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Modern newsrooms must separate the science from the fiction

By March 20, 2019 May 17th, 2019 No Comments
By David Callaway, President of the World Editor’s Forum
(New York) – Artificial intelligence. Cybersecurity. Climate change.

Not a day goes by without every modern newsroom grappling with stories about these and other scientific issues now embedded in our changing culture. Just at a time when the depletion of resources in media worldwide makes it harder than ever to find reporters who truly understand the science and the challenges behind the headlines.

Most newsrooms long ago lost their science editor or reporter, if they ever had one. That kind of awkward person in glasses in the corner of the newsroom, who would speak up once or twice a week whenever a new comet was spotted in the solar system or a new cure for AIDS was put forward.

At USA Today, which I had the good fortune to edit for four years, we had the luxury of a crack science editor and a couple of star reporters for many years. We also had a reputation for strong science journalism where much of other mass media did not. Over time, however, those jobs moved on to more specific industry publications as circulation and revenue dwindled.

Now, with cybersecurity roiling foreign relations and impacting elections in the largest countries; AI dominating corporate boardrooms; and climate change threatening the world, newsrooms need good science reporting more than ever.

Political reporting has always been the beat that attracted the most competitive journalists. Over the last two decades, sports reporting and business reporting gained traction, as news organizations such as ESPN and Bloomberg News emerged. I believe science reporting is about to enter a huge growth market, not just in newsrooms but in new news companies around the world. The issues are just too important.

Behind it will be an army of new reporters educated and dedicated to explaining to a busy world how science is impacting it on a daily basis. From computers running our cars, to apps that tell us where to go and what to buy, to smart speakers ordering us around our homes, the need for explanatory science journalism has never been greater.

As newsrooms struggle with press freedom and business innovation, editors must make time and resources available to explain these changing phenomena and how they impact readers.
No longer can we make do with simply embargoing a report from a scientific journal, and regurgitating its findings on deadline. No longer can editors call on the first general assignment reporter available to “write up” the findings of some report for the briefs section.

Readers need to know the science behind the reports, but also the incentives of those writing them. Who are they funded by? Are they working for companies that stand to benefit from the report? What type of background do they have besides “expert?”

The harder the material, the easier it is to manipulate the reporter who is not willing to ask the difficult questions and question every motive. With climate change politicized and cybersecurity a shadowy world at best, the need for journalists to shine light on truth is paramount.
Reporters who can build sources in these industries and understand who is who, just as sports reporters understand players and owners, will be in high demand as new media companies spring up to take advantage of this tremendous opportunity.

Journalists who can recognize political spin on science and relegate it to the appropriate place in their stories, rather than just spouting out whatever the latest soundbite might be. Writers who can work within entrenched scientific circles to bring the challenges and the victories to light. Videographers who can show what it means. Podcasts with the women and men behind the findings.

Has it really only been 12 years since the iPhone was launched? Think how much our world has changed. The pace of technology grows ever faster, with opportunities and grave threats just around the corner.

For newsrooms to stay relevant, and engaged with their readers, they must continue to lead the discussion. Those who do will see a new bull market in young, agile journalists and emerging news companies the next quarter century. Those who don’t will be left behind like a 20-year-old Palm Pilot.

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