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Thursday, March 26, 2009

The inflationary news universe


This column was written for the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ)

This February’s AAAS-conference in Chicago once again brought together a varied selection of scientists and scientific topics. It was my third AAAS in a row and it was the third time that I have found it very useful to interview scientists, talk to them informally and hear about new research directions in various lectures.

But it was also the third time that I have heard some colleagues complaining: “there is no hard news”…And you could hear them thinking: “for what to travel to a conference if I receive all the science news on my computer at home?”

I find it worrisome that the notion of ‘news’ – even a very narrow notion of news – for some science journalists has become a dogma that completely determines their way of working.

Why is it worrisome?

First of all, it’s not just a publication in one of the science journals that makes news. Why wait till a journal sends a press release announcing that there is news? And is it really news? With the ever growing amount of scientific papers per year, the news inflation is also growing. The discovery of the first exoplanet is thrilling, the next one just exciting, but the discovery of lifeless exoplanet number 314 is rather boring.

We should also make our own news, as I have argued in my previous contribution to this blog [www.wfsj.org/blogs/wfsj/post.php?id=65]. To make our own news and to find fresh angles to ongoing research, a conference like the AAAS provides an excellent opportunity.

The second reason to worry about the news dogma, is that we work for people who are interested in much more than just news. Most of all, they need scientific context and background to form opinions about the ever more complex world. What does it mean in my practical life that scientists can unravel my genome? What does a brain scan tell about who I am? How does a climate model work? How reliable are mathematical models of the economy?

We are living in an inflationary news universe. Our modern information world provides an overload of so called news, and a lack of context. Most people get totally confused if they first read in a one hundred word article that green tea is healthy for them and half a year later in another one hundred word article that it is not proven that green tea is good for them. This news swing can continue for years, ultimately leading to people turning their back to science news at all. Too much published science news is trash news.

Luckily, people continue to be intrigued by scientific questions of everyday life: Why do humans sleep eight hours and elephants only 3,5 hours? Or why do women cry more than men? And of course every new generation wonders about philosophical questions such as what is time? what is life? or what is consciousness? There is always ongoing research that provides a hook for covering such timeless or ordinary life questions in a fresh way.

The third and most important reason that the news dogma is worrisome, is that the notion of ‘news’ in science journalism plays a different role than in ‘ordinary’ journalism. Science always acts on large timescales – mostly years and sometimes even decades – and every day life mostly not. Therefore reporting about trends is as at least as important in science journalism as reporting about so called news. If a scientific discovery is announced today, you can be sure that it has been preceded by years of work. But if today a plane crashes...of course, that would be news of today. No way that we could have reported about it yesterday.

Science journalism should not be guided by the narrow notion of news that ordinary journalism seems to demand from us. Let’s give people the science context that they need to know and enjoy to know, instead of boring and meaningless ‘news’ about the still-not-one-hundred-percent-proven-healthiness-of-green-tea.

(By the way, news or no news, I love fresh green tea.)