16 February 2009

Paris Hilton or quantum physics

I have moaned before about the failures of big media outlets to support science journalism... particularly CNN, which recently cut its entire specialised science and technology desks.

Following that blog post, I began a forum debate on Nature Network about CNN's decision. I expected everyone to agree with me, but I was stunned to read that some contributors to the site thought the sackings weren't important because CNN is in some way too lowbrow or superficial to inform people with a real interest in science.

On the same topic, an article was published last week in the Columbia Journalism Review, examining what might be the reasons behind this trend away from funding of mainstream science journalism. Obviously, the Internet ranks high in the list of explanations but another factor, says the author, Curtis Brainard, is that the media is becoming fragmented into highly niche outlets - magazines like New Scientist and websites like the Mother Nature Network. This idea is one that people will recognise as being originally posited by Chris Anderson in the The Long Tail.

But what does it mean for science journalism? All the millions who would prefer to read about Paris Hilton will be well catered for by mainstream media, while anyone who would rather (or also) read about quantum physics will have to hunt down a website reflecting their lonely interests. However much intellectuals dislike the unwashed masses, surely they must understand this can't be a good thing?

While most people can probably survive without knowing Hilton's latest exploits, public understanding will suffer a gaping hole if we don't all have a decent grasp of the latest science news. The awful debacle over the MMR vaccine proves that.

So what are mainstream media outlets to do? Succumb to public pressure or insist on a daily diet of the news that's good for us, even if we don't like it? It might not be sexy and it won't pull in as much advertising revenue, but I vote for the latter.


Brian Clegg said...

Angela - can I claim a little subconscious influence here? See 'Science and Paris Hilton': http://network.nature.com/people/brianclegg/blog/2007/09/19/science-and-paris-hilton

Angela Saini said...

I thought I was lifting it from a quote in the CJR article, which went, "I will ask you the rhetorical question: Does that favor quantum physics or does that favor stories about Paris Hilton?”

... But now you come to mention it, maybe my subconscious was drawn towards that phrase because of your blog post... Clearly Paris Hilton preoccupies the thoughts of more intellectuals than I had realised...

Pascal Lapointe said...

(I am the one who you answered to, on Mooney's blog)

I am a science writer in Quebec and, I, too, have written about the crisis in science journalism in the last decade. But I think science journalists are also part of the problem. Because for a lot of them, there have no problem, so, no reason to be worried:
1) many are working a full-time job on the science programs of the CBC (the equivalent of your BBC) and doesn't seem to realize how the situation has evolved, outside of the CBC
2) many are science communicators who are influent inside the association of science writers, so they don't like the idea of their association saying there is a crisis
3) at the AAAS meeting last week, the attitude of some representatives of the World Federation was: there is no crisis of science journalism, since there is a growth of science journalism in Africa!

Maybe we should create an international forum of science-journalists-who-want-to-fight-the-crisis... :-)

Angela Saini said...

Thanks for the comment, Pascal. I agree that something needs to be done, but I'm not entirely sure what. Here in the UK no amount of valiant protesting by the unions and other concerned parties has prevented journalists from losing their jobs. I like your idea of setting up a forum or campaign... I'm going to ponder that one...