Science journalism in the spotlight

This week the World Conference of Science Journalists gets underway in London.  Over 800 journalists and science communicators will gather to debate the crucial issues for their profession — how to survive, avoid pitfalls and even raise the standards of science journalism in a rapidly changing global media landscape.

The SMC’s Peter Griffin will be blogging and posting podcasts from the event all this week. Stay tuned to the Science Media Centre’s website for updates.

The conference has sparked a host of related coverage. The latest issue of Nature carries an extensive Science Journalism special feature to coincide, and other sites like the Knight Science Journalism Tracker have offered up some pithy commentary.

Among the many hot topics on the agenda, a session titled, “Is science journalism in crisis?” will delve into the implications of recent newsroom cutbacks and loss of specialist jobs.  Cristine Russell, President of the US Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, kicked off a recent preview of this session with the following, sobering figures on science journalism in the States:

Membership of the USA science journalism association, the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), stands at over 2000 but of these only 79 are now full time staff science writers for newspapers. The decreasing number of staff science writers is no doubt linked to cutbacks in the number of science sections in US papers, which have decreased by more than half from 95 in 1989 to 34 in 2005. The Boston Globe is an example of this process in action: First the health and science section moved inside the news section, then in January 2008 it went from 3 to 2 pages and by March it had been cut altogether. Health is now covered in the lifestyle section and science and technology in the business section with an emphasis on technology.

Despite the pressures, participants argue that there is a vital need for science journalists to carry on finding new outlets for their work. Another speaker, WFSJ President Pallab Ghosh, offers this analysis of science journalism’s changing role: “Once upon a time our job was to translate and enthuse about science. Now it’s to provide mature, independent analysis of scientific developments that will shape the future destiny of communities across the world.”