Science Journalism


Those who report on science have never been better prepared to do so, according to Los Angeles Times science and technology writer Robert Lee Hotz, whose insights open our section on science journalism. But as Hotz also observes, the challenges these reporters confront have never been larger: Newsroom cutbacks mean the reporters "are stretched to cover increasingly complex science stories...." And their task is made harder by the dearth of impartial sources, forcing them "to look as hard at the scientists as we look at the science itself."

Science writer and journalism professor Jon Franklin uses his narrative style to describe evolving connections and disconnections between journalism and science during the past haft-century. Today, he writes, our journalistic culture "all but ignores what is perhaps the most powerful force of change in our world, and that makes life excruciatingly difficult for the handful of serious science writers with designated beats." Boyce Rensberger, who directs the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), reminds science reporters to "try to keep the sense of uncertainty in their copy." Caveats are important, he asserts, for without them, conclusions are often misleading. To inform the public accurately about science, journalists should focus "less on hyping apparent `gee-whiz' moments."

Investigative science reporter and journalism professor Deborah Blum explains why journalists undertake relatively few big-scale investigative science projects ("The nature of our job provides little time to burrow in," she writes), then she uses her investigative reporting experiences to create a useful road map for those who do. Jim Dawson, senior news editor at Physics Today, recalls the time when he worked as a reporter at the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune on its short-lived, science-in-depth weekly page. With editors demanding an infusion of stories about health and lighter science fare, "the science page quickly lost its focus.... The page actually managed to make science boring."

In his analysis of how and why reporting about a development in human cloning went awry, Jon D. Miller, who directs the Center for Biomedical Communication at Northwestern University, sheds much-needed light on the forces that led some science journalists to misrepresent what had been discovered. And he imparts valuable lessons drawn from the media's handling of this "first cloned human embryo" story.

Olivier Blond, who reports on science for a French weekly magazine, and Stefanie Friedhoff, a freelance journalist who reported on science for a German newspaper, provide European perspectives on science journalism and the issues reporters there tend to cover. Blond focuses on the various approaches to reporting on cloning, and Friedhoff reminds us how much cultural assumptions shape the questions asked, responses given, and stories told.

No mainstream newspaper devotes the attention and space to reporting on science than The New York Times does in its weekly science section. Cornelia Dean, the Times' science editor, writes that her staff struggles to meet the many demands of their job. "... [S]cience is becoming increasingly specialized," she writes, "so it is harder for journalists, even journalists with advanced training, to know what is important and what is not important. …

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