Science Journalism: Is it really that bad for Astronomy news?

by Kelle on September 28, 2010

This is a news website article about a scientific finding | The Lay Scientist
Is the bulk of science journalism really this bad? The health stuff is awful, for sure, but are we astronomers disappointed with our play in the press?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matthew Kenworthy September 28, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Yes, it’s really that bad. I think it’s due to the rise of competitive news outlets (the intertubes via blogs being the obvious target) but this was really inevitable given that older media outlets are flailing around a bit and wondering how to keep eyeballs/generate revenue from their new media. Long, wordy articles that dig into the research just don’t generate revenue, it’s as simple as that.

I’ve done some writing for popular press articles for astronomy magazines in the past, and they’re reasonably good at understanding what you’re talking about and they don’t mangle your text too much. But you rarely get the last view of the writing before it gets published, which has made me wince once or twice. I can easily imagine how boiled down it has become now, so the article hits it right on the head for me.

And you’ve got to admit, a lot of science journalism articles do fit the template!


2 Wayne Schlingman September 30, 2010 at 2:04 pm

I agree with Matt. While a lot of the blame is to be put on journalists that have no science background or even when they do are writing to a target audience to gain readership we as astronomers need to share some of the culpability. We write press releases that are not clear to the novice what the big picture is and how the new result changes how we see the universe. We try to fit too much information in without distilling it into what is important for the general public to learn about the discovery. This leaves the journalist with a lot of free reign pick and choose what they feel is most interesting.

I was TAing a class where the students had to read and compare an article from a newspaper to the press release that was associated with the article. Even after a semester of astro101 they were not able to pick up on the important pieces of the press release and mainly focused on the fact the journalist rounded numbers or skipped writing about half the press release.

We as a community should learn to be better at explaining things to people OTHER than ourselves.


3 Carolyn Brinkworth October 5, 2010 at 9:04 pm

I’d strongly encourage anyone with a news story to take it to a professional outreach group wherever possible. I work with the Spitzer Public Affairs group. Anyone with a Spitzer-related result can and should be going through us when they have a newsworthy result that can be released to the press. Not only do we offer full support for writing press releases that are accurate and attention-grabbing, we will create beautiful graphics for you, coach you if you are due to give a press conference, and put the full weight of NASA’s press machine (or at least the SSC’s press machine) behind you.

Not every scientist is good at writing press releases (in fact, sorry folks – but most of us are utterly crap at it) but you also don’t need to be. That’s our job, and we do it for you for free. Many science centres offer a similar service, as do almost all universities. Please use us!

Just something to bear in mind next time you have something to share with the outside world…


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