Raised on popular culture, I have always been an admirer of tabloid journalism – which means using popular formats to reach out to a mass audience in newspapers or broadcasting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this: we might even argue that the tabloid approach is the only way to achieve truly mass media (with all else being niche media reaching to smaller demographic groups).
So I was delighted to be on a panel with two leading British tabloid journalists and a popular radio host from South Africa during the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London from June 30 – July 2, 2009.
We had to address this question: Does science coverage in the media need to be highbrow?
My own, personal answer is NO — it need not be! And I’ve spent a good part of my two decades of work in the media experimenting and showing that communicating science can be fun — both for us communicators and our audiences.
But I pointed out that science is still being covered in sections of Asian media in the more traditional, classical way, just like science itself is still an elitist pursuit in many of our societies.
I said: “We might call this coverage ‘broadsheet approach’ in print; or ‘bluechip documentary’ format on television. And they are both unsustainable! They are also endangered in these hard times for the mainstream media in most economies.
“So going the tabloid path is a practical and pragmatic way to deliver science stories and science information to a mass audience or readership. We’re doing it in different ways in the Asian media!”
In my remarks, I gave some examples where science is jazzed up (rather than dumbed down) for popular consumption on Asian television. For example, how solar and lunar eclipses provide fodder for endless stories on our numerous news channels. Such coverage, fleeting and superficial as it might often be, takes the wonders of science and Nature to more people than anyone else can.
I argued that the path to the mass audiences in Asia is through news, sports and entertainment programming. We have our own niche, factual channels – Discovery, National Geographic, Animal Planet and their local equivalents. They have a loyal but small audience. They do excellent work. But where numbers are concerned, they cannot – yet! – compete with the outreach and appeal of broadcast radio, TV and newspapers. Neither can the online and mobile media, even though their outreach is growing fast.
Things don’t always go right, however. Doing wall-to-wall coverage of news demands producers and reporters to tackle a variety of topics and subjects — including specialised science stories. Some handle this better than others. In their race for ratings and revenue, a few ‘dress up’ the stories a bit too much.A good example was how some Indian news channels handled the so-called ‘Big Bang experiment’ in September 2008, when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was commissioned. The mega-science experiment was interesting in its own right, but it wasn’t apparently exciting enough for at least two channels — Aaj Tak and India TV. Their coverage running up to the event speculated about its “catastrophic effect on the world” – effectively end of the world.
Their coverage caused panic, which led to at least one attributable death. This prompted the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to caution the channels for spreading “misinformation, fear and horror” among viewers. It advised the channels to exercise restraint in presenting such issues.
I call this the ’24/7 TV Deficit’ in Asian broadcasting. The long term response to this is to invest in training and capacity building of journalists and producers already working in the media. For the most part, they learn on the job, making mistakes on the air. This is far from ideal.
Here’s how I summed up: ‘Tabloid science coverage’ – in print or broadcast – may be imperfect in some ways. But our choice is either that, or nothing. Our challenge is to make the process and product better as we go along.
We urgently need to unleash scientific knowledge and understanding in matters of public interest and public policy. We can’t afford the ALL or NOTHING approach.