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    Rehire The Journalists! Audiences Want More Science
    By Lauren Rugani | March 2nd 2010 02:01 AM | 20 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Lauren

    A globetrotting science writer interested in the coolest things you've never heard of. I have a B.S. in Physics from Syracuse University and an M...

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    A new report released by the Pew Internet and American Life Project suggests that news has evolved from a consumable product to a participatory experience. Technology has not only changed how, where and when people get their news, but now allows the consumer to tag, share, comment on and even create news.

    The major findings from the report, "Understanding the Participatory News Consumer," seem to be that the Internet has surpassed print and radio as popular news sources, and that social media is becoming increasingly important in the dissemination of news. Not exactly earth-shaking results, but search almost any major news outlet and you'll find them - what remains to be seen is whether these organizations simply report the findings or actually use them to improve their business models.

    I decided to sift through the report and found a few tidbits that were interesting to me, a science journalist, that had been left out of many articles published by major news outlets. Interestingly, these are the organizations that have recently laid off science writers or shut down their science desks.

    When asked what types of news subjects they follow online, 66 percent of Internet news users said that they follow health and medicine and 60 percent follow science and technology. When asked what types of news they would like to receive more coverage, 44 percent said scientific news and discoveries, which got more votes than any other subject.

    It's probably important to note that technology is separated from the "scientific news and discoveries" category. 62 percent of all news users are satisfied with the amount of technology news, while just 33 percent want to see more coverage of new kinds of technology.

    Young adults are the most likely to express interest in additional science news: 52 percent of 18-29 year-olds compared with 41 percent of 50-64 year-olds and 34 percent of those 65 and older. Also, 48 percent of users who gather their news from at least four different platforms on any given day (i.e. radio, local or national TV, local or national newspapers, online) are interested in receiving more science news.

    Only 39 percent of news consumers say that health and medicine coverage is lacking, but half of African-American respondents feel this way and non-Internet users express this sentiment more than Internet users. Finally, Independents - America's largest political group - are more likely than both Democrats and Republicans to want more science coverage.

    But it's not enough to know that these groups simply want more science news - we need to understand how and where they are most likely to consume it. Because the largest group of science news seekers are the youngest segment of the news consuming population, regardless of other demographic information like race or political affiliation, I've decided to concentrate on the habits of 18-29 year-olds.

    This is also an important subset to consider, because, well, to put it delicately, they are going to be around a lot longer than older news consumers and they represent the next generation of disposable-income eyeballs that advertisers are going to have to cater to. Paying attention to the preferences and needs of this audience will (hopefully) help increase revenue and, in turn, resurrect staff positions for serious, investigative science reporting.

    Unfortunately, only 35 percent of 18-29 year-olds say they follow the news all or most of the time. But this is because they are less likely to be traditional news "hunter-gatherers" and are more inclined to "serendipitous" encounters with news - that is, they rely on news to find them, whether through email, social media or alerts forwarded to their cell phones or other mobile devices. In fact, 18-32 year-olds are twice as likely as baby boomers to rely on social networks like Facebook or Twitter to alert them to news stories.

    While 18-29 year-olds represent less than a quarter of the overall adult population in the U.S., they represent nearly a third of online news users, 32 percent of wireless internet users and 39 percent of "on-the-go" news consumers (who receive their news on mobile devices). They are also more likely than the average online news user to:
    • use a news aggregate site like Google News or Topix
    • visit websites of national TV news stations like CNN or FoxNews, or "specialty" websites that focus specifically on topics like science or politics
    • follow individuals and organizations (both media and non-media) on social network sites
    • read individual blogs
    • receive Twitter updates from individuals and organizations (both media and non-media)
    Older news consumers also turn to the Internet for their news, but tend to use it as a secondary outlet for more traditional news sources, such as websites for local newspapers or national radio programs. In other words, older users get news from the Internet that they can also get offline, while younger users prefer online-exclusive content and/or platforms. Similarly, 18-29 year-olds are more likely than the average online user to value:
    • stories with links to related material
    • multimedia and interactive content
    • the ability to share a story through email or social network sites
    • the option to customize their homepages or news sites to receive news on topics they find the most interesting
    • following a journalist or organization on Facebook or Twitter
    • the opportunity to comment on news content
    That last point brings up another interesting statistic: news "participators" (those that comment, share or create) tend to care more about any subject than passive news consumers, but disproportionately say they would like to see more news about science, technology, health and medicine. (77 percent of participators want more health and medicine coverage, compared with 65 percent of non-participators; 74 percent versus 56 percent would like to see more science and technology news.)

    So not only is there a demand for more science coverage, there is a desire by news consumers to be a part of the conversation. Perhaps having the option to comment, ask questions, or critique the reporting actually draws more readers to the content and holds the journalist more accountable for the information she provides. It might also give news organizations insight into which topics their readers find the most interesting.

    So to the media outlets who have justified cutting their science coverage by claiming that science news audiences are dwindling, don't care, don't understand or don't generate revenue, perhaps you should reconsider. Instead of repackaging embargoed research press releases in an attempt to drive meaningless traffic to your site and calling it science coverage, spend a little more time figuring out how to present science news in a way that engages your young readers and keeps them coming back for more.


    Gerhard Adam
    I'm sorry, but I have to question what anyone even means by "science news".  There are a huge number of sources available for those interested in science and it would be greatly improved if many of the publications became open so that there could be general access to original papers.

    In addition, science is not something that one casually dabbles in without a fair investment in having to understand background information.  Therefore what is "science news"?

    I'm personally skeptical about what people really want.  I know they like "gee whiz" kinds of stories and certainly science that has become politicized, but what do the surveys indicate people are actually interested in?   I think it would be useful if survey questions asked;

    "What topic in science would you like to see covered? 
    What one scientific question would you most like to see answered?"

    Perhaps then we could find out if people are truly interested in science, or if they simply view it as a freak show that they can amaze their friends with.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Lauren Rugani

    I have to agree with you that it would be useful if survey questions asked specifically "What topic in science would you like to see covered" or "What one scientific question would you most like to see answered," as it would provide good insight for journalists and media organizations. However, that being said, I don't think it should be left completely up to the audience to define what "science news" is. Some of the best science pieces I've read have been about things I never would have mentioned had I been answering those questions.

    Unfortunately, this particular survey was about news consumption habits, so these questions (about science or any other topic) weren't answered. What it did tell us though, was that young news consumers prefer to get their information "on the go" in the forms of links or comments. Simply paying attention to site traffic and conversations could perhaps indirectly answer those questions for you.

    I must disagree, though, with your generalizations about science news audiences. To say that science is not something one "casually dabbles in" without a fair investment in having to understand background information is rather insulting.

    News is meant to inform, not educate. A good journalist will do enough research and reporting to be able to give the reader the basics, but won't overshadow a good story with textbook prose. If a story piques a reader's interest, and she is so inclined, she can then turn to the myriad online resources to learn a little more.

    As a science journalist, I do read original papers, but I also talk to scientists and other sources to gain perspective, something that the lay public generally does not do. I cannot for the life of me imagine having to do this in order to get my daily dose of "science news" - if for any reason than it would take up massive amounts of my time.

    But to answer your question, I think science news is not the incremental advance reported in a journal, nor the grandiosity of a press release or "gee whiz" piece, but something that draws from both. It should cover the 5 W's and the how, but also "why this," "why now," and "why should I care?" I think you (and many others) grossly underestimate the intelligence and curiosity of science news audiences, an attitude that I believe has led to the unfortunate state of "science news" today.
    Gerhard Adam
    To say that science is not something one "casually dabbles in" without a fair investment in having to understand background information is rather insulting.
    I'm sorry you feel that way, but it's pretty easy to see how the market looks when one walks into a bookstore or looks at a magazine rack, exactly where the public interest is.  It's also no coincidence that many of the television "science" channels tend to promote overly dramatic, sensationalistic, and "gee whiz" kinds of programs.

    It isn't to under-estimate people's intelligence, but rather it does suggest that their interests aren't oriented in the same direction.  Does anyone really believe that the people that read Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" suddenly became interested in physics?  Unfortunately, more people read that book because of Hawking himself, rather than his topic. 

    There's no question that there are some people that have a deep interest in science and they will pursue those interests by reading many scientific papers, books, and a wide range of subjects.  However, the closest scientific journalism ever came to being mainstream was during the height of the space program when people knew who someone like Jules Bergman actually was.  In those days, the public's imagination was engaged with the space program, however unless something like that is on the horizon, I don't believe it will ever be anything except an ancillary part of available material.
    News is meant to inform, not educate.
    I understand, but how does one become informed on a topic that they're not educated in?  This problem is already widespread regarding economics, politics, public policy, foreign policy, etc..

    I don't know why when people talk about science they think it's insulting to suggest that their audience is uninformed.  I can readily make that comment about a large number of people in regards to the normal journalistic topics.  I don't think that makes people stupid.  It does however have consequences when they are uninformed. 

    As you said, news is meant to inform, not educate.  So I guess it shouldn't be surprising that we have a nation that can't engage in any reasonable discussions because everyone seems to be "informed" (based on their favorite pundit), but few are educated.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Unfortunately, more people read that book because of Hawking himself, rather than his topic.

    I think it's both. The book wouldn't be such an enduring seller if people didn't find Hawking's subject matter fascinating. Hawking is a skilled presenter of science. I think you CAN write good science pieces for the smart, curious, but untrained general reader. People read Hawking and Brian Greene and Lee Smolin and Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Feynman because you don't have to make a huge investment in learning the latest in Cosmology before you read his book.

    People really are fascinated by science and what it says about the world around them. And you can communicate science effectively to people who haven't spent hours studying textbooks and technical articles.  It's when people want to debate the merits of the science behind global warming, evolution, etc. that a more technical background is needed.

    In other words, generally curious readers can, fairly easily, learn what scientists are concluding, and very roughly, what those scientists did to reach those conclusions. That's enough for most curious people. Those who really want to understand the evidence (and associated debates) behind those conclusions have some homework to do.
    Thanks for the article. Gerhard, I suspect we are looking at popular science news - latest pics from NASA, brain and sex stories, that kinda stuff. Health, medicine and technology seem to have separate writers and categories, so we're left with raw science. Even then, an article about a new car will get more readers (and be in a different category) than a science article about the new rotary engine inside that same car. The first article is actionable, the second one is too theoretical for most people.

    One interesting thing is that 33% (if I recall) read their news on a mobile phone. I see SB is available on Kindle. Can it be read on a cellphone?

    I think the final paragraph is key. Republishing press releases from universities works on SB but just doesn't work as well on a general news site. I know I have to rewrite the same article for different audiences. If it's not gee-whiz and it's not scary and they can't buy it it will probably flop in terms of readers. However, I still think there's an advertising problem - remove health, medicine and technology advertisers then who is left to advertise on science pages?

    However, good to read that people want more science... now we just have to figure out what that actually means!
    Hmmm, a science journalist thinks the solution is to hire more science journalists? I think the solution is to hire more postdocs. :)
    and i think the solution is to teach more post-docs how to use the tools of journalism to vividly communicate their work
    that way they can help explode the whole gero-PI/NIH/PI/establojournal establishment
    traditional science journalism is a great thing, but it is no longer economically viable
    equally, medical journalism is great when well practiced, but it too has been turned into "news you can use"--a consumer commodity with only passing entertainment value
    there is plenty of great science journalism that already "engages young readers"--all seven of them
    that is because most american readers are children--they are getting exactly what they deserve until one day they wake up
    people who make a living practicing science journalism--NOIT science writing--really have only one serious obstacle do doing world class work: finding a source of money that neither fears nor favors. we used to call these newspapers. today it may mean, as I did today, looking for non-media work

    There is no question science readership is up - the audience is more interested than ever and, as this audience attests and despite the claims of some in science or the media, pretty darn knowledgeable about science.

    The problem, and part of the reason this site was founded, is that people filter their science knowledge through politics and journalists have to take the blame for that.   With the hindsight of history we can see the problem started with people like Walter Cronkite and Woodward&Bernstein, both unfortunately still adored by journalists.   They made journalism into activism and inspired two generations of journalists who wanted to be part of the story instead of telling it.

    As Pallab Ghosh of the BBC said in Science Journalists Have Met The Enemy, And They Are Bloggers, if journalists want to be employed again there has to be a demand for them, and there will only be a demand for them if the pubic once again regards them as 'trusted guides' and not shills for a consensus.   It's not to say journalists have to give equal time to quackery and good science but the public has to know they are not defending science or doing liberal good works but rather asking the awkward questions of scientists that skeptics would ask.

    Otherwise more people will get their news from the source - scientists like here - though I disagree that the rewritten press releases we also carry here are a concern.    Our audience, at least, just wants to know first, they are not being educated by press releases and we don't carry the 'we will cure cancer' type stuff unless we are making fun of it.    But until government-funded studies are open access not everyone can read the actual studies and I will put the knowledge of our news writers here against anyone at the AP or NY Times science sections.
    Lauren Rugani
    To clarify, what is the difference between a journalist "defending science" and a repackaged press release that most often comes from a university news office or other public relations officer who gets paid to tout the discoveries of their scientists? I don't think I've ever read a press release written from a skeptic's point of view...

    But I do agree that journalists, in order to separate themselves from these PR machines and gain the trust of their audiences, DO need to ask the tough questions and understand the methods behind the results they report.

    Mistrust of journalists comes not only from the audience, it comes from scientists, too. Many researchers have complained or outright stopped talking to journalists about their work because they felt as though they were misrepresented. Above all else, a journalist's responsibility is to their readers, but it's sort of hard to put out good work if your sources won't talk to you.

    PhDs who decide to write and journalists with zero science background can be equally good at reporting science - and equally bad. While some emphasis must be put on the writer, a lot of what we see out there can be boiled down to the bottom line: sometimes "good" science reporting just doesn't bring in the $$$$. And that sucks.
    I assume there is a supply and demand issue on how much money can be made.   We keep hearing how we need to make more scientists and that there are simultaneously too many scientists for available jobs - and that is what we have to keep in mind; if people want to make money doing it, it is a job.   Who wouldn't want a job where you could spend two weeks of research and write an article and make a 6 figure income?  But that is not the way media works because it is about readers, like you said.

    Science consultants in Hollywood also make no money - the reason is because for every scientist who wants to charge a lot there are a hundred who just like doing it.

    I think press releases have their place.  If they are just aggregators and published straight out like on ScienceCodex.com or ScienceDaily.com or Physorg.com or Eurekalert.org (if I left anyone out, I apologize), readers beware, but if 6 out of 100 daily studies appear rewritten here, the assumption is the skepticism is provided by the writer, because we have no agenda other than clean science - something very few sites or magazine can claim with a straight face.   We have access to most everyone so the full studies are available.   One of the most flagrant violations of 'journalism' I ever wrote about was done by an AP science journalist, who could not have been sitting in the same science symposium I was because his conclusions were dead on the press releases spin and opposite of what the researchers stated in their talks.

    I believe that, at the high end, science writers are always going to make good money, but the lower quality science journalists have been shaken out because scientists get annoyed easily at them and just do it themselves.  It doesn't have to do with access to the PhD, plenty of political writers like Maureen Dowd still have jobs and readers despite being the kind of quote miner that has created plenty of enemies.   'New Scientist' is still profitable despite plenty of ridicule by scientists and I have never had any researcher say they wouldn't talk to Carl Zimmer because he blasted their study (he may feel otherwise).
    I can only speak for myself, and perhaps I have misinterpreted what you have written, but I certainly believe all press releases I issue a written from "a skeptic's point of view." Isn't skepticism a key part of the peer review process?

    I also find your second paragraph quite offensive - many universities, including McGill, are dedicated to public outreach and increasing the accessibility of science, as part of the institutions traditional role of educating the masses. Collaboration with the media is a part of this effort. I'm not denying that there is a PR element to the Public Information Officer's role, but to dismiss our work as purely opportunistic and superficial is absurd.

    The irony is that in your third paragraph you underscore the useful role a (good) PIO can play in facilitating the researcher/journalist relationship.


    I completely agree with your assertion that part of the issue is the fact that all the major news outlets seem to be inserting themselves into the story, as well as the fact that they are skewed towards the right or the left (or at least have that reputation, with nobody to blame but themselves). Seems to me they are 75% editorial and 25% reporting. Not to mention the style of the news has become more tabloid-esque with big flashy titles and little substance to back it up. It is for these reasons I came to this site initially, as well as the fact that the larger news sites have the same stories on their science section for days at a time. It is also nice to be able to get feedback from experts in their respective fields via these comment sections.

    So keep doing what you guys are doing, and I will keep reading.

    p.s. I come here to be both informed AND educated. I have a degree in biology, but a thirst for knowledge in all of the areas of science.


    Thanks for your comment.   We certainly get that there is no pretense of 'objectivity' here but we want the site to not have any sort of cultural or political litmus test.  The majority of the contributors are academics and the majority of academics vote Democrat - but that does not mean we force an agenda on anyone.   We make fun of George Will, we make fun of Al Gore.  

    I wrote in an email today the way I most often answer the question about how we are different from other sites; 'Religious people and Republicans can read us too'.   Because we primarily stick to science and leave the cultural rants and indignation to others.

    I have defended science journalists plenty too.   I don't believe the modern problem is the VPs or CEOs of media companies, they just want to be successful and are going to produce what the market wants, and I don't believe it is science journalists because I have talked to far too many of them not to believe they love science as much as any researcher ... I truly think it is editors.   They seem to think (a) the public is too dumb to understand anything not written for a 12 year old and (b) the public should want to read what editors want to read.   

    The public takes music and movie critics with a very large grain of salt and editors should get the hint as well.   This is why we have no editors here.   I won't even correct spelling unless the writers have asked me to ...
    I do so enjoy the media tactic of getting one talking head from the extreme right and one talking head from the extreme left, pitting them head to head, and declaring the show "unbiased", as if their competing psychopathies cancel each other out. This is especially evident with the ever-so-controversial topic of global climate change (though I still don't comprehend how an issue with such hard data behind it is considered controversial).

    The motives behind a CO2 focus are suspect so the data is too, but I agree with your point. A more neutral example of how journalists can be fair without being balanced: HIV causing AIDS is a topic where making both sides 'equal' is actually a disservice to society because the data on cause is overwhelming. So a journalist being fair and saying a few disagree is reasonable but being balanced and giving both equal time makes skeptics a lot more credible than they are.
    Lauren Rugani
    I'm going to chime in again with the POV of a journalist.

    A lot of people misunderstand the purpose of being "fair and balanced," with most thinking that it means every article about everything must have two (or more) sides and each side should be given an equal amount of time and space for their argument and each side of the argument bears equal weight.

    Fair and balanced is actually meant for the process of journalism - collecting facts, interviewing sources, researching past arguments and players, etc. You should give equal time to investigating all sides to a story, then, ideally, figure out how to present it to the audience in the most realistic way possible (note that I avoided the word "true").

    So Hank, you give a very good example of the HIV/AIDS topic. Fair to acknowledge the dissenters, but "balanced" because it actually represents the "balance" of consensus among the scientific community (i.e. most agree, a few disagree).

    Unfortunately this gets tricky when politics get involved, as is the case with CO2/climate change, because it is nearly impossible to "balance" political agendas with empirical studies in the same way two sets of scientific data can be pitted against one another. Some journalists might not make this distinction and present a political/scientific debate as a true science debate, and the public comes to believe that fickle politics holds equal weight to years of data collection/analysis/recollection/revision...
    Gerhard Adam
    Some journalists might not make this distinction and present a political/scientific debate as a true science debate...
    Actually the problem is when journalists take the most extreme perspectives and think that it represents a debate.  This is especially annoying when blatant lies are being told (as evidenced by previous speeches or video) and the journalist still presents it as if this individual were being truthful.  In my view, that's the first step towards gaining credibility .... when someone speaks, they should be called out when they have lied.

    More importantly, journalists also need to stop climbing on the bandwagon and advancing obvious agendas simply because it draws attention.  Until that stops and we get back to honest reporting, there is little credibility in journalism.  It isn't so bad when a particular bias shows when there is an honest effort to be accurate. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    I think you both are making separate points.   I can't find much to disagree with in Lauren's comment, she is clearly the kind of journalist who is not part of the problem, but I have defended science journalism in the past because I think they are not as much a part of the problems Gerhard sees as mainstream journalists are.

    There is no way that journalists today jump on bandwagons or refuse to disclose obvious untruths the way they did in the 1970s, when the occupation changed from being trusted guides to doing liberal good works.  I get why it happened - I mentioned Cronkite and other and journalists back then started doing the midnight crime beat so they were truly seeing societal blights in their early days - but journalists today do not start that way, they get journalism degrees.   So for every journalist gushing at the opportunity to call Obama Mr. President over and over there are 3 good journalists who at least feel like they are sticking to the facts. 

    If science journalists had not been outraged by a Royal Society request to refuse to publish or give coverage to people who disputed CO2 global warming, I would be concerned.  But, bless 'em, they sure were.   It will never be perfect because we all inhabit different places on the political, cultural and even scientific spectra but it's certainly better than it was 20 years ago.
    I'd like to see science research in open document format
    There is far too much documentation which suffers non-transferability due to 'closed' format, and will format error unless not only the same program and OS are used, but even the same version!! Microshaft word users note!
    The common PDFs cannot be cut'n'pasted without a less common PDF editor

    I also think Science generally would benefit from following NASAs approach

    "The NASA Headquarters Library collection includes many documents published by NASA and other organizations such as technical reports, standards, white papers, and dissertations. The collection includes print and electronic documents and a microfiche collection of aerospace documents.

    Members of the public are encouraged to visit the library to make full use of the document collection.

    The principle databases for NASA Documents are the NASA Aeronautics and Space Database and its public version, the NASA Technical Report Server. However, any search should also include NASA GALAXIE and the Johnson Space Center Document Index System. The principle sources for NASA Standards are the NASA Standards database and NASA Online Directives Information System (NODIS). Members of the public are encouraged to contact the Library or the NASA Scientific and Technical Information (STI) Program for assistance in finding NASA documents. Registered Library patrons can request documents produced by NASA or other organizations through the Library's document delivery and interlibrary loan services."

    My isolation of the centre statement about public encouragement

    Don't shoot the messenger, as I don't believe I'm one of the percentages cited


    Thanks for these really interesting statistics and for your opinions! I would be curious to know more about how you (and your readers) perceive the role of public information officers and the ways that we might help science journalists.