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"Am I a Science Journalist?": Opening Remarks

The Intersection
By Chris Mooney
Jun 28, 2011 6:45 PMNov 20, 2019 5:02 AM


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Here is how I kicked off our panel today in Doha at 9:30 am local time, 7 hours ahead of U.S. East coast time:

Hi, I’m Chris Mooney and I'm a...what am I? Am I a science journalist? I have to say, prepping for this session has really only increased my uncertainty (and my anxiety) about how to answer that question. Let me first ask the room: How many of you often, or at least occasionally, refer to yourselves as "science journalists"? [less than half the hands went up.] Now: How many of you make all or most of your income from science journalism? [surprisingly, more hands went up, rather than less.] And how many of you refer to yourselves as "science bloggers"? [relatively few hands went up.] And how many of you make most of your income from science blogging? [even fewer hands up.] So clearly, we have a bit of a conundrum here. When I ask myself the question, “Am I a Science Journalist?” it’s kind of like figuring out which box to check on Facebook for your relationship status. Sometimes, I feel like science journalism and I are in an “open relationship.” I can do other things. Sometimes, I just feel like just checking the box that says, “it’s complicated.” And sometimes I feel like I’m going through “separation”: One of my chief occupations lately is not only not science journalism, but it may be a pursuit that makes it even harder for science journalists to succeed out there in the Wild West of the modern media. Each month, I travel with the National Science Foundation to train scientists, and especially young scientists, to communicate. So we teach them to blog, to make videos, to give good public presentations that avoid ridiculously wordy slides. Whatever it is that we’re creating in these sessions, we definitely don’t call them journalists. I like to jokingly call them “Deadly Ninjas of Science Communication.” But why are we training this ninja army? We’re doing so precisely *because of* the much remarked upon “decline” in traditional science journalism, at least in the U.S. We’re trying to fill a well documented communication gap--getting the scientists to communicate, because the science journalists have taken such a blow to their livelihood and their ranks. Let me just give you a few figures on this. Cristine Russell, who is on our panel, has shown a two thirds decline in the number of weekly newspaper science sections in the past several decades in the U.S. Meanwhile, a 2008 Pew survey found that if you watch 5 hours of cable news, you can now expect to see just one minute devoted to science and technology. It’s in this context, of course, that I think you are going to hear from our panelists a lot of complexity about how they define themselves. But before I introduce them, let me close these opening remarks by, I hope, provoking the room a bit. I want to suggest that whatever science journalism once was, the enterprise in its traditional form may have been partly based on a rather naïve ideal--one that the evidence today calls into question. And here I’m referring to the idea that informing the broad “public” about science, through the media, would lead to more scientific thinking, less controversy, and a healthier relationship between science, citizens, and public policy. And I’m aware that the situation may be very different in other parts of the world. But at least in the U.S. context, I have to say that that idea of public enlightenment through science journalism has pretty much crashed and burned. And we can discuss why that is—but I want to suggest that part of the “failure” or “decline” of science journalism may have been having unrealistic expectations to begin with about what it could achieve.

From there the panel proceeded....to a kind of armistice state in which we seemed to concur (especially Ed Yong and I) that we should probably stop debating who is and isn't a science journalist and just celebrate good, accurate, insightful, and responsible work--wherever produced by whomever. More on the World Conference of Science Journalists here.

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