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MARGIN NOTES

The decline of science journalism

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | January 6, 2009

Universities increasingly feel the pressure from research funders (i.e., governments) to disseminate the results of their research activities. As well, the granting councils are starting to include a requirement for grant recipients to communicate their discoveries with the public.

It is therefore ironic that, according to veteran science writer Peter Calamai, the number of dedicated science journalists in the major media has been cut drastically over the years. In an opinion piece in the Dec. 23, 2008, edition of Re$earch Money (subscription required), he notes that CBC-TV, the Toronto Star and La Presse no longer have staff reporters assigned to cover science full time. Until last year these organizations had made prominent use of such staff reporters for decades, he notes. (Mr. Calamai was the science reporter for the Toronto Star.)

He continues: “When the Canadian Science Writers’ Association was founded in 1971, there were at least 30 staff newspaper reporters in Canada whose beat was science, sometimes combined with medicine. … Today there are about six such reporters.”

The paradox is striking. On one hand the federal S&T strategy is proclaiming that Canada’s future rests with a knowledge economy and that Canadians need to be excited about scientific research. As well, more and more posts for “research communicators” are being created at universities, research hospitals, corporations and science-based institutions. Yet the best knowledge translators between such communicators and the general public – full-time staff science journalists – are shrinking to the vanishing point.

Of course, this phenomenon is partly a reflection of the changing economics of the newspaper industry and the mass media in general, as they cut staff in response to declining revenues. Internet sites and science blogs may be picking up some of the slack, but Mr. Calamai argues that these niche outlets mostly attract what surveys for the U.S. National Science Foundation call the “science-attentive” portion of the general public, generously estimated to be one in five. The other four-fifths, he writes, “doesn’t go seeking science news on the World Wide Web or elsewhere. But they will listen, watch or read if competently reported news about science appears in the mass media they are already consuming.”

In response, Mr. Calamai proposes the creation of a Science Media Centre of Canada, which would offer help to generalist reporters when they’re writing on science topics. The group pushing the media centre idea has already created a website and encourages science experts and journalists to check it out.

What do you think? What can be done to improve science journalism in Canada? (You can use the comments function by clicking the comment link just below, or send me an e-mail.)

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau has been the deputy editor of University Affairs since 2003. He started the Margin Notes blog in 2009 and it has gone on to win several awards, including Best Blog at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.
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  1. Matthew Brett / February 13, 2009 at 11:56 am

    With traditional forms of media crumbling, journalists should be working together to create alternative sources of funding (grants, donations, organizations, etc.)

    Journalism is an art, and it seems journalists will now have to seek out funds much the same way artists do.

  2. Bruce Wilson / February 22, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    The reason media outlets are crumbling is that people don’t want to pay to read content any more; they expect it free online. So revenue plummets, good journalism is cut and science stories become increasingly written from press releases (http://tinyurl.com/6n9733)

    We live in a YouTube age. Smart science journalists need to learn how to tell their stories through video, audio, as well as text.

    Well-written, compelling journalism will always find readers willing to pay, even among the four fifths. Give some of it away online to showcase the talent; people will buy the rest. But it has to be good; very good.

    Smart media outlets should recognize this and not be so obsessed with using low quality content as wrapping for ads.

    Bruce Wilson
    VP, Professional Writers Assn of Canada

  3. Bad Economy / March 15, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Most media and printing are moving towards a completely light’s out operation, with nobody in the plant. So traditional press will not be a good place to work.

    With all the blogging, we are moving to a cottage industry model. Traditional journalists have to move to keep up.

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