Nature abhors a vacuum, and this axiom does not apply merely to physical matter. When social establishments are obliterated, others move in to take their place.
The rapid decline of newspapers in the United States has hit science journalism hard. The Science section — if your newspaper actually had one — never had the same draw as a daily Sports section. Sadly, it also rarely brought in desperately-needed advertisement dollars.
Whereas some blogs are dedicated to covering science, Brumfiel writes, they often exists on the fringes of blogspace, marginalized from the more popular culture of politics, culture, and technology. One has to seek out science blogs. They are far from mainstream.
More importantly, few scientists blog. This is not because scientists are technologically illiterate. The system does not reward scientist-bloggers, but rather scientists who publish well, get cited prodigiously, and receive plentiful grants. Not only may blogging be perceived as a waste of time, scientists are often leery of peers who pump their work too much; they call these people “shameless self-promoters” (SSPs for short).
With science journalists being laid off in droves and scientists themselves not filling in behind, something has to fill the void. Often what is being pulled into this empty space are press-releases.
Now you might wonder what is the difference between news and press-releases. Both have the same style and structure. The chief difference is that the press-release comes from within the organization, and what comes from within is a glowing, uncritical view of facts, their interpretation, and their importance. Press-releases are advertisements disguised as news.
Responding to Nature’s survey of science journalists, one freelance science writer lamented:
Most of the time, the description of the scientific result in a press release is so dumbed down that I cannot find out what the result actually was in the terms of an expert! Instead of dumbing down the science to the level of the general public, we should be trying to educate the public.
What is filling the void is a poor substitute for good science journalism. In a dark, dystopic future, your health news may come directly from big pharma, your environmental news from big oil, and your business news from banks and insurance companies. “News” is taking on a completely new meaning.
If we become unwilling to pay for content and ignore advertisement and pledge-drives, we should not expect scientists to come to the rescue to educate the masses about science. The Fourth Estate is vanishing and we will get what we pay for.