Science reporting banished to the ‘fast-food news ghetto’
Looking through the lists of journalists who have fallen as a result of cuts at News Limited and Fairfax, it’s hard not to notice that science, health and environment reporters have really suffered.
From Leigh Dayton at The Australian to Deb Smith at The Sydney Morning Herald, some of our most experienced science journalists have been swept up in the media cuts and there is a real risk that science will be next.
When US newsrooms were undergoing a similar level of upheaval, Peter Dykstra — who was executive producer of CNN’s science, technology, environment and weather unit (until it was closed down) — warned that science and environment news will be “ghettoised and available only to those who choose to seek it out”.
Sadly when it comes to science news, it’s rare that the “most clicked” is also the “most important”. The push to move up the “most clicked” list tends to move science one of two ways, either the quirky (“Scientists discover Marilyn Monroe gene”) or sensationalist (“Lock up all chickens: say scientists”). Neither of which serves the public well.
Michael Gross, a scientist from the UK, has called the phenomenon “fast-food science”, suggesting that “only topics that can be presented in a tempting light and easily digested tend to survive, replacing food for thought with a more superficial mental diet”.
Science plays a role in some of the biggest issues we face in Australia today, not just the obvious stories on vaccination, obesity and climate change, but everything from rising electricity prices to air safety and terrorism. In times of crisis such as earthquakes, floods and disease outbreaks, access to credible and accurate scientific information is critical and once science enters the political domain our interest in it goes up exponentially — Murray-Darling Basin anyone?
But without these experienced journalists in the newsrooms pushing to get to the evidence and to understand “what the science says”, the likelihood is that we will hear more and more from self-proclaimed “experts” with an agenda but without the real expertise to back it up.
The Australian Science Media Centre conducted a survey of specialist science health and environment journalists in 2010 and found that even then the writing was on the wall, with 61% believing that if they left their news outlet they would be replaced by a general reporter rather than someone with a science specialty.
As numbers dwindle, the workload remains. The lingering science journalists will be asked to do more with less, filing for online, for print, for apps, producing videos and tweeting, all while researching their next story. The time they have to question and investigate can only go down.
I look forward to reading the next story about broccoli curing cancer.