A while back, we attended the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference (now named ScienceOnline) and I had a stream of thoughts about almost every thing I attended. It was a great conference, and we hope to attend next year. I wrote this post soon after, but never actually posted, so here it is because after rereading it, I still agree with myself (hey, that’s actually a less frequent occurrence than you’d expect). This was in response to a panel on Framing Science (I can not find the old site, which seems defunct now, with links to the forums, etc. If anyone has that archive, please let me know)
Let me say, I agree with the basic premise that citizens in society, media and the political realm need, unequivocally require, a better understanding of science. If there ever was an age that needs it, it’s now: climate change, personalized genomics, health care, stem-cell research, evolution in classrooms and so much more. I also agree with the basic premise behind the article in Science by Nisbet and Mooney (the latter of which was one of the panel members): Framing Science, it would be helpful to find scientists focusing more on how to make complex topics relevant to the public.
One of the premises of the first speaker of the panel mentioned above, Jennifer Jacquet of Shifting Baselines, seemed to be that as a society we were more scientifically literate, or at least aware, and that the media then was better reporting science in the era of Sputnik. I’m not so sure this is the case.:
“Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: You find the present tense and the past perfect”
From many indications, scientific literacy in the populace has remained relatively stable over the decades, and from my own memory of flouridation scares and ‘desk ducking’ in nuclear explosion drills (yes, I’m getting old), I’m not so sure the public was particularly savvy when it came to understanding science in the 1960′s.
It reminds me of a book club I participated in when I lived in Heidelberg Germany (a very diverse group of people from all over the world). We were discussing raising children. To the last of the two dozen people in the room they were lamenting how wonderful it was raising children in the world 50 years ago, even the young among us were waxing nostalgic for that bliss of a time for children. I wasn’t. I and my partner had just adopted an African-American girl, and I spoke up: “there is no better time than now and place than here, to raise an child of color, a girl or a child in an non-traditional family. And I suspect that is true of most other children.” The participants then started to remember the blemishes of that era, and myriad they were.
My point is that we often look at the past with a very selective memory, and I have a suspicion that we were doing it here in this panel that day. It was a heady time in the 50′s and 60′s. We were entering space, nuclear scares, new technology, even plastics (“plastics, my boy, plastics“) and it was being reported on the front page and at the top of the news hour.
But I would raise a question: Did the media really report science better and more often 50, even 20 years ago? (don’t forget the other big stories of the day like Marilyn Monroe) and is the decline due to the rise of corporate conglomerates like CNN and MSNBC?
The cause of this decline according to the panelist appeared to be “corporations.” After showing us some stats on the reporting by several “MSM” outlets on celebrities such as Brittany Spears (90some percent), she indicated that the main culprit of this sad state of affairs was the ‘corporate’ media such as MSNBC, CNN and others. She contrasted the reporting of BBC, NY Times and others with those of CNN, MSNBC and others. The main difference? The former were either public (BBC) or “family-owned” (NY Times) and latter were profit/ratings-driven corporations. The thought being, I assume, that the former media outlets still considered “public interest” and the latter were purely “profit-driven.”
I’m not sure this premise holds. The first kink in this argument is the profit motive. The former group, including the NY Times, are also profit-driven. They must be to survive and it is their mandate. Perhaps they are better than the latter group by the fact that the drive for profits and ratings is somewhat moderated by the central control of a family governing body and mission.
My suspicion is the real reason the panelist sees a greater number of reports on celebrities in the corporate media of today is the move from a centralized media do a very decentralized one.
Until the 1980′s we had three major networks and a couple papers in every city. Control of what the public saw and read was in the hands of relatively few media groups and venues. If science topics would be reported, it had to go though these very centralized venues. With the advent of cable and satellite TV in the 80′s and the web in the 90′s and this decade, the number of media venues exploded. The “old” media (the big three networks) (and cable media like CNN and MSNBC have now also themselves become “old” media), had to find niches to fill as the number of outlets exploded. Apparently they have. The networks, CNN and MSNBC have found the celebrity and ‘missing young woman’ news niche, while politics, science, history, art and other niches were filled by individual channels (Science channel, PBS, etc), the huge number of new and very specific layperson periodicals, blogs and so much more.
In fact, though periodicals as an industry started to lose some advertising revenue, the number and diversity of niche periodicals grew rapidly, with 800 new titles added annually from 1994-1998:
According to the MPA, between 1991 and 2001 the following 10 categories added the most new titles: comics, regional interest, lifestyle, management, environment & ecology, computers & automation, travel, women’s, music & music trades, and family.
In fact, “education” related periodicals doubled:
Education magazines more than doubled, from 227 titles in 1988 to 519 titles in 1998.
And we know of the explosion of blogs, including those specifically science-focused such as those at ScienceBlogs.
So, the perceived rise in the ‘celebrity’ media culture seem to me to be less a function of the rise of the mega-corporation and ratings/profit motive and more a function of the diversification of outlets for information and the ‘niches’ that each had to find. For CNN and MSNBC (don’t mean to pick on only them, there are others that fit the niche :)), science isn’t their niche, but other outlets that report on science have proliferated. It seems to, based at least some of the data I can muster and looking at ‘media’ as a whole (whether that is network or cable TV, internet, periodicals or newspapers), science reporting isn’t particularly worse or a lower frequency.