In yet another sign of the much-discussed science writing renaissance which may or may not be upon us, Scientific American‘s John Horgan blogs that – despite the still-dire economics of reporting on health and science – the young folks entering the profession give him ample reason to be optimistic about the future.
The occasion? The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s science writing awards, for which he has often been a judge.
This year [Columbia staff] sent me more submissions, 35, than in any of the previous dozen years I’ve served as a judge. The admissions were also better than ever. And as I told the J-school grads last week when I handed out the awards, I’ve never said that before — or if I did, I was lying. Some of the submissions were so well-written and reported that it was hard to believe rookies produced them, not seasoned pros.
Horgan was particularly gratified to find that so many of the entries were in a critical vein, revealing the limits and consequences of technology rather than simply trumpeting the triumphs of science. Of this year’s three winners, AHCJ members likely will be most interested in Elliot Ross’ work on ghostwriting in the pharmaceutical industry, which was picked up in a condensed form by the Guardian.
In The Nation, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum assess the state of science journalism and seek to answer “how did it come to this?” and “what happens next?” Their sober and engaging account takes readers from the glory days of moon landings and Carl Sagan’s wildly popular Cosmos series to today, when science journalism has become a niche market served by specialized outlets and polemic-driven blogs. While The Nation as a whole embraces a certain political position, the report comes across as forceful but even-handed.
Their evidence includes observations like “From 1989 to 2005, the number of US papers featuring weekly science-related sections shrank from ninety-five to thirty-four” and “Just one minute out of every 300 on cable news is devoted to science and technology, or one-third of 1 percent.”
Part of the problem, Mooney and Kirshenbaum say, is that today’s relatively inexperienced journalists (the experienced ones were too expensive for the tastes of profit-driven media conglomerates) chase from one hot new story to the next without contextualizing anything, leaving readers rudderless, confused and exasperated. Likewise, the writers say, in an attempt to be impartial (and perhaps as a result of a lack of prior knowledge in the field), reporters inject balance where it may not be necessary, giving equal time to contradictory and widely discredited opinions.