Science journalism grows up – Science Magazine

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PHOTO: LEISE JONES

By the early 1920s, an unlikely pair—a powerful national newspaper publisher and a California-based zoologist—decided that they’d had enough. Enough of half-baked reporting on research results, enough of stories that left readers confused about even the basic principles of science. They wanted something better. They wanted reporting that encouraged a “scientific habit of mind,” a citizenry aware of the role of research in everyday life.

However unlikely, the alliance between Edward Willis Scripps, founder of one of America’s largest newspaper chains, and Harvard-trained zoologist William Emerson Ritter, ran deep. The two men shared a belief in science as the new century’s most powerful transformative agent—and also a belief that scientists were doing a poor job of communicating this. By April 1921, they’d decided on a solution, a venture called Science Service, which would be dedicated to providing smart and positive science stories to the public. The organization they formed a century ago would grow into Society for Science, publisher of Science News. True science journalism—independent inquiry into the scientific enterprise and the illumination of research with all its wonderfully complex human interactions—would come much later. But with the founding of Science Service, a new profession did take its first steps, albeit somewhat stumbling ones.

Although scientific societies and organizations supported the new service, researchers themselves remained wary of the often flamboyant journalism of the early 20th century. In 1934, a dozen American science writers formed a National Association of Science Writers, in part to build better relationships with their wary sources, promoting it as a way to identify elite, science-savvy writers from the other journalistic riff-raff. Boyce Rensberger, a former director of the Knight Science Journalism Program, once described this alliance between scientists and journalists as the beginning of the “Gee Whiz” period of science journalism, one that he believed led directly to embarrassing fan-boy coverage of the development of nuclear weapons and the post–World War II arms race.

As Rensberger and others also note, the profession reluctantly let that model go. Science writers were sometimes downright hostile when faced with the environmental downsides of technological development that appeared during the 1960s: air pollution, water pollution, Rachel Carson–driven warnings that unchecked use of pesticides was unsafe, and more. The best science stories, one leading journalist argued, resulted from cooperation with “enlightened industries.”

Still, journalistic doubts concerning relentlessly cheery science coverage deepened, and emphasis on telling the whole complicated story also deepened as the profession continued to expand, marked by formation of groups like the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations in 1971, and more.

It’s in this moment of doubt that science journalism began to come into its independent own. The last two decades of the 20th century saw a new emphasis on professional training, a growing number of female science journalists (although other forms of diversity have been slow to follow), and newly sharp-edged investigative reporting that looked at everything from the politics of HIV research to space shuttle failures to risky chemical contaminants. As Liza Gross, author of The Science Writers’ Investigative Reporting Handbook, points out, critics who called science journalists just a bunch of “perky cheerleaders” for researchers were gradually being proved wrong.

The rise of this century’s digital era of communication has served to accelerate change, both in the way writers tell stories, employing tools from podcasting to data visualization, and in their visibility. Science journalists now readily cover contentious areas of science—from climate change to vaccines to the long-standing culture wars around evolution—with clarity and, in turn, deal with furious pushback from skeptics on social media and other platforms.

The original, science-boosting mission of Science Service hasn’t been lost. Today, countless “science communicators”—from press officers to scientists themselves—work to foster a positive portrait of science. And there’s still a place for journalistic stories about the wonders of science. But the past century has proved that this is not the most important contribution of science reporters. Rather, it is to portray research accurately in both its rights and its wrongs and stand unflinchingly for the integrity of the story. Scripps and Ritter were smart men, and there’s a strong argument to be made that they would approve this endpoint.

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