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From the perfect job to an endangered species: the demise of science journalism and why it matters

Last year, I lamented the departure from the Australian media industry of many journalists with a wealth of experience in reporting on health, medicine and science.

One of the journalists then mentioned, science writer and broadcaster Leigh Dayton, writes below that science journalism is in decline globally.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons we hear so little in-depth discussion and analysis of so many of the critical concerns of our time, whether climate change or innovation (and for more on this theme, check this recent edition of The Media Report from Radio National).

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How can we have a functioning democracy with a poorly informed electorate?

Leigh Dayton writes:

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 Global Financial Crisis and the Newspaper Financial Crisis – put me and my round at the bottom of the newsroom food chain. Little wonder I was restructured out the door last September.

So my perfect job doesn’t exist. And not just at The Australian. 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 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 & 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-&-bolts of the scientific method. They can tell a genuine break through 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.

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 specialty 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 same, courtesy of climate change? The submissions to the recent Senate Inquiry Recent Trends in and Preparedness for Extreme Weather Events 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.

Same with Julia Gillard’s announcement that the government will commit A$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 big business’s loss of the R&D tax break and a few details of where the precincts would be located.

So 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? You get my drift.

• On Twitter: @leighDayton

 

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  • 1
    Clare Peddie
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Correction: @ClarePeddie covered Science and Environment for The Advertiser. I’m taking time out (about 12 months) to have a baby. Then, who knows. The workplace has changed so much in 6 months, it may be unrecognisable in 12. My perfect job was being consumed by other demands – such as back-filling various editorial (letters, opinion, foreign) roles and helping out on the news desk. Science was an optional extra. Fortunately another reporter, Katrina Stokes, will take the round on board while I’m away, but she’ll need to get through Clipsal 500 (car race) and cadet chores first.

  • 2
    Roger Clifton
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps science journos need to find – or be found by – a publishing model that is commercially viable.

    Crikey is one such viable commercial publisher, with (at least one!) science-avid readers willing to pay for their copy. There must be other enrepreneurs out there on the Web with a vision of a great and profitable publication, needing science journos as part of their recipe.

  • 3
    Wombat
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    You assume that the electorate was informed by your science articles – looking at the most read lists on the websites, I’d be surprised if many people had bothered to read your articles when they were being published. This is absolutely no reflection on your skills as a science journo. I just think that the average punter wouldn’t understand even the most basic scientific article, let alone something as complex as the legal intricacies of gene patenting. Just because it was printed in the MSM doesn’t mean the public was more informed, merely that the information was more easily accessible.

  • 4
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    The Australian still claims an ‘environment’ reporter who I note is decidedly is not included as a science reporter. Perhaps ideology also affects who is employed at the Australian.

  • 5
    Hamis Hill
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    The Australian did alright, too, with Dorothy Illing.
    But this world-wide decline corresponds to that period in which wild-eyed, religious fundamentalism has set up “Science” as a rival “Belief” system of dangerous and unaccountable power, ably aided by single-issue environmentalism kicking the same paranoid ball around.
    Very strange when Christ Himself defined science with “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free”.
    And neither does Islam, of which religion Christ is a prophet, fear science or knowledge claiming that to do so is a lack of faith.
    By this process of elimination, the anti-science religious fundamentalism must have a source which is anti-Christ.
    The only religion with this inveterate, jealous thirst for absolute domination looks very much like the worship of Jove of the evil empire of Rome. Which, ironically, crucified Christ.
    By their actions shall ye know them; carefull, all that dangerous knowledge stuff again!
    Now there was/is? a very impolite conflation of religion and politics! Still among us?
    Don’t worry, Leigh, science will get sexy again when the fundies start burning people at the stake, just like they used to do in the old days.
    Science has a history; time that it was retold, with all the gore and cruelty of the struggle out of darkness.
    That would make good copy. Beats Zombies and Vampires cold.

  • 6
    Brian Ede
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Science and the scientific method is our bulwark against a dark age where the ‘most popular’ view is the most correct and the ‘most believed’ is the ‘most factual.
    We all have to maintain a healthy scepticism but as busy people confronted with a myriad of subjects we look to trusted gatekeepers.
    Most political journalists in the mainstream media have given up reportage for half baked opinion and reflection of the editorial fancy. (Miss you Meggers!)Some Business reporting remains factual but often shallow.
    Roger Clifton is correct about the future but there are going to be hard days ahead until the new model takes form and structure.
    This is an issue that desperately needs thrashing out. I can complain but someone more savvy than I needs to start teasing out the elements of what makes a successful model.

  • 7
    Harris Evan
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the remark about gene patenting. While we are waiting for the appeal process to the High Court, if there is one, I no longer expect balanced comment on ANYTHING from News Limited until their political and social bias is addressed. Science reporting holds the possibility that serious miscalculations in public policy will be avoided. Witness Australia’s complicity in global warming through our exports of iron ore and coal. Science well reported would have alerted the nation to the cadmium pollution coming from Mt Morgan, and indeed the misrepresernting of asbestos risks. But I have to say, law and jurisprudence are just as neglected as science. And sexual abuse is ALWAYS mentioned. One reporter wrote of aluminium as a heavy metal. Hello?

  • 8
    Scott Grant
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    While I commiserate with Leigh over losing a paying gig, I can’t help feeling she was wasted at the Oz. I used to welcome her contributions when she wrote for New Scientist, and the Sydney Morning Herald. But, since I never, ever, read a Murdoch rag I missed her attempts to enlighten that bastion of darkness and misinformation.

    I have often wondered why general and political reporters have to be so abysmally ignorant on matters of science. To that, one could add innumerate, especially in statistics.

    On a related topic, I have often wondered if the “journalism” degree can be blamed for lowering the standard of general knowledge of new journalists. Perhaps it would be better if cadet journalists were recruited from those who have a demonstrated body of knowledge in some other discipline. Surely journalism was once taught on the job, by doing, and by mentors?

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