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CNN Drops Science Unit

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.

7 comments to CNN Drops Science Unit

  • IPVlazy

    To be honest CNN for me has never been a reliable source of news. They are always up for making a big deal about something that they know will make people fearful, and not up for reporting on things that actually matter. Don’t get me wrong, they do on occasion do things right, but way too seldom is this the case. So therefore it does not surprise me that they would do something like this since this tends to be just part of the trend of CNN.

  • patrik.e

    A sad. sad development indeed.

  • Nigel

    CNN’s coverage of science in general is on the same level as Fox or MSNBC, but their space science section was always a cut above. I think it had a lot, if not all, to do with Mr. O’Brien. When Phoenix landed on Mars he knew what he was talking about, and when the Columbia broke up over Texas he had a firm grasp on what had, and was occurring. This is not a good development.

  • idoubtit

    I have two comments on this. First, this is weird. Why now? Why not when the hostile-to-science Bush administration was in high gear and censoring all science anyway. Second, now is the time for an alternative internet channel to give us real news. I don’t like CNN for news anyway – their focus is now entertainment with D.L. Hugeley (sp?), Lou Dobbs, Larry King, Nancy Grace, etc. I don’t call that news. (I don’t call it entertainment for me either.)

  • dcardani

    I know that they also stopped their tech reporting a year or two ago. They used to have “Next @ CNN,” which, while not great, was a reasonably decent show. It seems like this is just the next thing in line to get the axe.

    CNN has become pretty unwatchable lately. They’ve got MTV syndrome. They used to have headline news, and it was about 1 thing – giving you all the recent headlines in a half hour. Now I can barely find headline news on the network they call “Headline News!” It’s almost always Nancy Grace 24 hours a day. It’s horrible! And if you switch over to regular CNN it’s one dumb story for hours on end, broken up by Lou Dobbs complaining about immigrants. It’s really retarded.

  • Gerry

    I think we can all agree that Bush is hostile to science, but what exactly does “censoring all science” mean?

    I don’t watch CNN on TV, but I do read their website, and they’ve been posting some pretty pathetic news stories lately. One was about a piano the police found in the woods. That’s all there was to it. “We found a piano and we don’t know why it’s there.” Maybe bigfoot put it there? It would be lame for a local news outlet to run a non-story like that, but CNN?

  • Paul Ganssle

    I am somewhat skeptical that there ever was such a unit. Could they have come up with a better name for their “Chief” of science than Miles O’Brien? Let me guess, he is married to someone named Kieko and he loves darts. What a “crazy coincidence”. You sheep are all the same, believing what the mainstream media want you to believe. Open your eyes and see that CNN has pulled the wool over them! (Yeah, that’s right, they forced you to close your eyes AND they have packed your eyes with wool. Deal with it.)

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