“Most science reporters tend to behave rather like sports writers: they have chosen their topic out of love for it,” observed sociologist Dorothy Nelkin. Unlike sports reporters, however, this love may not be shared with the general public.
At a discussion this evening on “Science News: The Good. The Bad. And the Outrageous,” delivered at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, David Aguilar, the Center’s director of public affairs, introduced the topic with a dissection of what’s in the newspaper. What’s news, he said, is an indication of what the public finds interesting.
Based on an informal analysis of newspaper content conducted over the past 3 weeks by Aguilar, (results above), 5% of the newspaper is dedicated to science, health and the environment. Peer-reviewed studies have also shown similarly low results. These numbers were unsettling to the scientists and astronomy-hobbyists in the Center’s audience, although there was an obvious bias. The truth is, many people find Britney Spears more interesting than supernovas.
It’s important to be cautious with Aguilar’s data, as well as how we define public interest. If he only counted articles written specifically by science reporters on hard science, then he may be painting a sadder picture than what’s really happening. Especially in this age of climate change and personal genetics, science elements are often integrated into economics, political, arts and even style stories. Also, he only looked at newspapers, which many people buy for the horoscope or sports coverage or read online, so whether or not that is an accurate portray of the public interest is debatable.
Also, what is the quality of that 5%? Are they gee-whiz science stories, meant for pure entertainment or are they important and relevant. Many science articles in the New York Times or the Washington Post discuss how public money is being spent on research – a topic relevant to all readers – as well as scientific or medical issues that affect policy, education and personal health. Those invested in science, who may wish the public shared their passion, can always go to magazines or Websites that specialize in science news.
One reason Aguilar cited for the small percentage of science news is a lack of trained science reporters. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Graduate and certificate programs like the one I attend at Boston University have been around for decades and their numbers are growing. Even without training, journalists don’t necessarily need a science background to produce accurate and interesting science stories.
Is science reporting in peril? No, it hasn’t been. In fact, things should only get better as the Internet allows people to pinpoint information relevant and interesting to them. The key is making sure it exists when they do this search. The job of newspaper editors is to decide what science their readers need to know now, for everything else there are science-specific publications. Aguilar set himself up for disappointment by analyzing a digital age with a traditional media.