Science journalism in decline

Perfect job to endangered species: demise of science journalism

I used to have the perfect job. As The Australian‘s science writer and later also editor of the paper’s professionally oriented health section, I was paid to talk to interesting and important people about interesting and important ideas. From gene patenting, embryonic stem cell research, polar exploration and climate science to environmental toxins, human evolution, cosmic evolution and the now not-so-elusive Higgs Boson, it was all my bailiwick.

I wrote across the paper and loved every minute of it, that is until an editorial change — inspired by the GFC (global financial crisis) and the NFC (newspaper financial crisis) — put me and my round at the bottom of the food chain. Little wonder I was restructured out the door last September.

So my perfect job doesn’t exist. And not just at The Oz. The shake-up of the media has led to a shake-out of science reporters worldwide. My perfect job doesn’t exist anywhere.

As Christopher Zara wrote earlier this year in the International Business Times, science journalists are tumbling out of jobs in the US. He cites telling statistics: in 1989, there were 95 newspapers with weekly science sections. Today there are 19.

The UK is experiencing a similar decline, as science writers get pushed from their perch in the daily papers to make way for cheap general reporters and teams of online staff. The Guardian is the exception, keeping its science coverage intact.

In Australia we were reasonably, if not generously, served until recently. The Sydney Morning Herald had not only long-time science editor in Deborah Smith — who took redundancy the week I left — but also Nicky Phillips, now sole science bod. Bridie Smith remains at The Age as science and technology reporter and Claire Peddie covers science and environment for The Advertiser in Adelaide. Then it gets thin on the ground. Aside from the ABC, the electronic media is a science wasteland.

This worries me greatly. It’s not just because I’m pushed into a career change, but because science, technology, environment and medical research are at the heart of many important current events, issues and dust-ups of today.

Experienced science reporters cover the bases from astrophysics and zoology. They know the players, the issues and the nuts-and-bolts of the scientific method. They can tell a genuine breakthrough from a beat-up, or even a stuff-up. Remember the ill-fated faster-than-light neutrino discovery? Lots of breathless headlines worldwide; few considered stories; plenty of red faces.

"It’s an extra. It isn’t sexy. Real journalists do politics, business and economics."

Most of all, science journos see how science impacts current events. Their round isn’t just funky fillers and creature features gleaned from journal and university press releases; their slowly vanishing speciality brings intellectual depth and breadth to news.

But this isn’t how editors and producers view the round. It’s an extra. It isn’t sexy. Real journalists do politics, business and economics. Doubt it? How many men are science reporters? Exactly.

So who’s replacing science specialists in the mainstream media? For the so-called discovery stories, general reporters do their best with press releases and wire copy does the rest.

When a story takes off, though, political journalists generally muscle in. That’s fine; they’re an intelligent and capable bunch. But the result can be superficial. It’s the equivalent of sending me to cover internal cabinet disputes or Coalition policy shifts — I’d get the obvious points but miss the context and complexity. Important issues and implications would go unreported.

Consider the recent extreme weather events. Where was the in-depth discussion of Australia’s preparedness for coping with more of the same, courtesy of climate change? The submissions to the recent Senate inquiry barely got a mention.

What about the surprise Federal Court decision upholding the validity of patents on the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2? The decision was covered extensively; there was mention that women might have to pay for breast cancer diagnostic tests and that Cancer Council CEO Ian Olver called for a change to patent laws. But there was little discussion of what those laws are, how they’re applied to human genes, recent legislative reviews or implications for fundamental research and innovation, let alone alternative approaches to managing emerging knowledge.

The same with Julia Gillard’s announcement that the government will commit $504.5 million to establish up to 10 "Industry Innovation Precincts" to boost the nation’s output of globally competitive innovation and industry. The papers covered the loss to big business of the R&D tax break and a few details of where the precincts would be located. Why is successful innovation even an issue? How and why have successive governments struggled to boost it? Not a peep.

It sounds naive, but how can we have a functioning democracy with a poorly informed electorate?

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