CNN recently announced that they are closing their dedicated science unit headed by Miles O’Brien. They claim that this move is strategic, and not a function of financial necessity. O’Brien led the science, space, technology, and environment unit, which will now be folded into the general news coverage. CNN claims that their Planet in Peril section can cover environmental news (saying nothing about other science).
We have discussed this trend previous – the erosion of science coverage by mainstream media. We have focussed on “dead-tree” outlets like the major newspapers and news magazines, who have had declining readership and as sales and have therefore had to reduce overhead. There has therefore been a trend of cutting specialty reporters and editors and folding them into general news coverage.
The same is not true for cable networks, however. They are not under the same financial pressures as newspapers. CNN itself claims this is not financial – which means they are not doing this out of necessity, they actually think it’s a good idea.
Of course, such moves have proven disastrous for science coverage. The mainstream media in general does a mediocre job of covering science news, but there are some dedicated science news reporters who do a good job. Science coverage requires scientific literacy and a basic understanding of the institutions of science. Science editors need to be able to tell a legitimate science news story from a bogus one, or (increasingly common) a company or con-artist using a science news press release to gain free publicity.
Fringe science requires even more expertise and judgment, and even otherwise good science news reporters often fall down when they think a science news story is not “serious.”
I have been perusing the science news coverage on the major network websites for several years, and in my opinion CNN’s science coverage has been spotty. It has generally been better than MSNBC but not as good as the BBC (in my casual observation). I fully expect the quality to tank and for many more bogus science news stories to slip past the general editors.
This brings up the larger issue of the structure of online news coverage in general. It is clearly in rapid transition, and no one knows yet where it will end up. Science blogs are taking an increasing role in reporting news, and some dedicated science outlets (like Scientific American) are taking the lead in online science news reporting. Some science news outlets, like Discover, are partnering with independent science bloggers (they have signed Phil Plait, for example, with Bad Astronomy). Perhaps this will be the trend.
It seems, therefore, that the science news will be covered online by someone, and perhaps that is enough. However, I am still concerned about the mainstream news outlets doing a bad job of covering science news, or covering bogus fringe stories as if they were science news. Perhaps they should just farm-out their science news coverage to a dedicated science outlet.
We may also see the development of more online news feeds, like AP and Reuters. Perhaps we need a dedicated AP-like science news feed for the general media. Perhaps something like this already exists and I am just not aware of it (if there is, let me know), but I have not encountered any high-profile such service. There are science press-release aggregators, but that’s different. I am talking about experienced science journalists feeding science news to news outlets. Perhaps this is a niche that needs to be filled.
So while CNN’s move is a disturbing trend, perhaps we will emerge on the other side of this news transition to something better. We’ll see.