22 July 1998

Date: 22 Jul 1998 07:45:46
From: johnpike@fas.org
Subject: What's Wrong With the New York Times's Science Reporting
To: Recipients of conference <fastnet@igc.apc.org>

At 11:11 AM 7/6/1998, resclove@amherst.edu wrote:

>"What's Wrong With the New York Times's Science Reporting?"

Whatever the bad news, at least the good news is
that there is Science Times reporting to complain
about. Warts and all, the NYT seems to do more
science reporting than any other half dozen papers
put together. I will confess, however, that over time
my interest in their reporting has declined, though
not due to the issues cited in the Nation critique.

The part that I have the problem with is not the slant
of their science and public policy reporting, but rather
with the declining proportion of their science reporting
that has a public policy component ..... just check out
any recent Tuesday, and see how few of the articles
are "important" from either a science or a policy
perspective, versus how many are a midly amusing
read over a second cup of coffee before work. To me
demographics is the problem... their market research
is driving their editorial content

> the NY Times' routine science 
>coverage is almost entirely of the "gee whiz!" variety,

This is generically true: the science beat is just flat
out the only beat on which there is only good news.
Check out sports, business, weather, obits, entertainment
reviews, whatever, in every other section of the paper
good news is always defined in contrast to bad news,
both of which get reported. Even the bad reporting
of science policy has two sides, even if one doesn't
like how they are presented.

But in science there is only good news. Try selling a
paper in which it never rains or all teams win or all
businesses make buckets of money and no one ever
gets fired and see how many copies you sell. But
science is different, if not all the time at least far
too often it seems that too many science reporters
[generally not including the Science Times folks]
seem to approach science reporting as happy news.

There has been a rather substantial shift in the NYT
coverage of this stuff and it is driven by the prevailing
desparation to attract younger readers who the believe
want happy news and soft features etc

I say this without any particular insight into the specifics
@NYT.com, but this is surely true with newspapers
generally, and has powerful explanatory power of the
evolution of the Science Times, even if the inside scoop
is much more convoluted.

Frankly, however, it is also the case that there just doesn't
seem to be much heavy furniture being moved around
on the science policy front generally these days, at least
compared with five or ten years ago when there were
major public policy issues that were hotly contested.
The news media can report news, they can shape news,
but there are limits to their ability to make news.......
though I wish they would try

John Pike				http://www.fas.org/
Federation of American Scientists		202-675-1023
307 Massachusetts Ave NE		Washington, DC 20002
"It is by will alone I set my mind in motion"