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Book Review : Science Writers Under the Microscope

May 16, 1987|LEE DEMBART

Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology by Dorothy Nelkin (Freeman: $16.95)

Dorothy Nelkin writes with great concern and some accuracy about the coverage of science and technology by the press. She is a keen observer of the pitfalls and limitations of daily journalism, so she gets the facts right. Her conclusions are not as good.

Before taking up my present duties, I spent four years as a science writer for this newspaper, during which time I observed many of the things about science in daily journalism--good and bad--that Nelkin reports on. More about them in a moment.

The problem with Nelkin's analysis is that much of it applies to journalism in general and not to science journalism in particular.

"Applying naive standards of objectivity," she writes, "reporters deal with scientific disagreement simply by balancing opposing views, an approach that does little to enhance public understanding of the role of science."

I'm not sure exactly what "naive standards of objectivity" are, but if Nelkin means giving all sides in a controversy a chance to have their say, I call that responsible, not irresponsible.

If she means that good journalism involves not only presenting all sides but also giving the reader enough information and interpretation to assess conflicting claims, she is certainly correct. But that is a criticism that applies to all journalism. Newspapers, like all human institutions, are imperfect.

The observation by Nelkin about naive standards could just as easily be made about political coverage--and, in fact, it frequently is. Perhaps you have heard the same thing said about election campaigns, for example.

Nor does she like the pack journalism aspects of science writing.

"A surprising feature of science journalism is its homogeneity," she writes. "While journalistic reports on science and technology vary in accuracy, depth and detail, most articles on a given subject focus on the same issues, use the same sources of information and interpret the material in similar terms."

What's surprising about that? And how else would she have it?

Newspapers and the people who work on them do share a world view, and, not incidentally, it is the world view shared by their readers. We, all of us, you and I, probably agree on what sorts of things are important and what sorts aren't in trying to understand something. We would generally agree on who an expert is and who an expert isn't.

It has been said that the defining characteristic of a culture is that its members share the same basic world view. Newspapers adopt and mirror the values of the society around them because they are part and parcel of that society.

Nelkin wants to blame newspapers for the failings of the world, which is flattering but unfair. She correctly notes that "for many readers, the only contact with science comes through articles in the tabloids so visible on supermarket shelves," but she does not ask whose fault that is. Is it the fault of newspapers?

She correctly notes that newspapers have short attention spans. They write about something and then they go on to something else.

"Media attention tends to wane after the initial dramatic event," Nelkin writes. But everybody's attention tends to wane after an initial dramatic event.

All of that said, Nelkin has written a very good description of the way science journalism is practiced today. She is right in observing that science writers tend to identify with their subjects and sources more than many other reporters do. Science writers tend to view themselves as part of the high priesthood of science rather than as arm's-length observers of scientists.

"Unaggressive in their reporting and relying on official sources, science journalists present a narrow range of coverage," Nelkin writes. "Many journalists are, in effect, retailing science and technology more than investigating them, identifying with their sources more than challenging them."

A bit harsh, perhaps, but the basic idea is probably right.

Nelkin criticizes science journalists for oversimplifying, which they do. Then again, all journalism--and all writing--requires that something be left out. There isn't space or time enough to tell the whole story about anything.

In short, science journalism is much more like all journalism than it is different from it. The wonder is that a daily newspaper comes out at all and that under the circumstances it is as accurate as it is.

Coverage of science and technology in this country is better than Nelkin would have you believe. Careful and interested readers of newspapers and magazines can keep themselves informed about what's going on in science, what it means and where it's going.

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