High Price for Science Journalism

Photo illustration by Mandy Moon.

The urgency for more and better science journalism.

By Gabrielle Plonka

Even though we’ve been warned by the United Nations that we have only 12 years to avoid a climate change catastrophe, Margaret Munro says that we’re seeing less science reporting than ever before.

Munro is a veteran science journalist who has based her career on writing about the environment. She was the national science correspondent for Postmedia until budget cuts eliminated the position in 2015. Now, Munro considers herself semi-retired, occasionally freelancing for Canadian Geographic and The Tyee. Despite the increased relevance of environmental research, science journalism isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

“There’s definitely less mainstream science journalism,” Munro says. “There’s just not money there anymore.”

Her first major story, about acid rain, was a 15-page feature in the Vancouver Sun in 1990.

“Now, we’re 30 years into this, and we’re not making much progress,” Munro says. “We need better science journalism, and we need more, but we’re getting less.”

Ivan Semeniuk, science reporter for The Globe and Mail, is one of the few full-time science reporters left in Canada.

“There aren’t too many people who do what I do, which is report on science for a newspaper,” Semeniuk says. “On the other hand, there are so many other people working in the field in more independent ways.”

“I’m not sure if they have much job security,” he adds.

The age of the internet has led to a surge in independent media. Suddenly, scientists have been given an unfiltered platform to write about their research and the chorus of voices in the field has grown louder.

Ethan Siegel’s astrophysics blog, Starts with a Bang, is an example of this. Siegel started writing in 2008 as a “side hustle,” and his blog quickly won him a loyal readership. Starts with a Bang spent its first seven years on Medium before it was additionally picked up by Forbes in 2015.

“I had a day job,” Siegel says, referring to teaching at a university. “As I got more successful, more notoriety, I started to realize this was something I potentially could turn into a career.”

Siegel’s blogging style isn’t journalism, but it might be the future of science writing. It’s quirky and humorous and multiplatform. Siegel writes, hosts podcasts and posts videos to his YouTube channel, and these extra platforms allow him to invite guest lecturers and increase viewer interest with costumes and other gimmicks. His blog attracted two million visitors in its first three years.

Whether mainstream or independent journalism, Semeniuk says there are three topics in science that will always sell well. The first of these is climate change, which is the “biggest science story of the century.” Second is human health and modern medicine. Finally, stories that appeal to pure curiosity––like the kind that Siegel writes––will always find an audience, says Semeniuk.

“There is an awful lot of room for stories about the cosmos, and evolution, and how the brain works and why dandelions are the way they are,” Semeniuk says.  “Any number of things that are fascinating—and they make good stories because they’re just illuminating.”

Despite challenges in the current economy, Margaret Munro is optimistic that the intrepid reporter will always find an audience.

“Get onto some big stories, and just work away,” is the advice she offers. “If you have a good story, you will sell that story.”

 

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