The state of science journalism in New Zealand

If you’re a journalist you’ll be glad to have seen the back of 2008, the year in which the gradual slide in the media’s fortunes turned into a torrential lahar.

Internationally, media brands we know well – the Chicago Times (US), the Independent (UK), are in danger of disappearing, crippled as they are with debt. The New York TImes has allowed display advertisements on the front page for the first time in years and the ranks of journalists have been thinned in newsrooms across the world leaving some media organisations with little human resource to devote to investigative journalism.

The trend has been no different locally – it’s all shrinking page counts, lower headcounts, frozen budgets. Many specialist publications have decreased their publishing frequency (like consumer electronics magazine Tone which has gone bi-monthly and technology newspaper Computerworld which has gone bi-weekly).

The impact of these tumultuous times on specialist news coverage is particularly devastating. Trying to divert attention from their plummeting revenue and declining headcounts, media organisations have been suggesting that the cutting of specialist news sections is down to a conclusion that general reporters are just as well placed to relate complex subjects such as science and technology to readers.

CNN shuts up its science shop

We saw therefore CNN do away with its science reporting team in a move that sparked alarm among mainstream media science reporters the world over. In a letter to CNN executives, the World Federation of Science Journalists and several other science writing bodies wrote:

“The environment, energy technology, space exploration, and biotechnology are crucial ongoing stories that will have growing prominence as a new American president takes office and nations confront a wide range of science-based global issues. As the impacts of climate change intensify, shows like “Planet in Peril” cannot make up for informed daily coverage of this important issue and other science topics in the public eye. As with political and policy reporting, it is important that the underlying science be covered by journalists with the skills and knowledge to sort out competing claims.

“Concerned as we are about the dismissal of our colleagues – including the award-winning science reporter Miles O’Brien in New York; Peter Dykstra, head of CNN’s science unit in Atlanta; and five other science producers there – this letter is not about individual journalists. Rather, the wholesale dismantling of the science unit calls into question CNN’s commitment to bringing the most informative science news to the general public, including the science-minded younger audience. If CNN wants to be truly international, it will be at odds with the trend toward increased science coverage in many parts of the world.”

The local situation

While the Americans are only just getting indignant at such moves, here in New Zealand the trend towards generalists covering specialist areas of news has been underway for some time. It has seen the whittling down is size of specialist news sections many of which are almost exclusively filled with freelance or wire copy.

The New Zealand Herald, the Dominion Post, The Press and the Otago Daily TImes have reporters going under the byline of “science reporter”. But few of them, if any, are exclusively devoted to the science round as they also have to cover weekend and evening shifts as general reporters and are often diverted to other news when numbers thin out in the newsroom.

Health reporters remain plentiful – health news sells well and its such a big area of public spending that there are plenty of interesting stories to keep the round paying its way. Pure science stories are rarer in appearance. Most papers simply run wire copy from the UK, Australia or the US, rather than send reporters after the take of local scientists on big discoveries and developments. Ironically, its provincial, low-circulation papers that still devote the most space to science with the likes of the Waikato Times and the Manuwatu Standard running weekly science pages.

The last couple of years have seen the rise of the environment reporter – a role science reporters traditionally filled. The growing focus on climate change, green energy and sustainability has created opportunities for newspapers to run sections (usually no larger than one page) dedicated to green issues. Environment reporters are generally kept busy, but once again few of them can focus 100 per cent of their time on the round.

In the magazine world North & South will occasionally take a bite at a science or environment story and regularly runs indepth health features. The same goes for the Listener, which also has a science columnist. New Zealand Geographic continues as a bastion of long-form journalism on the environment.

The broadcast scene

Radio New Zealand is by far the biggest producer of science news in radio land – its bulletins throughout the day carry news of scientific discoveries. Kim Hill’s Saturday morning radio show regularly features scientists while Veronica Meduna’s Our Changing World stands out as the only dedicated science magazine show in the country.

Some scientists listen only to Radio New Zealand, such is the extent to which they admire the station’s commitment to science coverage. But as I keep reminding them, Radio New Zealand has a small share of the radio audience – most people are tuning in elsewhere. On Radio Live and Newstalk ZB, science features, but only really in short bulletins or in the course of brief one-on-one interviews.

The two TV networks have dedicated health reporters and TVNZ has an environment reporter. But the majority of science reporters are covered by general reporters or borrowed from the wires. The current affairs shows at 7pm, Close Up and Campbell Live occasionally delve into science but interest seems fickle. Health stories, once again get a huge run on both channels.

Other outlets for science

The digital TV platform Freeview would seem like an ideal outlet for science programming but aside from a handful of documentaries there’s been little in the way of regular science coverage (except in the TVNZ bulletins and wire stories that run on TVNZ7).

While science blogs, websites and podcasts have proliferated overseas, there’s little activity in this area locally.

Overall then, science coverage in New Zealand is by and large, handled by general reporters who do not have science backgrounds. There are few dedicated outlets for science and environment news. The consolidation in the media industry means content sharing is more intense than ever – often a reporter will decide not to follow a story because a colleague on a paper owned by the same media group will be working on it too. A story generated by NZPA can be the sole story on a major scientific development but appear in dozens of publications such is the concentration of media distribution. Here at the Science Media Centre, we estimate there are five reporters in the country predominantly covering science.

Where’s the upside?

All of that sounds pretty grim given the growing importance of science to facets of our lives. But its not all bad news. Despite the lack of dedicated reporters able to sniff out the good stories and separate the hype from the facts, there’s a seemingly growing appetite among media organisations for science-related stories.

There are more channels for science news than ever before and outlets like Sky TV with the Discovery Channel, National Geographic etc, is providing a lot of content that connects with a mass audience – witness Myth Busters. The availability of easy to use media tools like WordPress (blogging software) and Youtube, means scientists and science communicators can go direct to an audience via the internet – though this activity is currently pretty limited.

It’s also not entirely bad that the media now sees a science story as having general news interest. I’d rather see a story about the environment on page 3 of the paper that is written for a mass audience rather than a story about the science of that environment story buried in a back section of the paper and written for boffins. But there needs to be balance, a meeting place somewhere in the middle – and when the science is diluted there’s greater risk of misinformation and false conclusions being spread. I’ve been shocked numerous times in the last few months at the lack of coverage of significant issues I expected news editors to be all over.