A lot of science is just interesting in and of itself. And it just sort of gives you a richer understanding of the world.”

Popularising, explaining, and translating into every day terms are all methods of transmitting science information that can be swept up as solutions to something called the ‘deficit model.’

The term was coined in the 1960’s to explain the apparent scientific illiteracy of the public. The general consensus at the time for solving the problem was to throw facts at people in the hope that some stuck.

“Historically, a prevailing assumption has been that ignorance is at the root of social conflict over science. As a solution, after formal education ends, science media should be used to educate the public about the technical details of the matter in dispute. Once citizens are brought up to speed on the science, they will be more likely to judge scientific issues as scientists do and controversy will go away,” said American University assistant professor Matthew Nisbet in his paper, What’s next for science communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions.

Zimmer isn’t trying to push policy, or force any sort of agenda. He shares science because he loves science. Research into the field of science communication, however, suggests that this approach isn’t the best way to reach the general public.

“There is little reason to expect that traditional popular science approaches if applied to informing a wider public about science will ever be effective. These initiatives instead tend to reach a small audience of already informed science enthusiasts,” said Nisbet.

Jay Ingram is the host of an hour-long science and technology television show on Discovery Channel Canada called Daily Planet. He agrees that one of the first steps towards broadening your audience, and the distribution of science information, is to recognize the niche market that is science writing.

“Science may be inherently interesting to a few of us, but that doesn’t mean it holds for the much larger audiences that we’re trying to grab,” said Ingram.

“I think those people who think science is inherently interesting, and you don’t really have to do anything to present it to people, are producing a lot of science that nobody is paying any attention to. I mean it’s one thing if you write for the New York Times science page you can assume that there is a certain number of people who might methodically go through every single piece on the Tuesday science page. But that’s not true of very many people,” said Ingram.

The issue of recognizing and confronting the fact that not everyone is interested in science is where niche journalism programs like the one at NYU can falter. Jabr remembers the awkward, glazed-over eyes he used to find staring back at him when he tried to share his enthusiasm about science. But when you are surrounded by a tight-knit group of like minded people, it is easy to forget how wildly interests can vary.

“Being in this program now, I have never been surrounded by so many people with whom I can so easily talk about these geeky, nerdy things. And we all take great pleasure in it,” said Jabr. “Like it’s not just some intellectual posh party for us, we actually really enjoy talking about these things.”

The big problem is that this tight-knit group expands far beyond the walls of the class room. People who are interested in science form their own virtual subcultures.

“I’ve sort of discovered this whole online community of science communicators. And it’s amazing – they’re always talking to each other, and they’re always producing great work, and I love being a part of that community online, or trying to be,” said Jabr.

“But sometimes I do wonder if – I wonder about the other spheres. Are they intersecting with this science communication sphere at all? Or is it just sort of its own bubble. And I hope it’s not, and I don’t think that it entirely is, but at the same time there isn’t a huge effort to reach out to overlap with the other spheres on there,” said Jabr.

To this online group of science communicators, science is inherently interesting, and requires no justification to be discussed. But here is where the ultimate problem lies – the people who are interested and willing to research and report on science have a ready-made audience of people who are already interested in science.

It’s great to have a market, but where is the need to reach outside of it to report, not on scientific breakthroughs, but on the concerns of the rest of society?

One good reason for science journalists to branch out is that they may be in the best position to help make sense of some of society’s biggest issues – issues which are usually handled by TV personalities or pundits making political arguments.

“The biggest issue I think in science journalism is to figure out how, in those controversial topics, to provide people with enough – and the right kind – of information that they can make well informed decisions,” said Ingram.

“Climate change it’s all about the science. What science is out there? How reliable is it? What kinds of decisions can we make based on that science? It’s not about people claiming that other people are being funded by oil companies, or this or that. It’s about the science.”

Since climate change is all about science, then a science journalist like Jabr should be able to take a decent stab at it. Ed Yong, a prominent science blogger, thinks the media sometimes runs into issues when reporters try their hand at science stories.

“What you typically get is political or lifestyle journalists looking at science news and doing kind of a lay-persons commentary on that,” said Yong.

“And often that’s the source of absolutely abysmal pieces about science, certainly in this country. A lot of uninformed, inaccurate, often scare-mongering editorial pieces. And I think that’s sort of what happens when you get people who are non-specialist reporters deciding to just branch into this area that requires a lot of technical knowledge that they don’t have,” said Yong.

So science journalists find themselves in a bit of a sticky spot – they have the tools to help the public make sense of complicated and important issues, but most of the audience doesn’t really care. Carl Zimmer has experienced this frustration before. The science is out there, but the public doesn’t go for it.

“I just think that a lot of people don’t take that time, unfortunately,” said Zimmer.

“I can write a 5000 word piece on the evidence for global warming, and then somebody may base their entire judgement on global warming from a few seconds of something they heard on cable news; where somebody said that climate scientists weren’t very nice people, and that’s it. And then they’ve kind of made up their mind and they don’t even bother to read the books or the articles that might show them that really is sort of beside the point.”

So what’s a good science writer to do? It’s possible to ask the public to dedicate more time to personal education. Or, the writers can adapt, understand their bigger audience, and write for them. This question of going broad may be more important now than ever, Jabr said, because of the recent economic turmoil in the journalism industry.

“That seems particularly pertinent now considering so many newspapers in recent years have folded their science sections, which is basically a way of saying, well, there isn’t enough interest, or this isn’t a priority for us. And that’s a huge problem, and that’s something that isn’t going to be solved by the iPad, or by changing mediums,” said Jabr.

“That lack, that basic lack of interest is much more deeply rooted than anything about how you write or how you communicate is going to solve. And I think that definitely needs to be addressed a lot more than it is,” said Jabr.

What we really need is a new approach. Science popularizing, science translation, science stories – those are for a niche market. As Nisbet said, it’s unlikely they’ll work for going broad, for reaching the whole audience.

In the world of science communication research, academics abandoned the ‘deficit’ model long ago.  Rather than trying to make people learn science because it’s ‘good for them’, researchers emphasize using things people already care about to teach them science.

One potential model is to use science to help explain the news of the day. Spending a lot of time involved with science makes it easy to forget that many people look at it as a tool, not as its own unique culture. Stepping back and paying attention to science as an explanatory tool can help science journalists relate with and inform the general public.

“A lot of us in the program are interested in – how can we use science, particularly data and data visualization, to make more sense of the news of the day?” said Jabr.

Using science to give better context to the news could help keep some of the politics and opinion out, and the facts in.

“Using science to give better context… I think that’s a really strong way of doing science journalism, and I don’t think that’s really built into the structure of our program and what we’re taught. And I think it should be there more, because certainly some of us students are recognizing that model and we’re definitely interested in it.”

On January 12th, 2010, the Caribbean tectonic plate slipped against the North American plate, leading to a massive magnitude 7.0 earthquake 25 kilometres outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Within minutes, newsrooms around the world were scrambling to find out what happened – a monumental task which was exacerbated by the loss of communication to the region.

The next day, journalists sought out stories to tell to help explain the scale of disaster. Phone calls went out to find anyone with ties to the region; the nightly newscast needed a face for the tragedy. But under all of the chaos and loss of life lay a scientific story.

The editorial team at Daily Planet worked a more-hectic-than-usual day, pulling together seismologists, emergency response workers, engineers and others. They put on an hour-long special which gave the story some much needed context. It answered the fundamental questions that other journalists may not have been able to cover as well: How did this happen? Why was the loss of life so high? People are talking about the massive emergency crew response – but what does this mean? What supplies are being taken down to Haiti, and how do they work?

This example is important because Daily Planet is typically a popular science show, reporting on science headlines, and displaying the general awesomeness of science. But their coverage in the wake of the Haitian earthquake played a different, maybe more important role. It didn’t just report on the disaster, it explained it.

A natural disaster might be easy pickings for this style of reporting, but scientific understanding isn’t limited to things that so obviously fall under the banner of science and technology. This idea of evidence-based news isn’t emphasised in niche journalism schools or elsewhere; but science journalists, who are used to hitting the literature, could easily take up the banner.

The idea of using science to explain the news of the day has some supporters, but science blogger Ed Yong sees at least one potential hole in the model.

“I’m not entirely convinced about its long-term effectiveness,” said Yong.

“So I think in the short term it’s a nice way of sort of sneaking science in through the back door. So you’ve got an obvious hook there that’s topical, and you get people interested in it. But whether they then walk away any more interested in science or in any related field I’m not really sure about; or whether they’ve just sort of dipped their toe in the water, taken it out again, and then that’s it. It’s sort of a hit-and-run tactic,” said Yong.

Yong is right, current affairs science journalism probably won’t turn the audience into science lovers. It comes down to the question: What is the role of the science journalist?

Zimmer, Yong, Ingram, and niche journalism programs like the one at NYU, seem to suggest science journalism is about communicating new science and science culture. Science journalists are complacent, accepting their crafts’ status as a niche market.

The reinforcing cycle rolls on; those who are interested in science write for those who are interested in science, happy in their own separate sphere. But Jabr, and others like him, are starting to ask new questions.

“We see so many meta questions… about, you know – What are the flaws of science journalism? Or what’s the best way to communicate science news? What’s going on with embargoes? And all these questions that are very much specific to science journalism and how best to do it,” said Jabr.

“But not necessarily so much about making it appeal to even more people than before. It’s just sort of like – how do we sustain it? How do we improve it? But not really, how do we make it bigger?”

“How do we make it something that everyone wants in on?”

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2010 9:21 pm

    I enjoyed this – a good summary through a difficult topic. And now, the ranting:

    I’m sick of people claiming that science is a niche market because they’re still stuck in a print-media era. Sure, if you’re still thinking about science pages or science supplements, that’s true, but the web is freer in its categories. Ingram’s model of people methodically going through the NYT science page is outdated. No one seriously expects people to do this. But I can reasonably expecting people to randomly come across my site because someone’s posted a link on StumbleUpon or Facebook or Twitter. So yes, perhaps some people are complacently accepting their craft’s status as a niche market, but they can, quite frankly, speak for themselves.

    And this accusation that traditional popular science only plays to the converted is a straw man. Where’s the evidence for it? Anecdotal? Well I can also point you to anecdotal evidence for the contrary position that traditional popular science writing done well can reach people who aren’t initially interested in science. And, as I’ve argued a few times before, the Internet (and social media in particular) make it increasingly easy to push science out to the uninterested.

    And fundamentally, how did any of us who are now interested in science get that way? Were we born geeks? Did our parents geekify us? In many cases, and certainly in mine, no. But I, and others like me, *became* interested in science through the efforts of the really great communicators – the Attenboroughs and the Sagans of the world. That’s who we should model ourselves on if we want to engage people in science. They are living proof that, hell yes, if you talk about it well, you can capture the imaginations of the otherwise uninterested, and all that was *before* the rise of the Internet. Niche market? I think not.

    I liked Ferris’s point about meta-questions. I fully agree that there is a lot of endless pontificating about science journalism – some is valuable and some is not. What matters to me is that while we discuss how to improve the field, let’s not forget to knuckle down and actually do some science communication. In this context, it’s hilarious that you’ve quoted Matthew Nisbet. My thoughts on his work are simple: those who can, do; those who can’t endlessly pontificate about their field; and those who can’t do that, are Nisbet. Science writers base their entire careers on taking complex concepts, stripping away the jargon and explaining them plainly. Nisbet takes simple concepts, adds jargon to them and makes them high-falutin’. “Going broad”? Please. Spare me.

  2. April 9, 2010 10:39 pm

    Hey Colin, pleased to e-meet you! My two cents: It’s an excellent start as an article –but it’s not remotely surprising in its findings/conclusion. It should be, because I think there’s a lot of interesting questions at work here that go beyond the surface issues you raise. From a purely journalistic perspective, my sense is you need to delve a bit deeper. (And apologies if that sounds patronizing; it’s not intended to be anything other than constructive.) I mean, we’ve heard these arguments before. Ideally your article should shed some new light on the matter.

    Ed’s right that the Web is a great medium for the future of our field. The best thing about the internet: it’s a two-way communication channel. It’s not just pushing science on the unwilling masses anymore. :) And because it’s more of a conversation, it’s making science writing less of a “niche market.” But I should add that’s in part because the definition of what constitutes “science writing” is changing, too.

    Sure, there is a built-in “preaching to the converted market” for science writing, and it can be difficult to bridge the gap and broaden one’s reach to a bigger audience who might NOT necessarily be interested in science writing. [Ed writes a lot about life science stuff. I write about physics. And calculus. That's a pretty hard sell, you must admit. :)] But to say people have no interest in science just isn’t true, in my experience. They’re just not interested in reading the kind of science writing the way it’s always been done, i.e., with a pronounced didactic bent.

    People love funky science stories when they encounter them on the Web. If you tell a cool, engaging story, they will come. But they’re not going to just “come for the science.” Mary Roach’s books sell buckets not because people think, “Hey, I want to read about the science of sex and death and ghost hunters.” They just want to read the books and be both entertained and maybe learn some cool new things in the process. Bill Bryson’s “A Brief History of Everything” was a massive tome all about science, and it sold millions, because it was so eminently readable, with such an accessible voice, great stories and tons of humor.

    So those are my general rambling comments. A couple other random observations, or rather, questions thrown out there to generate discussion:

    1. I’ve been struggling with the label “science writer” for a few years now, because really, I’m just a writer. Who happens to usually write about science subjects. I also blog, am on Facebook and (thanks to Ed) am now on Twitter (biggest time suck ever, thanks a lot dude!). It lets me interact with my readers, even get feedback from them — as you are doing now, and isn’t it an awesome tool? My blog readers helped pick the subtitle for my next book, which itself grew out of a series of blog posts, where reader comments helped me refine my thinking and draft a stronger book proposal. Oh, and did I mention my stint as a matchmaker between science and Hollywood?

    “Science communicator” doesn’t cover it, either. In fact, I really don’t know WHAT to call myself at this point. Maybe we need to do away with the label entirely and come up with something better, that doesn’t carry all the baggage and negative connotations of a “niche market,” etc. Maybe it’s a niche market because we keep insisting on throwing up artificial barriers…

    2. To some extent, popular science writing, and popular film and TV, are “gateway drugs” to turn kids onto science. But (to belabor the metaphor a moment), what makes one kid give science a try and move on, and what turns another kid into a science addict who just can’t get enough of it?

    3. There’s this assumption in your piece that “all” we need to do is broaden the scope of science writing, and we’ll magically get an informed and educated general public. Should the purpose of science writing even be educational? Most people want the Cliff’s Notes version of science, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Why aren’t they learning more rigorous science in school? Why aren’t the schools creating a hunger for knowledge? Whose job is it, anyway? :)

  3. April 9, 2010 10:41 pm

    A few thoughts (because clearly we need to hear more from me):

    (1) I definitely agree with Ed that “if you talk about [science] well, you can capture the imaginations of the otherwise uninterested” – this is something we have all witnessed science communicators do in the past (Attenborough etc), something that hugely successful productions demonstrate (like Life, Planet Earth, and March of the Penguins, all the most-emailed science stories from the NY Times etc) and something I have personally observed in everyday interactions with my peers and people around me [e.g. the example of the YouTube video about plant movement in our interview]. Excitement is contagious. And with tools like Twitter, Facebook, Stumble Upon and other social media, it’s never been easier to share and spread excitement.

    (2) However, I am still trying to properly gauge just how much interest people have in science and science stories. I’ve tried to assess it all different ways and I am never confident in my understanding. When people ask me what I do and I tell them I am studying science journalism, and explain what that means, I always get a reaction like, “Wow! That’s so interesting! That’s really cool.” Despite this enthusiasm, very few people I’ve talked to subscribe to a science publication, or make an effort to regularly read science news online or elsewhere. And yet they are very much in favor of the idea of science communication. (I know that many science publications maintain perfectly sizeable readership, but I am speaking of my own social communities). What does any of this mean? This is all anecdotal and speculative. A study of the hard numbers would probably be much more useful. But I blame myself for not spending enough time thinking about WHY I know so many people who have interest in science communication but don’t actively engage with it or even stumble upon it all that often. I personally want to think more about how to expand science journalism’s audience. I think there is a lot of untapped potential and unengaged interest just sitting out there.

  4. April 10, 2010 9:00 am

    And this is exactly why I love this transparent style of journalism. Thanks a lot to all of you, I have a lot to mull over as I work towards the final draft. I appreciate it!

  5. Gaythia permalink
    April 11, 2010 10:33 am

    As someone who is very interested in science communication, but is not a journalist, I would like to see an expansion of the ideas expressed in the comments above regarding web linkages, and untapped potentials.

    Readers of scientific publications can be encouraged and facilitated in serving as conduits to others regarding information. The readers undoubtedly have friends and acquaintances who can be identified as potentially finding specific science articles interesting and important even though they might have been unlikely to locate such articles themselves.

    And, I think that there is more that scientists must do to be involved with local public education and political decision making. Certainly there are forces of anti-science that understand that school boards, state boards of education and other governmental bodies are important platforms for influence.

    Many people who are not scientists are approachable. The internet gives ready access to information that can be provided to others. By being respectful yet encouraging, those that are science oriented can expand the local knowledge base and hopefully influence community or individual viewpoints.

  6. April 20, 2010 5:23 pm

    Lots of interesting detail in this Colin – sorry I took so long to get around to comment. I’m going to focus in on one bit, not because I want to be picky or because I think it’s a major issue, but I might as well start somewhere and I suspect this point could raise other ones…?

    You mention the deficit model and say now: “Rather than trying to make people learn science because it’s ‘good for them’, researchers emphasize using things people already care about to teach them science.”

    That’s not how I’d define a shift from deficit model.

    For me, moving away from the deficit model is, quite crucially, to extricate oneself entirely from the idea of teaching anyone anything. As I put in my last blogpost “Not everyone likes science, not everyone knows much science. And that’s ok”. Post-deficit model science communication stopped worrying about converting people.

    You can define deficit/ post-deficit/ whatever differently from me though. I don’t pretend to be the source of the great definition of these things. Maybe I’m wrong. Though as I teach this stuff on the UK’s major sci com’n course er, I guess what I say goes over here (Ha. The power. Shit. When the hell did that happen? I know nothing. Ok, back to the point…) If you are interested I’m happy to email you my handouts on the topic, or I can recommend these two reports as nice overviews of “post-PUS” ideas (i.e. shift from deficit model).

    Personally, I have some issues with the obsession with not being deficit model. For me it’s impossible to generalise about what good science communicaiton should do anyway, simply because I think science communicaiton (also science, and all it’s audiences) is simply too big and complex. There are times where (a) audiences want to be told stuff, all these engagement work is, well hard work! and (b) science has stuff to share. I’m not arguing for the deficit model here, I just think we get obsessed (at least in the UK) with avoiding it.

    Hope that’s not too much of a tangent. I just thought it’d be useful to focus.

    Also: congratulations on the job!

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