By Kari Lydersen
The public appetite for science, and by extension for science journalism, seems to be in a schizophrenic state lately. On one hand, certain political leaders/agitators and segments of the public continue to mock and demean science as a liberal-driven drain on public resources–a realm where taxpayer dollars are spent on studying the mating habits of insects or promoting the “hoax” of climate change. At the same time, the climate change crisis and the embrace of all things “green” also seems to have driven increased curiosity and interest in science, especially environment-related science among the general public.
As a journalist who often does science journalism, I am encouraged by this growing interest. The Columbia Journalism Review described the changing role of science journalists in a recent piece as “cartographers” who not only report but critique, navigate and analyze scientific developments and studies for the public. The idea that so much scientific content for the lay public is now being disseminated by universities, companies, non-profits, individual scientists and other organizations online is also, I think, a fantastic thing…even if some of it has an ulterior motive and hence calls for “objective” journalists to serve as cartographers.
However when we talk about the role of science and science communications in U.S. democracy and policy as a whole, the above view becomes less rosy. For me it is more than negated by the fact that the nuances of a science journalist’s role are irrelevant to a frighteningly large segment of the population, who are still so ignorant about basic facts – apparently willfully and proudly so – that they will claim President Obama is a Muslim or the anti-Christ, or that health care reform equates fascism. It’s great that science journalists and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are using presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s blatantly erroneous statement that the HPV vaccine causes “mental retardation” as a teaching moment …but the people who really need to hear that information are not likely to listen. Or if they do, they will not believe it.
So assuming that science journalists have relatively little hope of reaching these people, let’s focus on the portion of the public that does read science news with an open and curious mind. Here, I think there are a few important roles for science journalism to play in policy debates and the larger democracy.
One obvious role is to actually inform people about the basic facts and new developments and studies regarding climate change, energy, public health issues, and the like so people can play a more informed role in policy debates. Another “softer” but also important role for science journalism – as New York Times science journalist and blogger Andy Revkin noted in a recent published chat – is to remind or inform readers, directly or indirectly, about concepts such as uncertainty, which are inherent in science. This may help people better critically evaluate science news, studies and public policies on their own.
Another “soft” but I think vitally important role for science journalism is to spark and stoke people’s interest in science and the world around them. Stories may be narrow in scope and relevance but are simply “interesting” and encourage wonder, imagination and appreciation for the natural world, human ingenuity and the quest for knowledge. Stories about a particular revelation in animal behavior, social science or marine biology, for example, may or may not have larger ecological, policy or technological significance, but I think anything that piques the interest of otherwise potentially apathetic readers plays some role in building a better-informed public necessary for a functioning democracy.
Kari Lydersen is currently a fellow in the Ted Scripps Environmental Journalism program at the University of Colorado. She is otherwise a Chicago-based journalist who covers environmental and other issues for publications including The New York Times-Chicago edition. She also teaches environmental journalism to low-income urban youth.