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January 5, 2009
Media Abdication Contributes to Scientifically Illiterate America
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.
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
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.
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.
point of journalism, however, is to weed out bad sources of information,
and to make sure that weight is distributed by reliability.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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