Journalists who cover science spend their working lives trying to bridge what British essayist C.P. Snow once called the gulf of mutual incomprehension between scientists and the general public. It is exotic and contested terrain, in which journalists and scientists angle for advantage, simultaneously adversaries and allies.
More than ever, scientists aggressively court media attention, even as—paradoxically—unprecedented commercial secrecy comes to shroud so much of what scientists do today and financial conflicts of interest among researchers have become so common.
At a time when science has become the wellspring of America’s wealth and global power, however, many newspapers have reduced coverage of research developments and biomedical controversies. In cities like Atlanta, Minneapolis, Boston and Dallas, newspapers that once supported significant science staffs gradually have cut back or refo-cused their efforts into other topics. At all but a handful of the largest papers—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post—enterprise reporting in the sciences is less common. Investigative reporting of scientific endeavors is unusual in any medium. There are points of light in pools of shadow.
Economically, it may be the worst of newsroom times. Yet never have reporters covering science been so well educated or prepared to get to the bottom of complex research topics. The National Association of Science Writers (NASW), of which I serve on the board of directors, consisted of 12 working reporters when it was founded in 1934. Today, NASW has 2,400 members. Almost two-thirds are journalists, and many have advanced degrees in the sciences or have completed graduate training in science writing through university programs such as those at Boston University, Stanford, University of California at Santa Cruz, University of Wisconsin, Columbia University, New York University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Yet almost half of those science journalists in NASW are freelancers, not staff writers, making them dependent on corporate and university assignments. They are not in a position to easily bite the hand that feeds them. In part, this situation reflects the economic realties of any 21st century newsroom, especially those of most broadcast outlets and many mid-sized or small newspapers where no one can afford to specialize.
Fewer staff reporters are stretched to cover increasingly complex science stories, and more of them are being asked to feed the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for the news of discovery and wonder on topics from cosmology to cloning. To survive, reporters become dependent on the daily cascade of embargoed research papers, e-mailed press releases, university tip sheets, and conference abstracts. They pay close attention to the editorial judgment of peer-reviewed journals like Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Nature that do so much to shape the weekly news of scientific developments.
In a landmark 1987 study of science and the press, New York University sociologist Dorothy Nelkin concluded that reporters had gotten too close to their scientist sources. “Many journalists are, in effect, retailing science and technology rather than investigating them, identifying with their sources rather than challenging them,” she wrote in “Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology.”
But she did think matters were improving. Nelkin believed that pattern of co-dependence had started to change in the 1990’s, with more critical, skeptical science reporting and greater tension between reporters and scientists as a result. Recently, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times expanded their science coverage by adding reporters and reorganizing staffs to give science news greater prominence.
In part, science writers are no more or less vulnerable to the occupational hazard of any beat reporter—that of adopting the point of view of the people they cover. In this case, it means that reporters can come to identify with the enterprise of science itself. Ashley Dunn, science editor at the Los Angeles Times, has suggested that science can be so alluring that reporters can risk forgetting that their true loyalty is to the public, not to the scientists they cover. “Science is so complex that to bring it alive you have to love it,” Dunn said. “You have to infuse it with your passion. Loving what you cover is a tricky path in journalism. Some reporters can be seduced by the wonder.”
As a result, perhaps, science coverage today can still be more explanatory and adulatory than challenging or analytical. Our stories urge readers to peer with awe into the nurseries of stars to see the universe at birth and to turn inward to brood over the alternate futures in the DNA of our genes. We hold up the broken skull of our earliest ancestor so that they can muse on what once we all were and what we might become.
Make no mistake. By itself, this is important and difficult reporting. Many science writers would argue it is their most important work. It is the script of human progress, the rough draft of the future. Even so, scientists themselves sometimes find reporters, in their rush to meet a deadline, insufficiently skeptical of new research.
A recent assessment of science and medical news stories, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, assessed news coverage of research at scientific meetings. The investigators found that one-quarter of the research covered by the press never ended up getting published in a peer-reviewed journal, the most common measure of the actual importance of an experimental finding. In a separate study of news coverage published recently in the British Medical Journal, the researchers found that the strongest medical evidence was seldom considered newsworthy.
In too many newsrooms, there might be time to report the quick hits of scientific discovery, but not to probe the more complex debates over theory or regulatory policy or the role of business in research. Such reporting would likely bring readers into the contest of ideas, which in the end might have more effect on the way we think about the world we inhabit and our place in it.
More than ever, the effects of science in public life have become pervasive, even as the political influence of scientists themselves has waned. Consider the esoteric research making today’s headlines: the search for the biological roots of behavior, the conundrums of string theory, the chemistry of climate change, the discovery of planets far beyond our own solar system, the creation of animals with human genes, and homemade infectious viruses. These laboratory innovations are setting the stage for challenges and dilemmas we cannot easily foresee. Yet most legislators who must grapple with human cloning, genome sequencing, and embryonic stem cells can barely cope with the simplest concepts of pure science. Like the citizens whose taxes underwrite research grants and who bear the social costs of science, they learn much of what they know about new research and its implications through the media.
The scientists who might be expected to provide the clearest guidance in such debates are increasingly hobbled by commercial secrecy, financial conflicts, or professional self-interest. Pure research just isn’t so pure anymore. Researchers are no longer searching solely for the truth. Many of them are also seeking their fortunes. A hidden cost of stock options, consulting contracts, patent rights, and commercial research contracts is that the scientists most familiar with new research developments are no longer so free to dissent publicly. And several studies of biomedical controversies have shown that an expert’s public scientific position can be predicted by his or her financial relationships.
But it is getting harder than ever to find a knowledgeable source who does not have a financial stake in a biomedi-cal controversy. When scientists must struggle to balance research integrity and commercial advantage, it is often the public that suffers. In June, The New England Journal of Medicine eased its strict conflict of interest rules for authors of certain articles because it cannot find enough experts without financial ties to drug companies. The journal’s rule had been that nobody who wrote a review article or editorial could have any financial interest in a company that made a product discussed by the article, or in any of its competitors. Now the journal only will forbid such articles by authors who receive payments of $10,000 or more a year as a result of such a stake, or who have stock options or patent interests in those companies.
Even the specialists in the ethics and morality of science—routinely called on by reporters to objectively weigh the pros and cons of new research— are finding themselves tangled up in financial disclosure conflicts. As more bioethics experts become corporate consultants, they too are finding their independence compromised.
To whom, then, can readers, listeners and viewers turn? The buck stops here. Science journalists should perhaps pay more attention to the interplay of character and cupidity that affect the sources on whom we depend: to look as hard at the scientists as we look at the science itself. But there is reason to take heart. Whatever our differences, scientists and journalists who cover them share a common purpose: to discover and report the unbiased facts about the world in which we live.
Robert Lee Hotz covers science and technology for the Los Angeles Times. He shared a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Northridge Earthquake and was a 1987 Pulitzer finalist for coverage of genetic engineering issues. He is the author of “Designs on Life,” which examines the scientific and ethical issues surrounding human embryo research.