Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

The Rise and Fall (and Rebirth?) of Science Journalism

On December 3rd in Atlanta, SPI’s Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Packaging Materials Committee (FDCPMC) will join media analysts and officials from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in taking on one of the greatest challenges currently facing the plastics industry, consumers and the regulatory agencies that seek to protect human and environmental health while promoting innovation: The misreporting and intentional distortion of science in the news media.

There are all manner of booksweb sites, reportscolumns and more web sites devoted to this topic. Prompted in part by CNN‘s decision one year ago to cut  its entire space, science and environment unit, the World Federation of Science Journalists hosted a press briefing  in February titled, “Is Science Journalism in Crisis?

Reporting on science has suffered a marked decline in quality, accuracy and breadth of coverage in recent years for a variety of reasons, many of them economic and political.  Under competition from Internet sources like blogs and online videos, science journalists are often the first to be laid off from traditional news organizations. We’re left with journalists who have little or no science background doing their best to write the occasional science story, often using the very blogs and online videos that are competing for their jobs to drum up hot stories. Instead they should be turning directly to the scientific community and the peer-reviewed journals for science stories.  Unfortunately, the blogosphere and the online video channels, and by extension the journalism that relies on them, are rife with unreliable information and scientific claims of questionable origin.

The end result is that the public is often fed misinformation from trusted media outlets that misinterpret or, worse still, intentionally misuse scientific studies to put out sensational stories.  The danger is that society can be led to divert significant time and money away from serious problems to issues that the most rigorous science available suggests are of comparatively low concern for the health and well-being of people and planet.

Consumers can also be put at risk by news stories that direct them to choose certain products on the basis of poorly designed or biased scientific studies.  Instead of making well-informed product choices and having a reasoned discourse on critical issues like consumer health, the global environment and the efficacy of our regulatory agencies, we’re all busy trading narratives manufactured by struggling media outlets and agenda pushers.

A recent editorial in Nature decried the decline in science journalism and challenged scientists to step up and fill the void directly by blogging and sharing their research through channels that are more accessible to the public than peer-reviewed academic journals.

Those gathered in Atlanta for the FDCPMC Winter Conference will examine ways that they, too, can get involved in correcting misinformation in the news media. Perhaps one way is by helping reporters without scientific backgrounds gain access to clear, easy-to-understand, sound science on the issues they are covering.  Conference attendees will explore the roles that industry, the research community, the regulatory agencies and media watchdogs can play in ensuring that the public receives the full story and can make educated decisions about the products they use, the materials they trust, and the policies they support.  Everyone stands to gain when people are empowered to make decisions based on the best information available.

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