Daily Newspapers (Radio/TV News)
you follow astronomy reporting in U.S. newspapers, you are probably
used to reading the syndicated copy of some of the very best science
reporters (from such newspapers as The New York Times, The Boston
Globe, or The Los Angeles Times.) But these reporters, many of whom
have some training in science, and who generally belong to a trade
organization called the National Association of Science Writers,
are really the cream of the profession. Under that cream comes a
much larger group of reporters, editors, and radio and TV people
whose training and judgment have become a cause for national concern.
the old days, many journalists were trained in some academic subject
(or self-trained) and went out to report the news. Today, there
are over 400 schools or departments of journalism in the US (although
many are slowly changing their names to include words like communication
and media ¼ in part because many of their graduates hope to earn
large salaries reading the news from cue cards on television.) These
graduates, armed with courses as unspecific and muddled as anything
our schools of education can come up with, are beginning to fill
the ranks of the radio, television, and print media in the country.
Many have minimal or no training in science and a good fraction
share the larger public's distrust of and sense of intimidation
many of the elite journalists in the first group don't do as much
digging and reporting these days as you might imagine. They have
a kind of symbiotic relationship with the public information officers
at universities, research labs, and scientific societies, whose
job it is to get out the news from their institution and have it
be as widely disseminated as possible. (The two groups are actually
so interwoven that journalists frequently move from one to the other
and back again with ease.) Because no reporter can keep up with
all that is happening in every science, many have come to rely on
public information officers to identify noteworthy stories for them.
And those are usually the stories that are then developed. There
are exceptions often stories with a local angle or a whiff
of scandal but many journalists are happy to pluck the fruit
from the low hanging branches of the information tree; it is rare
to see them do much climbing on their own.
San Francisco, for example, the majority of non-local astronomy
stories the public has gotten to read or hear about in the past
two years have been determined by only two processes: 1. what stories
Steve Maran, the Public Information Officer of the American Astronomical
Society, decides to feature at the society meeting press conferences
(which are attended by many top science reporters whose stories
are frequently syndicated around the country); and 2. what stories
NASA and Space Telescope Science Institute public information officers
decide to hold news conferences or issue illustrated news releases
the non-elite group of journalists cover some science story (especially
on radio and TV), they often do so reluctantly and frequently make
a muddle of it. Or they wind up simply rewriting a press release
or wire service copy, or focusing on a local scientist who can comment
in 20 seconds on the story. Furthermore, it often turns out that
most of what these journalists call science news is actually news
about medicine or applied technology.
is these second-tier journalists who often get confused (to make
the most charitable interpretation) between science and pseudoscience.
They were the ones who reacted to the Nancy Reagan astrology revelations
by interviewing local astrologers (who made it all sound like the
most natural thing in the world that the president's schedule should
be determined by astrological forecasting) and by doing puff pieces
on all the movie stars that also guided their lives by astrology.
there is another part of modern journalism, which more rarely gets
discussed: the gatekeepers of the media. Decisions about what gets
on the evening news are usually not made by the people you watch
on your screen. Decisions about what gets significant coverage in
the newspapers are not made by the people whose bylines you know.
Decisions about what topics are discussed on the radio are often
not made by the people whose voices you hear.
these decision is the role of the gate-keepers, editors and producers
who filter the news, select the stories to be covered, and direct
the tone of the material that will be read on the air. These gate-keepers
are often young, superficially educated, and lack any serious knowledge
of science. Yet they are the ones who assign the stories to reporters,
determine the length of articles or broadcast pieces, and decide
where these pieces will appear. They have been, many of them, raised
on a steady diet of the kind of journalism we now have, and so accept
the current system without question.
it is this group, more than the reporters, that is actually charged
with minding the corporate bottom line at their institutions, and
is thus most likely to pander to the worst instincts of the public
instead of educating them. (Just count the number of news stories
about ghosts around Halloween or the predictions of psychics around
the new year.) Their sense of the public trust of journalism is
founded much more on an entertainment than an educational model,
and the trends in what gets reported and how it gets reported clearly
bear out their influence. Small wonder that serious science and
skeptical inquiry, which is the best thing the scientific method
has to teach us, get such short shrift.
Radio and Television Programming
we get further into the media wasteland, where oases are harder
to find. Scientists tend to focus on and hear about these oases,
such as the Stardate and Earth & Sky radio programs, the NOVA television
series on PBS, the new telecourse on astronomy from Coast Community
College, an occasional special somewhere on a cable channel, etc.
The most successful astronomy TV program was Cosmos, estimated to
have been seen by 500 million people in more than 60 countries since
1980. But all these are merely exceptions to the general rule of
what is seen on television on an average night.
the television picture is very dim indeed, with vast quantities
of pseudo-science being served up by most of the commercial networks.
(This is being exacerbated by the tremendous growth of what is called
"tabloid tv" shows that generally imitate the contents and
approach of the tabloid newspapers.) Science on many stations is
often limited to ten-second newsbites on the evening news that make
little sense to the uninitiated (and are often "Guinness Book of
World Records" stories the farthest galaxy, or the most massive
a country, we need to recognize the enormous power that the media
have, and pay more attention to how decisions are made in the media.
By this I don't mean censorship, but rather undertaking a long-term
educational program to make sure that those who have the responsibility
for deciding what goes on the air (or what is printed) have the
education and the informed background to make sensible judgments.
One step would be to introduce and require excellent science overview
courses developed specifically for students going into journalism.
Another would be for everyone who is dissatisfied with science coverage
on the media to make his or her voice heard locally or nationally.
(In San Francisco, the work we have done at the ASP has increased
the amount of astronomy on local radio and television significantly
and, although it took a while, it was not a very painful exercise.)
argument the media always make in response to such concerns is that
they are merely giving the public what it wants. But this argument
is specious. Someone like me, who began life in Communist Eastern
Europe, never got to taste a mango or an avocado as a child. Thus
I would never have known to ask for a mango or an avocado, or have
realized that I might want one. But after we came to America, I
was introduced to a much wider range of foods: my palate was educated...and
now I ask for mango and avocado regularly. Similarly, I would suggest
that when the media tell us that people are much more interested
in the Bermuda triangle that the Great Attractor, they are merely
confessing our joint failure at educating both the gatekeepers of
the media and the public about the tasty treats real science has
focusing so strongly on the entertainment aspect of their mission
over the educational aspect, the media lose sight of the fact that
there is an alternative to pandering to the lowest taste. It is
the far more difficult and long term job (and the almost forgotten
pleasure) of elevating the tastes and desires of their audience
to new levels of perception and understanding.
should mention that there is a national organization which is making
a creditable effort to help the media sort out science from fiction
science. The group is called the Committee for the Scientific Investigation
of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), a mouthful of a name, but
a group with their hearts in the right place. It consists of scientists,
educators, magicians, philosophers, lawyers, and other skeptics
whose interest is to get the rational, skeptical perspective about
fiction science out to the media and the public.
their superb magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer, their meetings and
workshops, and their information releases to the media, CSICOP has
managed to alert and educate a significant number of reporters to
stop and consider what they are doing when they file a story involving
pseudoscience. They also work to bring together such reporters with
skeptical spokespeople before a story is written. (They can be contacted
at: P.O. Box 703, Amherst, NY 14226; I urge everyone in astronomy
education to get to know their work and support what they are doing.)