Obviously, scientificblogging.com is all about science writing (it's not just a clever name, as Wayne Campbell would say). Blogging, as Atlantic senior editor Andrew Sullivan said in the November issue, "is, in many ways, writing out loud." But what about that dying breed of the enterprising newspaper science journalist?
The Washington Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell, tried to wrap her head around the difficult job science writers have in reporting the news to a lay audience this Sunday in her column. Based on comments posted on the Post's site and discussions on the NASW listserv, how to report science (and how to do it well) isn't a new issue, and it isn't going to go away any time soon.
Reporting science, be it hard science, soft science, medical science, etc - this is something near and dear to my heart. I worked for three years with health journalism guru Gary Schwitzer on his Web site healthnewsreview.org, a project to improve the accuracy of news stories about health and help consumers evaluate the evidence for and against new ideas in health care. After reading newspapers and watching network news every day for any extended period of time, you become intimately familiar with the state of health reporting.
In an article in PLoS published in May, Gary described the site's efforts to date and some key findings. In particular:
In our evaluation of 500 US health news stories over 22 months, between 62 percent – 77 percent of stories failed to adequately address costs, harms, benefits, the quality of the evidence, and the existence of other options when covering health care products and procedures. This high rate of inadequate reporting raises important questions about the quality of the information US consumers receive from the news media on these health news topics.What does this have to do with science reporting? Howell's column on Sunday made many of the same points. Evidence, context, funding - it is as important for reporters to convey this to the public as the data. She even called out a few Post reporters as examples of the good and the bad. If you have a chance, check out her column.
I am excited for the poll function to go live on tihs site because I'd love to see what others think about this issue. What do you, as a science writer, blog visitor, science enthusiast, or whatever your tie to the science journalism world may be, think about the state of science journalism? Is it on the right track? Are criticisms deserved?
Also, one question that seems to a lightening rod for controvery in every discussion I've ever heard on the topic: should science writers have a science education/background? For example - TV meteorologists have to have a scientific degree, and they are talking about something out of our control (the weather). Should journalists, describing scientific findings that may or may not allow us to take more control of our lives in a direct and personal way, have the same educational requirement?