Covering Science in Cyberspace

March 14, 2007

The Internet Changes Everything

...Or does it?

It changes many things, to be sure. Hyperlinks append the encyclopedia to end all encyclopedias to every article. Flash and php enable “interactive content” much more advanced than simple page-flipping. Many of the games and demos suggested today are excellent examples. The Internet also provides an unparalleled way to track how readers experience pages, articles and demos, through what they choose to click and what they post in blogs.

And yet, in the wake of the symposium today, I found myself mulling what Tom Sigfried said: “All that stuff is very nice, but is it journalism?”

...or, could it be journalism? More directly: are the technologies of the web going to remain supplemental material, or are they going to change the very core substance of journalism in the future?

I doubt it.

Alfred Hermida’s admonition that journalists need to “have a multimedia mindset” should be heeded, but also taken with a grain of salt. Every story can’t be deconstructed into bits.

Narrative is primary. People understand the world in terms of stories; that’s what they’re looking for in news. The implicit question people ask when they pick up a newspaper or magazine (or go online in search of news) is “what’s going on?”—and the answer to that can’t always come in choose-your-own adventure form. Breaking a feature article into blurb bios, a game, and a flash animation of the relevant science destroys something valuable. The narrative, the story, is lost.

I heard various grim statistics today about how few people will follow a link to the latter half of a story (less than 20%). Still, though, if a publication cuts all such stories, it shouldn’t be surprised by a 20% drop in readership.

People do have the patience for longer stories, even if they don’t read them much online. As I said today, I think this is largely the result of the discomfort of reading from current computer screens. I refuse to believe that the attention span for all readers has dropped to 300 words in the last ten years. I think that advances in display technology will prove that.

Just as MTV didn’t kill the feature film’s popularity, I can’t believe that the internet will reduce journalism to blurbs. People will still want someone to connect the dots for them, to tell them a story.

March 12, 2007

Seeing is Believing

      Science is complicated.  Seeing it with your own two eyes is almost impossible these days, even for scientists.  Some things are too small (the spin properties of a single molecule) and some things are much too big (the mysteries of the universe), and some things are just plain invisible.  However, the closer we can get to “seeing” something, the more we believe it.  Consider how reputable the TrimSpa creators look in their white lab coats, while they stand among beakers and flasks.  However, eye-witness accounts are rarely found in science stories. 
      This is why explaining science is so damn hard.  Rarely does the public catch a glimpse of a real scientist in action.  And even if they could, who knows if they’d enjoy watching?  Often, the crawl of scientific evidence doesn’t make for a compelling scene.  But then again, maybe it would. 
According to some conference participants, some websites now have “lab-cams” to catch scientists in action.  This means that someone, somewhere, wants to see what goes on behind closed laboratory doors.  As a young(ish) person starting out with the hopes of communicating science, this is an important lesson.  I don’t mean to say that watching a researcher pipette her sample into tubes is inherently beneficial.  But rather, knowing something about the set-up of a lab or the smell of a certain room lends itself to a deeper understanding.  And these days, science is in desperate need of de-mystification.


This blog was written by prominent science journalists and science communicators who attended the Knight Digital Media Center Best Practices: Covering Science in Cyberspace seminar.

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