Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Demise of Science Reporting in Utah

Ted Booker of the Watertown Daily Times (NY) attended a talk I gave in
upstate NY on lake effect.  Interactions of this type between scientists and
reporters are becoming less common in Utah (Photo: Ted Booker)
My career has spanned a remarkable transformation in the way that we communicate and receive news.  As an undergraduate, the Internet was still confined to a small cluster of institutions and Universities.  I received my first e-mail address when I started graduate school and it was a big deal at the time (1989) to access the National Center for Atmospheric Research Supercomputer (a Cray Y-MP, about as fast as today's iPad) using the Internet.  Just a few years later, when I completed my Ph.D., we were running forecast models on desktop computers and distributing the output via the Internet.  At the time I remember arguing with colleagues about whether or not anyone would ever make money with the Internet.  I defended my dissertation in February 1995.  Jeff Bezos and Amazon sold their first book online in July 1995.  If only I knew!

Although the Internet has been great, it, along with the proliferation of media via cable and satellite dish, has had some caustic effects on news in general and science reporting in particular, at least at the local level.  When I first arrived at the University of Utah in 1995, I interacted frequently with full-time science reporters.  You can't learn and report about the nuances of climate science in a 5-minute interview, so having a dialog over many interviews, e-mails, phone, etc., allows the reporter to gain a more in depth knowledge of the subject, which leads to better reporting.  Science reporters like Ed Yates of KSL used to sit down with me and ask a lot of questions before even beginning the on camera interview.  There was an effort to both understand the science and it's implications first, and then dig into the subject on camera.  There's only so much you can do in a 60-second TV bit, but I believe this led to better reporting.

In recent years, the science reporter has largely been eliminated by most local stations.  Today, they usually just send a cameraperson who reads a list of questions from the producer, which are provided in advance.  There is no interactivity or probing.  I could just declare that I've discovered a cure for cancer and that would be that.  No followup questions asked.  We can insert that bit after we discuss what is trending on Twitter.

Similarly, print media is now in rapid decline.  Judy Fays of the Salt Lake Tribune covered environmental science extensively and interviewed me regularly for many years in person and by phone.  She worked that beat and knew what questions to ask.  Brian Maffly has done an admiral job trying to fill the void since her departure from the Trib, but he has a broader assignment base.  Further, the Trib just eliminated another 8 newsroom jobs.  One has to wonder if we will soon have nobody in Utah media with at least some focus on science.

On the plus side, the Internet has brought ways for scientists to interact directly with the public, including blogs such as this one.  One can also easily access articles by national or international caliber science reporters via various news feeds or by going directly to outlets like the New York Times and Guardian.  Nevertheless, the decline in science reporting in Utah is a net loss given the opportunities and challenges that can be better seized or addressed with a more informed public.

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