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As scientific journalism declines, US universities distribute their own news

As scientific journalism declines, US universities distribute their own news

Thirty-five top universities in the US have announced that they will feed their own accounts of their scientific discoveries to Internet news sites, prompted by concerns that scientific and medical journalism are suffering considerably due to news outlets' economic problems, the San Jose Mercury News reported. The founding universities are Duke, Stanford and the University of Rochester.

Their new website, Futurity, showcases content, inviting visitors to "discover the future" via "news from leading research universities." The site boasts four different sections: Earth & Environment, Health & Medicine, Science & Design and Society & Culture. Content from the various universities is submitted to Futurity's editor at Rochester.

The site explains that Futurity has been founded partly to reflect changes in the way people share information: using blogs and social media sites, it is constantly becoming easier to "share content instantly with people around the globe."

The second, "equally significant" reason is the decline in science and research coverage by traditional news outlets. While universities have traditionally partnered with journalists in order to communicate their work, Futurity believes that research universities, being "among the most credible and trusted institutions in society," should now deliver their news directly.

Clearly, there is a difference between the way a scientist would report their findings and a journalist would report the news. There is undoubtedly a value in making news of important discoveries available to the public, but what is missing when this news comes direct from the scientist is the (hopefully) objective, outsider view point that a journalist provides, questioning and analysing the discoveries in context. The Mercury News quoted Charlie Petit, a former science reporter, who said that university news releases are "completely absent of and scepticism or investigative side."

However, questions have been raised about the efficacy of some scientific reporting carried out by journalists, given the specialist nature of the topics discussed. Climate change is a particularly sensitive issue, and one that is crucial because much of the public knowledge needed to cause political change comes from the media, emphasised panellists at a conference hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in February.

For example, the issue of balance is particularly pertinent in climate change coverage: journalists feel obliged to present balanced articles and this may lead them to give undue space to global warming sceptics who actually comprise only a small fraction of climate change scientists. Katherine Richardson, who chaired an International Scientific Congress on Climate Change in March, believes that journalists should not be entrusted with informing the public about climate change; rather, communication should come from directly within the scientific community.

The question of who could best provide the public with information about climate change is debatable, but what is clear is that fewer journalists are there to do the job. This is despite the fact that, as an article in the Nation put it in July, "We live in a time of pathbreaking advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology, of private spaceflight and personalized medicine, amid a climate and energy crisis, in a world made more dangerous by biological and nuclear terror threats and global pandemics."

According to the Mercury News, fewer than 20 US newspapers now have a science section, down from 150 twenty years ago, and those which remain are often dominated by health and lifestyle coverage. CNN cut its science, space and technology unit late last year, and in March the Boston Globe abandoned its Health/Science section. Many science and environmental journalists have been losing their jobs.

Lisa Lapin, assistant vice president for university communications at Stanford told the Mercury News that Yahoo has recognised Futurity as a news contributor and Google has said it will use Futurity content in Google News. She explained that "our preference would be to have the level of coverage of science and research that we enjoyed for decades," but as this is not viable, Futurity is a way to get the news out there. And it is arguable that some news is better than no news.

Source: San Jose Mercury News


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Author

Emma Goodman

Date

2009-09-17 11:59

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