The announced talk by Andy Williams (Cardiff) about “A crisis of science journalism?” at the next London Public Understanding of Science seminar, made me think about why science journalism actually is declining in quality — and not only in the UK, but also here in the Scandinavian countries.

Based on internet surveys and interviews, Williams suggests (in his abstract distributed on the Mersenne list) that the current decline in science news journalism is due to staff cutting and rising workloads and concludes that “As long as science reporters’ everyday routines leave ever-diminished time and space for finding their own news stories and writing them rigorously, the prospects for high quality, independent, science news in national mainstream media are diminished”.

The economic situation for science journalists is surely one of the reasons for the decline. There still exist some excellent science journalists, who combine knowledge about science with critical acumen. But their numbers are shrinking when ressources and work conditions deteriorate. Only very large newspapers can afford having high quality science journalists on their payroll.

One shouldn’t underestimate the ongoing moral  and cultural decline in science journalism, however. Uncritical journalism and snippety stories are not the inevitable results of a bad economic situation in mainstream media; it’s also a question of deteriorating professional norms. This became embarassingly obvious in the uncritical way most mainstream media handled the Mono Lake arsenic life story last December. The NASA bait was swallowed quite uncritically. It was bloggers, not professional journalists, who most fiercely exposed the weaknesses of the story.

Andy Willams opens his abstract with the obvious statement that “Science news is not formed in a social, economic, or cultural vacuum”. The consequences of this commendable contextual analytical credo is to bring the total moral economy of science communication into the picture — both paper and electronic media, both journalist-based media and scientist-driven social media:

  • Which media do members of the public choose to consult when they want to learn more about what goes on in science?
  • Which media attract young critical minds?
  • Which media give science communicators the best tools for expressing their skills?
  • Which media will scientists prefer to engage with?

I would like to see the answers to these and similar questions in order to better understand the shifting trends in different science communication platforms.

(The seminar takes place on Wed 23 February in room S314, third floor of St. Clements building on the London School of Economics campus, which can be accessed through the entrance on Houghton Street)

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