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Critical journalism

Science coverage is on the wane when public scrutiny of science is more important than ever.

Watch five hours of US cable news, and on average you will see around 35 minutes on election campaigns, another 36 minutes on US foreign policy, and 26 minutes on crime — but only about one minute on science and technology, slightly more on the environment, and only a little over 3 minutes on medicine and health care. This is not just an issue with cable: science fares little better in other forms of television, radio, or print news, according to the Pew Research Center's The State of the News Media 2008 report, released on 17 March.

It would be a mistake to get too alarmed about this analysis. Science news in the United States has indeed been squeezed to around 2% of the total since the events of 11 September 2001. But it was never that high, hovering around 4–6% from the mid-1970s until 2001. And the drop does not reflect a falling public interest in science, as much as the media's increased emphasis on foreign policy, war and the homeland: the diversity of US news coverage has decreased across the board since 9/11.

The Pew Center's numbers offer another reason not to be gloomy: the Internet is overtaking television as the public's main source of science news. This means that a larger global audience can now access, on demand, a great diversity of science coverage from media outlets around the world. Moreover, the public are no longer just passive consumers of information. The Internet is now the first place people go to look for more information on a scientific topic, such as stem cells or climate change. Thanks to the Internet, in short, one could argue that the overall state of science communication is better now than at any time in the past.

Yet there is no reason to be complacent. As the media industry moves online, some shakeout is inevitable. Straight news is becoming a commodity, which will be dominated by fewer players. Independent science desks and media can have a future in this environment, but only if they move up the food chain and provide proactive, deeper, must-read analyses instead of me-too articles reacting to the latest press releases.

In that context, perhaps the most worrisome finding in the Pew report is that this type of resource-intensive science coverage is precisely the most threatened: as the newspaper industry responds to falling circulation with sweeping cuts, science desks are among the first to suffer.

Media executives should pause to rethink these cuts to science desks and coverage on two counts. One is that this choice is often influenced by the widespread notion that science is of comparatively little interest to readers. According to Pew Center data, however, around two-thirds of all those who search online for news are after science and health news — second only to the weather — with technology coming third, ahead of politics and business. That trend is confirmed in reports published this past December by the European Commission.

Another, and more important, reason to sustain high-quality science journalism is that, in this context as much as any other, the media have a responsibility (with rewards in audience response) to fulfil their watchdog role. Many contemporary societal issues are both science-related and complex. Science reporters are essential for keeping tabs on government at every level, ensuring that decision-makers listen to the best experts and scientific evidence available. They should also be in the front line of countering the misrepresentation of science, whether by anti-science groups, multinational corporations, or politicians — or indeed, by scientists and their institutions hyping their own work to gain fame and funding.

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Critical journalism. Nature 452, 387–388 (2008).

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