Sep 4, 2012

Science reporting banished to the ‘fast-food news ghetto’

Media redundancies have banished important reporters in science, health and environment. It's bad news for understanding important issues, says the Australian Science Media Centre's Lyndal Byford.

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.

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12 thoughts on “Science reporting banished to the ‘fast-food news ghetto’

  1. Scott

    Oh come on. The level of scientific reporting in the mainstream media has always been ordinary in my opinion. You don’t go to the newspapers for quality science reporting.
    It’s almost always been magazines and journals (and now blogs).

  2. [email protected]

    Couldn’t agree more. Australian science reporting in the metro dailies rarely goes beyond rehashed press releases from Nature magazine, or someone spruiking a spurious ‘breakthrough’ in an American laboratory few have heard of or will ever hear of again. Australian science and innovation, which actually exists in abundance and is in fact bloody exciting has been ignored by the so-called mainstream media for decades.
    But this is only one example of the trivialisation of newspaper content that has now come back to bite.

  3. Gerry Hatrick, OAP

    Hey, I read on the southbank sook’s website that brocolli stops global warming and nuclear fallout at the same time!

  4. khtagh

    This is all by design, keep everyone as dumb as possible, just like they have been in the USA of a number of years, how else do you think they elected G W Bush, & now we risk doing the same electing our Bush, Mr T Abbott, no one with even half a brain would do that.

  5. AR

    It’s the failure of that damned, reality based world to compete with the pop’n’fresh so beloved of the airheads, morons & bigots, pandering to their ilk/market, aka the electorate.

  6. Brett Wright

    I couldn’t agree more with Scott and BCollis. The sad truth is that science reporters in Australia are the among the more expendable because they are such god awful reporters. Most science reporters seem to think their job is to promote science and educate the kiddies. Science reporting needs hard-hitting journalists who know the value of news, not enthusiasts who think you need a science degree to find a good yarn.

  7. Liamj

    I’d expect nothing more from this society, deep as we are in collective denial of several ‘science’ problems / existential threats.

    At managing editor level tho, i wonder what was foremost:
    1. Commercial media prefers ignorant consumers, because they’re so much easier to satisfy than consumers who can themselves spell or do the odd sum.
    2. Commercial media recognises that science carries no weight in politics or economics or popular culture, so why bother.

  8. Bill Parker

    Nice summary LiamJ. Both option probably have equal weight. I gave up even glancing at our daily (in WA) years ago. Worthless for all serious purposes.

  9. Hamis Hill

    Science? Isn’t that a Gaia-worshipping Greenie conspiracy? Like the economy destroying AGW?
    Don’t worry, good old Tone will drag us all back to the Inquisition and burn them all at the stake.
    Just didn’t do the job properly the first time around, eh?, Mr “Abbott”.
    (All part of the great “Dumbing Down”; nothing to see here folks, move on quietly now!)
    A Counter-Reformation continuum? Centuries long? Don’t be ridiculous!
    History, you say? Isn’t that just a conspiracy against received “Truth” as well?
    If God had wanted us to think he would have given us a brain!

  10. shepmyster

    Since when has there been anything in the Murdoch press that even remotely resembles science reporting. Of course their resident scientist Andrew Bolt would disagree.
    Rather than lamenting their loss, I say good ridance. These so called journalist have done nothing in the name of science. They have done a lot to harm it though. Haven’t they!
    I’ve been following climate since I first soar a 4corners program on it in the late 80’s. That was an excellent peice of journalism. The Murdoch press and their journo’s have done nothing but deliberately confuse the issue ever since.The sooner their relegated to the bench the better.
    As far as I’m concerned any journo who has worked for Rupert in this time is a disgrace to journalism and themselves and they should loose their right to call themselves so.
    So long and farewell LOL

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