Covering Science in Cyberspace

March 15, 2007

Closing Claim on a Tired and Good Thing

During certain moments of the conference I felt as if I’d been invited to a tryout for the NBA and then told, “hey kid, you got some talent and we’d love to give you a shot, but there may not be any basketball next year.” The prospects for being a good science writer and finding steady employ were so gloomy and yet there I was in a room with some of my heroes, studying them, blogging about them…hoping.

Following the conference I was virtually blogged out and hurried to LAX for a flight to my childhood home in Colorado for some long overdue family time.

The house was mostly the same, a neighbor had moved away and the place was a bit tidier than when boisterous adolescence used to swirl through.  There was also a more subtle change as, ‘The Wall Street Journal’ and ‘The Christian Science Monitor’ had been added to the kitchen table.  My mother had subscribed to them ever since the two local papers had changed hands, shuffled personnel and their quality unpalatably eviscerated.

My childhood manse does not have high-speed internet, I’m posting this last reflective blog via the power of an AOL dial-up connection that was a fascinating novelty a decade ago and without which it is unlikely that the massive expansion of high-speed internet into the consumer marketplace would have occurred.

I don’t think my mother would ever upgrade to high-speed internet in order to read the news online.  She was annoyed at the dearth of local quality and had to acquire out-of-town papers primarily because the local papers had ceased to be local and she wanted to be able to read well-written articles.

Being home, I also remembered how my life had progressed to allow for the privilege of blogging in a room full of science writing luminaries.  Before the internet came to a neighborhood near you, my mother would clip out articles from the paper and give them to me in the morning.  Many were science articles—the work of paleontologists with a Colorado slant.

The articles were local in the sense that a newspaper should be and good science writing in that they affected my nubile imagination when it was fertile and sent me off on intellectual tangents to bookstores.  One may think of this as ‘browsing’, I would read a great paleontology article in the paper and then go spend hours with a book on crocodiles.

Those science articles spawned my interest in science writing.

I’m not buying the death of newspapers because of the internet argument.  I can buy the loss of advertising revenue to google, which then makes the business-minded chaps at papers engage in creative cost-cutting and ruin a good paper.  That I buy, but not that the amazing technological features of the online experience are making the newspaper obsolete.

What Tom Siegfried was howling for the entire conference is correct.  None of what has been discussed matters without smart journalists doing good, analytic work and online gimmickry distracts from this.

Personally speaking, I’m more than happy to limit my internet speed and read two or more papers a day as long as those papers are good and well-written, which brings me to something interesting now that I can no longer do quick factoid research without high-speed.  I wonder if there is a connection between people who subscribe to 2 or more papers a day and limited to no internet use? There will obviously be demographic qualifiers like that older people read newspapers more and are not as tech savvy etc…but I think something else would be discovered as well.  People who read two or more papers a day do not need the internet in the ways others have come to depend on it.  They are connected to their neighborhoods by following the local beats so they will not feel a need to create a sense of community with an online social network.  They can read the results and analysis of the previous day’s sports and feel the commensurate emotions rather than being deluged by any desired statistic.  Think of what a strange thing fantasy sports leagues really are compared to the experience of being invested in local sports coverage.

Granted this exercise into the Luddite ways of the early 90’s will not last once I am back in the graduate school grind, but I will be conscious of distracted online learning and point-and-click politics…all the conveniences of the internet that reduces the quality of journalism.

What a newspaper provides is concentration.  The internet certainly lends towards exploration, but it can be so ill-focused (Britney Spears—caveman spear—Clan of the Caveman—Porn) that it can be distraction rather than curiosity. 

Journalism is bleeding, but returning to Colorado and its slower pace of life that has always led me towards something thoughtful made me realize that the answers to the quandaries the conference presented do not exist in the future, but in the recent past.

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 14, 2007

He Said She Said versus The Facts

Your assignment is to do a story on a life-time smoker dying in the hospital.

Do you talk to the patient and the clerk who sold him cigarettes all those years?

A tobacco company representative and the man’s doctor?

Or should this be avoided and you do a story based on scientific facts? The statistical inevitability of this man’s death, his suffering, the cost to society and to his family?

There is a debate in science writing that journalists tend to go for the he said/she said convention out of convenience while this may not be what is best for the story.

Now, global warming, stem cells, eugenics…which approach is best when scientific things are very much human?

March 14, 2007

Websites for Ethical Improvement

by Andrew McGregor

Yesterday, the journalists were divided into teams and given the task of conceptually developing a new science news website employing the interactive and graphic potential of the internet.

This is a stab at an emerging venue of journalism and a profound statement on the current state of journalistic affairs.

Television news is largely an overwhelming sensory experience with viewers pinned to their seats by slick graphics and sound effects selling what is not normally considered news.

If people were really interested in Anna Nicole Smith beyond pathological voyeurism they would not need to be sold by graphics.

This conference has been floated on two conflicting notions of the America public: one being that the American public wants journalism that cannot see above the tabloid and that the writers in this room somehow need to trick their editors into allowing them to do stories the science writers find innately fascinating.

The other notion is that the American public is actually being estranged and neglected, that when media moguls point to high ratings for scandalous content and all the advertising lucre that comes with it they are selling a huge lie; a grand part of a self-replicating delusion.  In this model journalism is identical to entertainment, it serves no other role than to make money for its owners and its greatest virtue is in being so false that it upsets no one and can be completely forgotten as background noise.

This model is very successful.  CNN and Fox News are indistinguishable reflections of each other, mouthing accusations of political bias while running partisan opinion as news and filling 24 hours of airtime.

Personally speaking, every time I tell someone that I am a graduate student in journalism they ask me why journalism is so bad, so stupid, so untrustworthy.  They feel betrayed by an institution that is supposed to be handling something sacred.

Why have an interactive website? Why is it necessary to have blogs and viewer responses if the reporters have done their job and the story is great?

It is necessary in part because trust in journalism has been lost so that instead of being overwhelmed by graphics viewers would like to explore issues on their own.  It may be that cynicism is the impetus for curiosity, and if so the scientific news websites discussed in the room should have a pleasant future.  Innovative websites with strong user involvement and intellectual rigor are auspicious portents for what journalism can be like in the future; that they are unequivocally necessary is a damning comment on the condition of the fourth estate.

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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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