Is science journalism dead? Can blogging replace it?

Traditional science journalism is certainly dying (see “CNN fires staff covering science and environment, hires psychic to cover climate change” and “NBC nixes TV’s only global climate change show during ‘Green Week’.” and below). This is part of an overall trend in the death of serious reporting and major newspapers.

I have mixed feelings, since, on the one hand, both of my parents were award-winning journalists/editors, but, on the other hand, the state of science journalism and climate reporting today in the traditional media just ain’t good — as I have blogged on many times (see CNN, ABC, WashPost, AP, blow Australian wildfire, drought, heatwave “Hell (and High Water) on Earth” story — never mention climate change and “NYT’s Revkin seems shocked by media’s own failure to explain climate threat” and links below).

As a professional blogger, I certainly don’t have the reach of the traditional media with my 10,000 visits and 50,000 page views each day — but I and many others provide what I believe is a far superior picture of the harsh reality of climate science than the soft-pedaling scribes of the MSM. Indeed, if homo “sapiens” sapiens fail to act in time to avert the worst global warming impacts: Hell and High Water, then science journalism will certainly deserve some of the blame for having delivered such a muddied message.

I’d be interested in your answers to the two headline questions. But first, science journalist and science blogger Chris Mooney has some thoughts of his own in a post first published by Science Progress.

Amid all the layoffs in the traditional science journalism field, which I’ve been writing about here for some time, the focus of chatter has quite naturally shifted to an inevitable question: Do science blogs serve as any real replacement?

As it happens, I stand in a rather interesting place to discuss this, having just moved my own co-authored science blog, “The Intersection,” to Discover Blogs on Monday, and for this reason finding myself hailed by Columbia Journalism Review as part of a trend of mainstream media outlets (the dreaded “MSM”) acquiring science-centered blogs and blog content.

A recent cover feature in the magazine Nature by writer Geoff Brumfiel stirred all this up. “Supplanting the old media?” it reads. “Science journalism is in decline; science blogging is growing fast. But can the one replace the other?” In reply, Curtis Brainard at Columbia Journalism Review’s “The Observatory” pointed out that Brumfiel and Nature might be constructing an artificial dichotomy. Brainard highlighted Discover’s burgeoning blog collection as an example of a marriage of old and new media in the science arena, and added: “next week the site will add another ‘top-ten’ blog from the community.”

I don’t know about “top ten,” but that was us.

I feel very conflicted about all this. As both a science journalist and also a science blogger, I would be one messed up dude if I loathed either activity. Clearly there is no sharp dichotomy between blogging and journalism in the science field if the two merge in a person like myself, or in many others, like Carl Zimmer or Rebecca Skloot or Jennifer Ouellette.

Yet while I certainly enjoy blogging and feel it has many benefits–and we’re psyched to be at Discover–I actually side more with Nature and Brumfield than with Brainard in this dialogue. I don’t really see how blogging works as a substitute for traditional science journalism, and I question talk of “marriage” between the two when so many traditional science journalists are losing the jobs–and also, sad to say, when many science bloggers seem to have an adversarial stance toward their science journalist peers (and perhaps vice-versa).

So all the problems during this time of transition that Nature describes (and that many others have highlighted) resonate with me: Blogs have smaller, more specialized audiences. Most of the time, bloggers don’t have journalistic training and don’t “report.” And so on.

But there’s a deeper, and indeed, fundamental difference here that seems to me to have been elided, especially by Brainard. For the most part, blogging isn’t a career. As matters currently stand, most bloggers can’t expect to support a family, get health insurance, a retirement plan, etc, simply through blogging alone. At best they’re the equivalent of faculty adjuncts, never destined for the tenure track.

That’s why the science journalists who you find blogging tend to be freelance or unattached science journalists, and also book authors. We’re entrepreneurs and hacks of all trades; we do a whole bunch of different kinds of things; blogging is just one more to add on the pile. (And we’d be glad to take adjunct work too!)

In other words, our economic models are individualistic and entrepreneurial. One can scarcely doubt that there will always be people in the media willing–or crazy enough–to roll this way. We’re the types to to cry “Freedom!” at the top of our lungs while the media industry removes our entrails. But the question is, what happens to everybody else? The death of traditional science journalism is a death of pensions, healthcare, and childbearing leave. It is a harsh exposure of science journalism to the elements.

That’s why it was so beyond the pale to find a university faculty scientist and science blogger, University of Toronto biochemistry professor Larry Moran, commenting on my blog (quoted by Nature) that “Seriously, most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of without it…. Science journalists have let us down. I say good riddance.” In other words, send them out into the cold.

The deepest problem here, in my mind, is moral: We lack the shared sense that people who cover science in the media–blogger, reporter, or otherwise–are part of the same team and need to be supported in bad times. We rarely take the time to look out for each other. We lack a sense of solidarity.

And now, many of our friends are going down alone.

JR: So what do you think? Is professor Larry Moran right — good riddance to traditional science journalists? Or is Mooney right that Moran’s comments are beyond the pale and we should mourn the loss?

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27 Responses to Is science journalism dead? Can blogging replace it?

  1. Carlin says:

    Mooney is right, the loss of serious science journalism is something to be mourned. Even the most brilliant bloggers don’t spend months (or even days) gathering facts and data, conducting interviews, traveling the globe in pursuit of a scoop. Only skilled and well-financed journalists with motivation and writing ability can add sorely-needed depth to the climate change debate.

    Joe Romm has said that the leveling off of arctic warming over the last couple years is probably not real, but we’re unsure because we don’t have the proper measuring equipment in the frigid far north. If science journalism morphs into blogging, who will go to the North Pole and tell us that it’s ice-free? Is there a blogger in the Arctic Circle?

  2. MarkB says:

    I don’t think science journalism is dead. It’s just weak and feeble. Part of this is the intense focus on the terrible economic situation. Mainstream media gives the people what they want, and the people would rather hear about the economy rather than science or perceived long-term problem of global warming.

    Can blogging replace it? Technically, yes. ScienceDaily is a great site that keeps the public up-to-date with the latest studies on a variety of topics. With regards to climate science, there are good sites like RealClimate that cover the science from qualified experts. ClimateProgress expands further and covers solutions and policy. The problem with the blogosphere is that it also is a place of massive disinformation and ideology – worse than the mainstream media on the whole. Take for example the recent non-scientific musings of George Will in the Washington Post. This kind of nonsense and worse appears in the blogosphere on a daily basis. The blogosphere in that sense represents better quality and detail than the mainstream press but also much worse quality. For every reasonable blog, there are perhaps 3 lousy blogs. A layperson hitting the blogosphere seeking information on climate science is going to be confused.

  3. Lewis says:

    Yes, science journalism is dead. It died when journalism as a whole ceased being concerned with reporting facts objectively and dispassionately and became about the ‘news.’

    If blogging could replace science journalism wouldn’t it then BE science journalism?

    Blogging to me largely has an air of advocacy and while many blogs may be more factual than most magazines and newspapers they often have an agenda which in my opinion is not a mark of good journalism.

  4. Joel says:

    It seems like there are a few issues with science journalism that are particularly painful to us, the ‘climate community’ (though that term ought to include all of humanity), but are problems throughout the mainstream media as a whole.

    1. Much of the media is wedded to the ‘we report, you decide’ mentality, in which the role of the journalist is to serve as a mouthpiece for their interviewees. There is little critical analysis, no arbitration as to the actual validity of arguments, just a “James Hansen says this, and is backed by a general consensus, but Freeman Dyson, Bjorn Lomborg, and Roger Pielke say this” ‘story’. But this of course favors the arguments of the ridiculous, who are lent extra legitimacy by being placed in the same category as parties with actual credibility.

    2. The media is of course determined to give the people what they want, and they seem to overwhelmingly want easily solutions, gags, and confirmation of what they believe and what comforts them. Look at the success of Fast Money and the other buffoons that are less obviously illegitimate than Cramer, but have colluded with the people responsible for hollowing out the economy even more than him. The people needed real, sober analysis, but is there enough of an audience for that.

    3. Finally, similar to the above point, the problem with science journalism retreating to blogosphere is that it will allow people to avoid hard truths and diverse perspectives. A number of writers have been calling attention to the fact that many Americans are segregating themselves ideologically in terms of the communities they associate with and the news sources they turn to, which seems to me to contribute to the radicalization and inability to communicate of all parties involved. For a number of reasons, I return to this site time and time again as my primary source for climate news and eschew the network news because I find it too much to bear. But in the same exact way, where will ‘moderates’ or others on the fence get the information they need to accurately judge the climate situation if they’re not already hooked into responsible commentary? I’m a little afraid for our prospects if the only people taking climate action are those who already read science journalism- we need to be reaching more people, people not currently a part of the movement and constituency. But if the mainstream media isn’t the format in which that can be done, what is?

    I’m trying to go about it by getting into blogging and grassroots organizing of my own, but it is a slog. Even at Oberlin, a progressive school by most accounts, it is extremely difficult to take the message that needs to be heard beyond the ‘true believers,’ to truly democratize this movement and make it obviously relevant to everyone.


  5. Russ says:

    The death of traditional science journalism is a death of pensions, healthcare, and childbearing leave. It is a harsh exposure of science journalism to the elements.

    It seems the plight of science journalism is enfolded in the plight of science in general, in a society where everything has become exposed to the elements, and where the elements become ever more harsh (it’s not just the physical climate where erstwhile “extreme” weather is becoming the norm).

    It really seems like there’s no such thing as society anymore.

    We see this in universities, which used to be havens for pure research, but which are increasingly the servants of big corporations, the only replacement source of funding since public funding has been slashed. (This is a vicious circle intentionally triggered by corporatists in politics.)

    As traditional journalism which adheres to the principle of objectivity (in theory if not always in practice, but they usually tried), and doesn’t see the quest for profit as literally the only value an organization can possibly have, dies off, another island of society is submerged in the Hobbesian surge.

    Now that almost everything, almost everywhere, is commodified and ideologized, science especially is going to have a hard time, since by definition, if it is to maintain its essential quality, it must be free of either.

    I confess I’ve been corrupted myself. I’ve come to view the climate crisis pretty much as an ideological war the same way the obstructors do, and I feel like I’d use the same nihilistic tactics to fight them.

    I guess I’ve lost faith, not in science intrinsically, but in its ability to play an uncorrupted yet powerful role in the calamities which beset us.

    Or maybe it’s just a pessimistic mood I’ll snap out of.

  6. Lou Grinzo says:

    Joel: I enthusiastically agree with everything you said. I’ve made the same points (albeit usually with a lot louder volume and more arm waving) over on The Cost of Energy numerous times.

    Your third point, the self-segregation of information consumers, is a critical problem that I don’t think gets nearly the attention it deserves. Almost everyone I know is either a committed environmentalist (the minority, to be sure) or a hard core “denier on principle”, the people who insist that “there has to be” lots of oil in the ground, that “the world is so big we can’t possibly be changing the climate”, etc. And whenever those people go online, they find a lot of people telling them they’re right, and some truly scary doomers spinning ridiculous stories of worldwide power blackouts beginning in 2012, for example, which only makes it easier for them to dismiss anyone who says we have something to worry about.

    Of course, with the nearly total disappearance of scientific journalism, the hyper polarized online world is all that’s left.

  7. mauri pelto says:

    As a research scientist, I have learned very little over the years from science journalism in Newspapers, that add to my knowledge or is useful as a classroom example. Almost all new information of import I come across in science journals, some articles in these are by journalists, but most by scientists. With this in mind I will not miss science journalism as it was practiced, because of its limited value. I find blogs have been more able to bring the science directly to the reader, in the form of links to the actual references. I have also found that the collective wisdom of the digging that blog participants provide can be incredibly informative. The information that is uncovered is noteworthy. Tradiational journalism seldome unearthed a new source of information I had not come across or that I could easily tap into. I think we bring the reader closer to the enterprise of science in blogs and for that I am glad.

  8. mauri pelto says:

    The previous post was from my own selfish perspective. What about the bigger picture. I do notice that a comment I make on a blog reaches far more fellow scientists. But in terms of the general public, not so much. Every five years the local paper does a story on my glacier research, and that reaches my neighbors, my kids friends, teachers and my wife’s co-workers who would never read a blog on science voluntarily. So for the general public the loss of science journalists is huge, as it removes the headlines and stories they will not otherwise seek out.

  9. This discussion is about publicly available information. We should expand our definition of the media used for science journalism.

    In a sense, the peer review paper is a closed distribution. And every industry has their dedicated journals, private subscription newsletters and research reports. It is difficult to get information that special interests want to restrict.

    As an amateur blogger I constantly find barriers to science source material. High status news organizations with research budgets can get through this wall – but they carry their institutional bias with them.

    In the face of such a serious crisis – this should change

  10. llewelly says:

    If science journalism morphs into blogging, who will go to the North Pole and tell us that it’s ice-free? Is there a blogger in the Arctic Circle?

    NSIDC. American tax dollars at work. (Several other nations have similar organizations.)
    Cryosphere Today.

    It would take too long for me to list all the blogs which blog about the data featured at the above two sites (and similar sites.) But I don’t need too; people can follow those two sites directly.

  11. llewelly says:

    For what it is worth, two of Larry Moran’s recent articles on this topic are:
    Science Journalism in Decline
    Carl Zimmer on Science Jounralism

  12. Robin Carey says:

    (also posted as a comment on Joe, not “can” but will. Just as blogs were the only media source where you could find reasonable skepticism about the Iraq war, blogs will grow as the intelligent source of discussion about climate change. True, the numbers are still relatively small, but whether it’s your blog, or Geoff’s, or Marc’s, or Jesse’s, yours are the blogs that “traditional” journalists use to shape their stories and opinions. The numbers will continue to grow as millenials grow up, as newsprint declines and as ordinary people learn to “disintermediate.” We’re still in transition, as Richard notes above, but the change is now happening at an accelerated rate.

  13. Jeff Wishart says:

    I think, to expand on what mauri pelto said, that removing a thorough and accurate discussion of important scientific issues from the MSM will mean that the average citizen will become even less informed. Those of us who frequent the blogosphere will continue to get the intellectual nourishment that we crave, but for people without an active interest in science, their disconnect will only grow.

    For me, the problem is that science journalism has been done poorly, not that it shouldn’t be done at all. How many science journalists have even a modicum of science training? Whenever I read science articles in the MSM, I find errors that anyone with a suitably scientific background wouldn’t make.

    Here is one example near and dear to me (this may seem like a digression, but it seems appropriate to this blog): I keep reading that the engine in the Volt doesn’t power the wheels, that it only charges the batteries. This means that when the vehicle is in motion, the batteries would have to be both charging and discharging–a physical impossibility. The engine provides mechanical power to a generator which in turn powers both the electric motor and charges the batteries. A science journalist should be able to understand this, but they often don’t.

    So I think that it’s important that the MSM hire people with science backgrounds, and at the same time that people with science backgrounds get journalism training. The problem that science often has is communication with the public, because scientists are not used to writing for the lay audience, but instead for other scientists. But scientific journals are not a good medium for disseminating the science to the public. For the foreseeable future, the masses will get the bulk of their information from the MSM, for better or worse. So a concerted effort to get scientifically trained people in science journalist positions would seem to be to crucial for the average citizen becoming up-to-speed on issues as important as climate change.

  14. Ray says:

    I think its new and awkward but ideas continue to thrive, opinions which journalism unfortunately had become have become cheap, honest facts exist but you need to wade thru a lot more junk to find it. Its all good, an evolution of information. Pick and choose, find some that speak to you and then read those that don’t.

    Democracy on a grand scale.

  15. Steve Bloom says:

    Foundations are moving in to fill some of the gap. Climate Central is an independent producer that’s still getting organized but has already placed the first two of a series of in-depth pieces on the PBS news hour, and KQED radio/TV in San Francisco has an in-house climate reporting staff of two running its Climate Central initiative.

    Climate Progress itself, considered as a package with its sister blog Science Progress, is IMHO a lot closer to science journalism than it is to amateur blogging.

  16. Steve Bloom says:

    Sorry, that second link should have been “Climate Watch,” but does go to the correct place.

  17. Ben Lieberman says:

    Can blogging, no matter how well done, ever overcome self segregation?

  18. Wes Rolley says:

    While this discussion is about science journalism, I think the core problem goes far beyond that. It is not so much about journalism as it is about the American attitude towards science.

    It isn’t about science blogging either. I have both Climate Progress and intersection in feed reader… along with Aquafornia and Davie Roberts at Gristmill. But, if the Indispensable Blog only gets 10,000 visits / day, then no matter how much Joe knows or how well he writes, it isn’t going to change very much public opinion.

    In her final book, Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs warned about a culture that gives lip service to honoring science but has failed to develop a scientific habit of mind. Her examples come from the area of public policy where time after time we have missed doing the simple task of gathering facts and the figuring out what really happened.

    So, what we get is the ideological blathers of a Sen. Inhofe or a Rep. Joe Barton… and that is given the same credence the media would give to Dr. Hansen.

    We can no longer be mere consumers of information, whether from Climate Progress, Science Progress or any of the other good sources. We have to start being part of the relay of knowledge, taking it from authoritative sources and handing it of to our neighbors, the readers of our local paper, the students are our local schools.

    That is what I did when Chris Mooney’s rebuttal correction of George Will ran in the Washington Post. I had first seen it in the San Jose Mercury News and made the connection between Mooney and Barbara Marshman, Opinion Page Editor of the Merc. Everyone whose local paper syndicated the Will column should do the same.

    It is all our responsibility.

    Wes Rolley
    CoChair, EcoAction Committee, Green Party US

  19. papertiger says:

    Green Party US? EcoAction Committee? You are the CoChair of the Eco Action Committee and you haven’t been bothering the opinion page editors and school board members up till now?

    Dude – what good are you.

  20. Bob Wallace says:

    “As a research scientist, I have learned very little over the years from science journalism in Newspapers, that add to my knowledge or is useful as a classroom example. Almost all new information of import I come across in science journals…” mauri

    When I was active in my field of research I did the same. I read the journals in my specific sub-area as they were released. But I didn’t keep up with the journal articles in other areas outside my specific interests.

    Thankfully there were summary articles published from time to time that brought all the latest and most important research into a few easy to digest pages. Most of them could be read and understood by anyone with a decent education.

    We’re in the process of quitting paper. In general, we are not willing to wait hours to read information that we can access instantly. But during the transformation from paper to digital access we are losing some of the resources we once had. In particular, the in-depth carefully researched pieces.

    I think we’ll get those back. I see political
    sites such as Josh Marshall’s TPM adding investigative reporters. As readership grows and revenues increase there will be money for staff to do the hard lifting part of the business.

    And perhaps we can invent new ways to get high level knowledge into forms that the non-specialist can easily understand.

    What if we had journalism schools work with their students and science departments to produce summary articles on various topics? Rather than write papers for the prof to read, let advanced students write for the web and get real world experience communicating science to the masses?

    (I wouldn’t be surprised if a few schools wouldn’t be willing to offer a dual journalism/science degree. A series of good reports could make an excellent Masters thesis.)

    How about institutions such as the one Joe works for making some grant money available to pay knowledgeable people in various disciplines? Let the people who really know the field and have good communication skills take a few hours and crank out something really useful to the rest of us.

    (I’d love to have Mark Jacobson or one of his associates at Stanford write a piece on the research that his group is doing on solving our energy needs without coal.)

    Many of us have a need to know more. I’ll bet there’s several ways to bring better information to the web.

  21. Sarah says:

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  22. amazingdrx says:

    Yes it is dead, it died of liberal arts education. Science and journalism clash at the under graduate level. And even before, sci-fi science geeks don’t end up in journalism careers.

    In fact many in the arts resent math and science. It’s a problem.

  23. Bob Wallace says:

    X – you create an all or none world.

    We don’t need millions of good writers with curious minds to distill the science for us. We could be well served with only a few dozen.

    What we need is platforms for a few people with good communication skills and an interest in science to do their work. Sponsored sites that go beyond blogging (valuable as it can be) and give us the information on a deeper and more thoughtful level.

    Current and trustworthy are the keywords that I have in mind.

  24. amazingdrx says:

    Seeing is believing Bob, Youtube is a great tool. But verification is key. Some sort of testing of new technolgy on easiy verifiable widely distributed video ought to be possible.

    With actual repeatabilty maybe blogging could be a reliable source of information for public, corporate, and consumer decision making.

  25. Bob Wallace says:

    From today’s Huffington Post…

    “I’m delighted that today we are launching a new venture — The Huffington Post Investigative Fund. This nonprofit Fund will produce a wide-range of investigative journalism created by both staff reporters and freelance writers. As the newspaper industry continues to contract, one of the most commonly voiced fears is that investigative journalism will be among the victims of the scaleback. And, indeed, many newspapers are drastically reducing their investigative teams. ”

    Now, what we see here is the announcement of new investigative Political reporting resources.

    What we also need to see is some dedicated resources made available for in depth environmental/climate change reporting.

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