Apparently, journalism faces something of an identity crisis, not least science journalism. The 6th World Conference of Science Journalists was held in London last week. Before it started, it was said that many attendees will be "wondering if this is journalism's swan song". An Editorial in Nature asked whether the role of science journalists is that of cheerleader ("to explain new scientific findings to the masses" and "for making the case for a thriving research enterprise to public and politicians alike") or a watchdog ("to cast a fair but sceptical eye over everything in the public sphere - science included").
The one question not being asked is: are science journalists letting us down? (Link to source here)
The root problem is that readers are deserting in significant numbers and with that comes declining advertising revenue. "Readers - and small ads, once a reliable earner - are migrating to the Internet." Science journalists and other specialists are being replaced by press releases:
"This contraction is perhaps particularly bad news for journalists with specialist beats such as science - the kind of journalists who need an informed understanding of what they are writing about, and know which experts can provide context, and where appropriate criticism, of new results. But publishers tend to see that kind of expertise as a luxury when money is tight, especially when the same space can be easily filled with material from press releases and wire services."
What is singularly lacking from the Editorial comment is any discussion of ideology and worldviews. It is the concern of many of us that significant issues are waiting to be explored but the traditional media are just not interested. Denyse O'Leary puts her finger on the problem here, when she writes:
"Believing that materialism is the truth, many journalists assumed that their role was to promote materialism at the expense of traditional, spiritually oriented ideas about human nature. Journalism consciously modelled itself on science, with "objectivity" as a new standard. Journalism would provide trenchant criticism of the religious outlook that it replaced."
This situation has become unstable over the past decade because of the increasing problems of maintaining a materialist worldview. Opinion polls show that a majority of people are not persuaded by the design-free media output. They are increasingly aware of evidence for design! In a second post on this topic, O'Leary writes:
"But most science journalists are not really aware of this stuff because their template for understanding issues is simply to reinterpret all problems as support for materialism, with Darwinism as its creation story. For example,
* Fine-tuning of the universe = That proves that many flopped universes exist!
* Cells as super-computers = That just shows what Darwinism can do!
* Origin of life? = Harvard will spend $50 million on "the answer"!
* Hard problem of consciousness = Science (materialism) will solve it [no end date for evaluation of project suggested]
Almost all coverage of the intelligent design controversy in major media is provided by people who cannot acknowledge any problem with materialism. They think you must be a fraud or just plain stupid if you raise problems that cannot even exist, in their opinion. And remember, as far as they are concerned, their opinion is science."
For most part, science journalism reflects the materialistic philosophy that is promulgated by science leaders and science organisations. Busy journalists often produce reports that are popularised versions of the press releases issued by the researchers, with little attempt to evaluate the significance of the research. This year, Ida has provided a clear example of the problem. Darwin dissenters have a tough time getting their message across. Repeatedly, I have learned of scientists being interviewed and they have pointed out that their objections are based on scientific evidence - only to find that the media report paints their views as an expression of their religious convictions. The thought that the mainstream view is an expression of a materialistic worldview seems never to have occurred to these journalists.
The editorial closes with some fine words that are worth repeating:
"Science and journalism are not alien cultures, for all that they can sometimes seem that way. They are built on the same foundation - the belief that conclusions require evidence; that the evidence should be open to everyone; and that everything is subject to question. Both groups are comprised of professional sceptics. And whether it's directed towards an experiment or a breaking news story, each can appreciate the other's critical eye."
The word "everything" is important. We know that many science leaders and science organisations do not accept that materialism is "subject to question". They are not prepared to either re-assess their own presuppositions or to allow anyone with different presuppositions to represent science. Until this situation changes, these people should not be surprised that readers vote with their feet and find other media that does not ram an alien ideology down their throats.
Cheerleader or watchdog?
Nature 459, 1033 (25 June 2009) | doi:10.1038/4591033a
Abstract: Science journalism is under threat. What can scientists do to help?
Brainard, C. NSF "Underwriting" Coverage. . ., The Observatory (July 01, 2009)
Quacks, hacks and pressing problems with press releases, The Guardian (30 May 2009)
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