26 January 2011

A plea for more science coverage in local and community papers

Last week’s Isthmus (January 21, 2011) cover story, which ran under the provocative headline, “The Truth about Adult Stem Cells,” set my mind racing for the better part of an hour as I considered various arguments that swirl around the stem cell debate.  (For those that aren’t familiar with it, Isthmus is a weekly local paper in Madison, WI.)  I, like a lot of people it seems, have an opinion, albeit a murky one, on the subject. Although I have no intention of sharing it here.  I know better than to wade too quickly into a sure quagmire.  Plus, that’s not what this post is about.

After that initial hour or so the other day, my mind settled back down and I was able focus on other concerns.  But the article stuck with me.  I came back to it today, reread it, read the ensuing online commentary, and began the debate all over again in my head.

At some point, it dawned on me how effective the story had been—whether through solid writing, or because of the subject matter, or both—at holding my attention and causing me to weigh the issue.  It also got me thinking about how rare it is to find coverage of important scientific issues in local and community newspapers (i.e., circulation under about 50,000).

The American public’s exposure to science news on a regular basis is limited, to put it mildly, in comparison to their exposure to other news genres.  (Suffice it to say here that I think this is detrimental to our progress as an informed and productive society.)

Classroom science education ends for many after high school graduation, and mainstream media outlets (e.g., major newspapers and television networks) have pared down science coverage to what amounts to a few flakes in a blizzard.  Print and online forums that focus on science news certainly help, but their audience is limited, by and large, to those who seek out such content.  Unfortunately, much of the exposure to science that everyday citizens do have is unreliably filtered through political and/or advertising machinery.

What small newspapers lack in their individual circulation size, they make up for in the sheer number of publications across the country.  Additionally, local papers tend to have built-in audiences because their coverage is uniquely, well, local.*  Residents of a small town in Wisconsin might watch the network news for national and international coverage, or check the Wisconsin State Journal or Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel online for statewide news, but they still turn to the local gazette to read about what’s happening a few miles from home.

To be honest, Isthmus, with a circulation of nearly 55,000, isn’t quite what I have in mind in terms of a local paper.  Madison is after all the state capital and a city of about 235,000.  But the stem cell story, which focuses in part on work done locally at UW, provides an example of adding a local hook to an issue of national significance.

Imagine the expansive and diverse new audience that would be exposed to regular science coverage if small papers added a weekly science column with a local twist next to the report of Friday night’s football game.  It need not always address an issue as contentious as stem cell research.  Perhaps a discussion of the chemistry of the local groundwater supply and how it effects what comes from the tap?  Perfect, as long as it presents the science along with the associated political issues.  The best way for individuals to make scientifically-informed decisions is if they are aware of the science themselves, and are not solely reliant on politicians, pundits, and advertisers for interpretation.

Science writers (myself included), scientists, and the foundations and organizations that support them often cite the desire to help inform the public of scientific knowledge and discovery as a fundamental motivation for wanting to do what they do.  Encouraging and supporting increased science coverage in local and community newspapers would be an effective means of furthering this goal.

*See this 2007 Washington Post article (“Big Profits in Small Packages,” March 8, 2007) for a discussion of small-circulation newspapers.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article Tim. In addition to thought provoking articles that go in depth for an audience that wants an understanding of a particular issue, I'd like to see more quick and simple stories that maybe don't go into much detail at all but leave a very general audience with a few pieces of new science knowledge. The danger is inaccurately simplifying information. The advantage would be increasing the knowledge base in audiences that don't like to consume news/media in a way that requires a lot of effort. An example of what I'm thinking of is the short science pieces Lacie Grosvold (a friend, so I'm probably biased) has done at a local TV station in Fairbanks. Topics I've seen so far have included marmots, rare earth minerals, and engineering low energy homes.


    I guess the most important question I'd want to know is how can journalists crank out short quick pieces on science topics without inaccurately stating something in such a way to make me cringe?