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Science Writing Series - Part 1: Deciding What Gets Covered

It seems everytime you turn on the radio or television or open a newspaper there is a new groundbreaking science discovery. For readers, science news often is hard to understand and put in the context of our daily lives. For science reporters, the job is even more difficult. They have to digest complicated stories and then decide with of the hundreds of stories should appear in print or in a newscast.

In the first segment of a two-part series, Science Writer Holly Wagner gives us look how science reporters decide what to cover.

Scientific knowledge is growing at a dizzying pace.

There are roughly 16,000 scientific and technical journals currently published, most of which report new research findings every month. Some journals even come out weekly. Add to that hundreds of scientific meetings each year that also offer up the latest scientific discovery of the day.

Keeping up with even a tiny fraction of that constant barrage of new information is terribly challenging, even for the most astute science reporter.

Los Angeles Times science writer Robert Lee Hotz, who is also the incoming president of the National Association of Science Writers, explains the information overload problem, The amount of data that is spewing out is itself so vast that it spawned this whole problem for scientists, the scientific community - how do you capture it, how do you hold it, how do you maintain it long enough to analyze it."

Hotz and other national science journalists shared their views on the craft of science writing. Nowadays it's not enough to simply report just the facts of a new finding, because science and technology are arguably what drives social, economic and cultural change.

And it seems that the public has a healthy appetite for science news, too. According to the National Science Foundation, the majority of Americans are intensely interested in scientific endeavors, and most people agree that the government should fund scientific research, even if it has no immediate benefits. But many of these same people also feel they aren't well informed about issues in science.

Science writer Charles Petit spent many of his 35 years in the business writing for U.S. News and World Report. He has an idea why the public wants more science news, I think of science writing as a tonic for a lot of the news that's in the papers and the radio. It's mostly crime, corruption and catastrophe. It's bad news. Science writing has this sublime mission to bring stories about things that are genuinely new to human experience."

But science reporting has changed drastically in the last 20 years, because the nature of research has changed. While understanding a study's implications is still important, in many cases listeners and readers also need to know more - for example, who pays to do a study on a drug? Who stands to profit? Do the researchers have any kind of relationship with the funding agency, particularly if it's a pharmaceutical company or other private firm?

As federal dollars for research dwindle, scientists are encouraged to partner with corporate enterprises, Hotz said, which means that scientists no longer are our independent chorus of objective judgment on things that happen in our society. Experts say that's not inherently bad, but the public needs to know about these relationships and what they mean.

"We want to encourage scientists to get products to the marketplace quickly, but the consequences are vast. (It) creates a fundamentally different set of incentives for researchers, and it changes their relationship to the public. They're no longer on our side - they're on their side. There didn't used to be sides, Hotz said.

Lehigh University science and environmental writing program director Sharon Friedman has studied environmental journalism for 30 years. She said that this change in relationships inevitably leads to a culture clash between journalists and scientists, a clash that sometimes puts the two camps at odds with one another.

Friedman added, I don't know how many times I've heard scientists accuse journalists of being inaccurate, yet when you ask them what's inaccurate about it? There's really nothing inaccurate about what's in the story; it's what's been left out of the story. That's because the scientists have a perception of what they need for their audiences which does not match the perception of what journalists need for their audiences.

In an ideal world, science stories would be reported with a lot more depth, a lot more space, and a lot more time. The science writers in this story all agreed that there are underreported stories - but that's the nature of the profession.

"Everything's underreported, I guess, because otherwise you'd have a newspaper filled with nothing but science news, said the dean of American science writing David Perlman. A science reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, the 86-year-old Perlman began his career some 45 years ago. God knows the world of science is so huge, there's no way of possibly keeping up with everything."

As scientific knowledge increases by leaps and bounds, many news outlets are paring down their science writing staffs. Blame it on shrinking budgets. CNN fired almost all of its science and environmental writers in the past two years. Many newspapers and national magazines seem to be following suit as they also fire seasoned science journalists.

That could create problems, as many science stories are also stories of politics, economics, business, and so on. It's the relationships between science and these other areas where the story often truly lies.

While such partnerships aren't inherently wrong, it's important for the press and the public to understand what drives these relationships.

As Petit said, people respect and admire science, even if they don't understand it.

Therein lays the science writer's challenge - attempting to close the gap between the two camps while faced with a continuous onslaught of information. And then figuring out how to explain all of it - the new discovery, the political and economic interests and the partnerships in shrinking space for science news.