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January 5, 2009

Media Abdication Contributes to Scientifically Illiterate America


One of the most significant and underreported developments in American science during 2008 was how the reporting of science itself changed. Or, rather, the way reporting resources were devoted to science. If Barack Obama’s pledge is to actually use science as a tool to shape policy, those changes will be a disservice to the American people.


The announcement in early December by CNN to cut its entire science department was made with no fanfare. Part of that is undoubtedly the horrible environment in which media outlets operate today. It seems as if a week doesn’t go by in which a different media corporation doesn’t announce layoffs.


While there is a reason for concern about the general decline in newsroom staffs overall, there should be special concern for how the American public educates itself about science. The American public, thanks to a de-emphasis on science in public schools, already finds itself in a hole when competing against other countries. Americans, to put it mildly, are a scientifically illiterate bunch.


Unfortunately, once Americans enter the real world, there aren’t tools readily available for them to become better educated. The reason for that is that media outlets, which provide the first, most important source of education, have turned science reporting the last couple of decades into a joke.


Much of that can be attributed to a campaign waged by corporate interests to weaken how science shapes policy. Right-wing think tanks, funded at first by tobacco money and more recently flush with cash from fossil fuel concerns, have worked assiduously to weaken trust in science.


The point of journalism, however, is to weed out bad sources of information, and to make sure that weight is distributed by reliability.


Over the years, journalists have fallen down on this job, on a wide range of issues. A few years back, the New York Times gave equal weight to geologists and religious theorists in a science story exploring why books explaining the Grand Canyon’s formation as via a single geologic event were in national park gift shops.


This he said/she said reporting muddled other issues, too. A few years back, the Discovery Institute came to semi-prominence during the debate over Intelligent Design. Its representatives were frequently given equal footing in stories about evolution with research biologists, even though none of them came from any relevant scientific discipline.


Perhaps no issue has been more badly muddled by bad reporting than global warming. Today, just as it has been for the last decade, the debate over global warming is about the details – how much is the globe warming and how much impact are people having? The American people are badly out of touch with the latest scientific developments, with a greater percentage skeptical than are relevant scientists.


It’s not as if the American people have demanded to be kept in the dark. Surveys of media consumers regularly turns up data suggesting that people want real information on energy and environmental issues. Media managers responded with things like round-the-clock coverage of Paris Hilton’s jail sentence.


That started to change the last couple of years. Over the loud, noisy objections of politically motivated operatives, journalists have started reporting the issues based on science, not talking points. Media companies pledged to beef up their coverage.


Cuts at CNN, and at other networks, are an unfortunate reversal of that. Although the trend has been toward better coverage, the damage has already been done. The Internet, where people increasingly get their information, has a long memory, is filled with garbage and has no internal way to filter out nonsense. The risk, then, is that of people more thirsty for science information, but whose thirst is at risk of being sated by information made available when journalism was sitting down on the job.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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