Lost In Space
On a chilly December day in 1997, more than 2,000 metres below the surface of the earth, a story was taking shape in Stephen Strauss' mind
The Globe and Mail‘s veteran science reporter–a tall, burly, balding man with green/grey eyes and greying hair that stands straight off his head was at the bottom of Inco’s Creighton Mine near Sudbury, Ontario. His mind was filled with the day’s experiences: the four_minute, ear_popping elevator ride straight down (a distance equivalent to five stacked CN Towers), followed by a 15 minute walk through a dusty, grimy, 41_C mine shaft before arriving at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) site, where Strauss washed and changed into a clean outfit and hat before entering the scrupulously clean observatory.
Strauss was there to chronicle the near_completion of a $70 million scientific instrument designed to detect and determine the mass of subatomic particles called neutrinos. When SNO begins to produce data in early 1999, scientists may finally learn whether neutrinos make up a portion of the universe’s “dark matter” the undetectable matter which accounts for roughly 90 percent of the universe. In tracking the story, Strauss had accumulated a massive amount of information about the project, most of it articles and faxes filed in a battered and overflowing folder in his cluttered cubicle at the Globe. And now, and seven interviews at his disposal, Strauss was ready to write his article about the plan to count “atomic ghosts.”
The result was a finely crafted, 37_inch feature. It’s classic Strauss: intimidating passages about fusion taking place within a stellar core are tempered by descriptions of “teeny_tiny” neutrinos. Through creative, clear and compelling writing, Strauss was able to add context and give his readers an accurate sense of the significance of the research being done–the hallmark of great scientific journalism.
But work like his is a rarity. While Strauss and a small group of other dedicated science journalists in Canada produce articles rich with detail, context and style, there simply aren’t enough of them working at Canadian daily newspapers: according to Matthew’s Media Directories, only 37 science writers and editors work at Canada’s 108 dailies, amounting to only three per cent of all editorial staff. At a time when science plays a crucial role in many stories from the decline in fish stocks on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to the effects of ozone depletion over the Arctic, from the use of genetically engineered crops in the Prairies to the climatic upheaval affecting all of Canada the coverage of science in most Canadian dailies remains inadequate.
It’s also error prone; while research on error rates is hard to come by, those working in and studying science journalism doubt that much has changed since a 1974 study in Journalism Quarterly reported that only 8.8% of science articles were found to be error free, compared to a 40.1% to 59.5% error free rate in general news stories. These errors included the omission of relevant material, quotations being used out of context, and no linkage or continuity shown to previous work. That’s bad news in more than just the most obvious sense, since more than half of all Canadians get their science information from newspapers. So why aren’t Canada’s dailies doing a better job at covering science?
Think back to the last time a political story made the front page of the daily newspaper you read. It’s not much of a stretch, right? Or something about business? Okay, now, what about the last time you read a front_page story about science–excluding medicine, since it constitutes its own category of journalism. Can you come up with five?
Sure, Dolly leaps to mind, and the Mars Pathfinder mission, and there’s a good chance that you’ve read about El NiÒo, but if you stalled out there, you’re not alone. It’s hard to find science anywhere in a Canadian daily, much less on the front page. And when you do find it, more likely than not it’s a two_inch blurb pulled off the wire, headlined “breakthrough.” “If you did a study of North American science coverage headlines, that’s probably the single word you would find most often in headlines on science stories, because that always galvanizes somebody’s attention,” says Chris Dornan, the director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. A restless, almost frenetic man with nearly black hair and an easy grin, Dornan did his doctoral thesis on the academic view of science in the media. “But if that’s all you get, you get a skewed portrait of science. You get a portrait of science as inexorably progressing, just cracking problems one by one.”
“Science presents journalism with a problem, because journalism would like science to be about discovery. But it’s also about process,” says the Globe‘s Strauss. “It’s hard to fit into the temporal mentality of newspapers.” So what happens is this: if an assignment editor picks up a science story on the wire, the task of writing the story usually falls to a staff reporter. In a few hours, this staff writer (who probably has spent the last couple of years covering a mix of local beats) is suddenly faced with a field that is completely foreign to him. He reads the wire copy, calls the University of Toronto for a quote from someone, anyone, and distils it all into a few inches of copy. All too often, it’s “gee_whiz” coverage, which fails to include adequate explanations, oversimplifies complex concepts, and completely bypasses discussions of the implications or importance of that discovery. While the writer may have the best of intentions, the result is often as thin as the paper it’s printed on.
What a science writer can provide is the experience to handle science stories with depth. This doesn’t mean a boring story: in fact, science writers are arguably some of the most skilled writers at papers, because they have to turn complex material into a story that is interesting, accurate and accessible to readers. Shelley Page was the science writer for The Ottawa Citizen from 1990 until 1995. Known for her exhaustively researched profiles that revealed the human side of scientists, Page has won the respect of her colleagues, as well as a 1993 Science in Society Journalism Award for her profile of Alan Hildebrand, the Canadian geologist who discovered a 65_million_year_old impact crater beneath Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, made by a meteorite that may have wiped out the dinosaurs. Despite the pressure of a daily’s deadlines, Page was determined to document the process of discovery, and after reading through his scientific articles, she spent hours interviewing the reticent Hildebrand. “I can’t think of better training to be a good journalist than being a science reporter, because that’s the one beat area where you can’t go in and fly by the seat of your pants,” says Page, pointing to the hours she spent poring over dense, jargon_heavy scientific papers while researching science stories. “You’ll blow the interview, and you won’t be able to write a story that anyone will ever understand.”
That total immersion is common among science writers. The Globe is Stephen Strauss keeps his edge by reading journals, other newspapers and seeking out up_to_date information on the web. He doesn’t have a science education–he studied history, political science and law–but like most good science reporters, his desk is cluttered with textbooks, scientific journals and popular science magazines. And he tackles science news gathering using techniques that might make reporters on other beats cringe like double_checking quotes with a source. “Science is different,” says Strauss, “because if someone has misstated something about their research or someone else’s research, you’re not interested in the misstatement. You want the second thought. It’s better, it’s more accurate. So you end up with a different modus operandi.”
But even at the newspaper with the best science coverage in the country, at least one editor believes science still gets short shrift. “We don’t have an applied technology reporter,” says Jerry Johnson, editor of the Globe‘s now_defunct Middle Kingdom section. “We don’t have a news reporter dedicated to computers.” While there are positions such as “small business reporter” and “municipal affairs specialist,” science reporters typically cover all science from astrophysics to zoology–and that’s if there’s a science reporter at all.
Why the shortage of science reporters? Carleton University’s Dornan says that for most dailies, it’s a question of money. He presents the Montreal Gazette-which doesn’t have even a single science reporter as an example. “The Montreal Gazette is the only English_language daily in Montreal,” says Dornan. “So, it’s basically at saturation readership, they’ve blanketed their available market”. And the costs of a science reporter’s salary, benefits, expenses, travel and resources are too great to justify a beat that would not generate revenue. “It wouldn’t get them anymore readers. Would it bring them any more advertising? No, because there is no natural advertising constituency for science. It’s not like the manufacturers of gas chromatography equipment are going to suddenly start advertising in the Montreal Gazette.” (It’s interesting to note, though, that The New York Times, which publishes the grand old dame of science sections, successfully sells pages of computer and technology advertising around it.)
The Gazette relies instead on wire services for big science stories, and assigns a reporter only if there is a local angle. For example, a research project at McGill will be covered by their universities reporter. “I think it’s better to have a dedicated science reporter, but we do what we can,” says Eva Friede, editor of the Gazette‘s weekly science page. “As editors, we always wish we had more reporters, more specialized reporters. It’s a fact of life that there isn’t always the staff to do what we want done…but we try to cover what’s happening in the city, either with a reporter who’s beat includes that field or just anybody who’s available.”
“If science was sort of local, in that regard, if people cared about their science in Montreal, then you might get more robust science coverage, but science is not that type of enterprise,” says Dornan. “As well, if science were more political in nature, then you might get more robust science coverage, but scientists don t see their work as political in that regard–they see it as precisely apolitical.” Political reporting has prominence because of historical precedent, but also because it’s about power, power that affects people’s lives in a very direct way. “Science actually does impact on people’s lives in many profound ways, but it’s not quite so visible,” says Dornan. “So all of that tends to conspire to make science less prominent in the news agenda.”
The inevitable result is a lower level of scientific literacy among newspaper readers. And while “Which came first science illiteracy or lousy science reporting?” has a “chicken or egg” ring to it, newspaper publishers have to take some responsibility for the problem. A national science literacy survey done in 1995 for The Discovery Channel reported that for 55 percent of Canadians, newspapers were the primary source of scientific information. The same survey reported that 58 percent of Canadians still believe that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. (Despite what you see on The Flintstones, Homo sapiens never walked the earth with dinosaurs, let alone used them as lawn mowers.) “Science journalists have done themselves and the Canadian public no great favours by always assuming, Well, I can’t go back and explain some of this,'” says Peter Calamai, an Ottawa_based writer, editor and visiting associate professor at Carleton University. With a heavy emphasis, he adds, “Yes, you can.”
Calamai, who has spent more than 30 years writing for Canadian papers, is convinced that science literacy must be improved amongst both readers and reporters. “We’re graduating people from schools who are basically ignorant. They know less than a well_educated person in the Victorian times did about science–and most of what they know is wrong.” It’s not because they don’t think science is important: one study found that more than 80 percent of Canadians over 15 thought being informed about science was important. But clearly it’s not all that important at many journalism schools: Calamai points to a 1992 Impact Group study of the number of courses offered at Canadian journalism schools. Law and politics top the list. At the very bottom are science, environment and technology. And so we end up with scientifically_illiterate general reporters writing for a scientifically_illiterate audience–all at a time when science is getting more complex, and its impact has spread to all aspects of our lives.
On December 17, 1997, dailies across Canada ran short wire stories about a popular Japanese cartoon featuring bright flashing explosions that had triggered seizures in hundreds of young children. “Cartoon yanked after it gives kids seizures” read the Associated Press wire story when it appeared in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. The Montreal Gazette, the Ottawa Citizen and the Toronto Star ran virtually identical versions of the AP story, while the Globe ran a tiny Reuters story near the back of the front section.
Around 1 p.m. on the 18th, Stephen Strauss was asked to add some context about epilepsy. He called a contact at an epilepsy society in Montreal, who referred him to an expert in Vancouver. Thirty web sites and a medical textbook on photosensitive epilepsy later, Strauss approached the foreign desk to suggest melding his information with the latest wire copy from Tokyo. By 6 p.m., Strauss’s 14 inches of copy was combined with an equivalent amount from an Associated Press writer in Japan.
Along with explaining what can cause photosensitive seizures, Strauss suggested how television or video_induced seizures might be prevented. “Instead of…explosions with a regular ‘bang-bang-bang’ visual beat to them, they should pulse to a pattern that feels something like bang-bang, bang, bang-bang-bang’,” he wrote, practically inviting his readers to tap it out with their fingertips. By translating the multi-syllabic, intimidating language of science into something interesting and understandable, a dedicated science reporter brought the hidden science story to light. Too bad that kind of writing is still as elusive as a neutrino in a nickel mine.
Nicolle Charbonneau was the Managing Editor, Circulation and Columns Editor for the Spring 1998 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.