Science in the media
When people talk about science writers they most often think about the people who write articles for print; books and magazines and newspapers. But there are other wordsmiths, people who craft ideas and concepts for what is probably the most influential and most pervasive medium of all time, television. And in spite of what the proponents and gurus of new media have to say, the dominant place of television in the media pantheon is unlikely to change much in the near future. Television is still king of the block.
As as independent producer of predominantly science programming, I attend many conferences each year in order to keep current, sell my shows and to get new science programming off the ground. And in the past few years, this is what I have noticed. Science commissioning has fallen off dramatically. Production of programming itself has not fallen off, but science production seems to have.
The thin edge of the science television programming wedge happens in the newsroom. Journalists seek to cover science the same way that they might cover City Hall or political news, but in general there is very little interest to cover science, unless its the spectacle type, tornado devastates the midwest, or NASA launches a new mission to Jupiter. The reason is pretty simple and should come as no surprise. Most journalists have little background in science and see little of interest, unless it anthropomorphized. Put more simply, science stories need to pass the “who cares” test.
If a scientist makes the claim that a great breakthrough in the study of Higgs Bosons has been made, the first thing a journalist would seek to do is find someone who could explain to him or her what the hell a Higgs Boson is and why it is important. This is even before the for cross referencing and verification to make sure that what the first scientist claims to be true is in fact true. The journalist, having very little backing in science is not able to make even the smallest inroad to understanding what the scientist is talking about. This should not be surprising, because science is not the part of the colloquial language. Even common terms like force, energy, gravity are confusing to the science illiterate. These terms are very specifically defined in science and mathematics, but may have multiple and even vague meanings in common parlance.
We seek to anthropomorphize science. And if we cannot then its relevance and importance is questioned. The science itself takes a back seat while the human interest story becomes the primary reason for the story.
In long format science documentaries, most of the commissioning editors, the gatekeepers of programming, cut their chops in television news rooms, and for the most part, come from a journalistic approach, not a scientific one. It means they are long on method and short on science. Their knowledge and understanding of science is generally quite low. They are interested in a primarily ratings and whether the programming will grab viewers. Because the level of understanding of science in journalists and the general population is low, what is considered to be entertaining, interesting or relevant and at the same time is science is also low. And its a trend that seems to be accelerating as all broadcasters discover the cash cow of reality programming, shows where the people and their behavior become the central thrust rather than the science. Shows like Junk Yard Wars, Monster Garages and American Chopper being equated as science programming, while real science and relevant and interesting science is passed over as being too esoteric and boring.
It is very tough to convince people, once they have made up their minds about what something is, but in the case of science and television, it is too important to let pass. Our societal, environmental and social problems have to be solved, if we are to survive the coming years. And education and understanding are the keys. If we abandon television to pure entertainment without content, we abandon an opportunity to change the perception that science is boring, hard to understand and needs to dressed and sugar coated to make it palatable.
Time to shine a light on science programming and take back the night.
One Response to “ Science in the media ”
Add New Comment