Tabloid science maybe imperfect, but it’s still better than no science coverge!

WCSJ London

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.

L to R: Paul Sutherland, space correspondent of The Sun, UK; Christina Scott, radio and web journalist, South Africa; David Derbyshire, Environment editor, The Daily Mail, UK; Nalaka Gunawardene, Director/CEO, TVE Asia Pacific

L to R: Paul Sutherland, space correspondent of The Sun, UK; Christina Scott, radio and web journalist, South Africa; David Derbyshire, Environment editor, The Daily Mail, UK; Nalaka Gunawardene, Director/CEO, TVE Asia Pacific

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.

Television science: aspiration or reality?

Television science: aspiration or reality?

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.

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24/7 TV Deficit: When more (channels) gives us less (news)…

WCSJ London

When Cable News Network – or CNN – was launched in June 1980, it became the first network to provide 24-hour television news coverage, and the first all-news television network in the United States. Most people didn’t believe it would last for long, for they could hardly believe that there was enough news to fill all hours of the day and night.

They had reasons to be skeptical: at the time all major TV channels and networks in North America, Europe and elsewhere carried an hour or two of well-packaged and well-presented news bulletins per day. Viewers looked forward to these bulletins, when able and amiable anchors like Walter Cronkite – ‘the most trusted man in America’ – entered their living rooms for an update and reflection on the day’s events. A leader had to be assassinated or men had to walk on the Moon for this routine to be broken…

CNN founder Ted Turner changed all that. He proved the skeptics wrong, and blazed a new trail in broadcast journalism. In his wake, dozens and now hundreds of all-news channels have emerged, providing a cacophony of coverage and punditry as never before seen.

Saturated with news on TV? Reach out for this relief!

Saturated with news on TV? Reach out for this relief!

One of the early, unofficial expansions of CNN was ‘covering news needlessly’. This was sometimes necessary to fill 24 hours a day (or 1,440 minutes) and 7 days a week (or 168 hours). The channels say repetition is meant to give the chance for any viewer to catch up on the news whatever time she tunes in. But the question remains: is there so much news to fill not only 24/7 but hundreds of such channels?

The answer is both yes – and no. It all depends on the definition of news, and what each channel considers to be in the public interest. We won’t get into that big debate here. But the fact remains that, at least where the numerous all-news channels in Asia are concerned, they often struggle to fill their air time – and not always very successfully.

And do we have an abundance of such channels. India alone now has more than 60 all-news channels catering to a billion+ audience in dozens of languages…and more keep popping up. Elsewhere in countries such as the Philippines, Pakistan and Thailand, there have been similar channel explosions in recent years. This is partly triggered by media liberalisation which allowed local and foreign private companies to enter the broadcast sector that earlier remained a state monopoly.

Aryn Baker of TIME

Aryn Baker of TIME

But more channels has not necessarily meant better coverage of news. There was a perceptive observation by Time magazine’s Aryn Baker in a recent essay she wrote in June 2009 about the state of Pakistan’s media. In her essay titled Casualty of War, she noted: “In 2002, the then President, General Pervez Musharraf, permitted private TV stations to broadcast news instead of just the state-owned Pakistan Television Corp. At the time, Musharraf’s deregulation was hailed as a significant step for the nascent free-press movement; indeed, today there are more than 30 nongovernment TV stations in the country. As TV stations proliferated, I argued that increased competition would force the emergence of a strong, ethical and responsible media corps. But there simply aren’t enough well-trained and -informed local journalists to supply the dramatically greater number of media outlets. I also assumed that consumers would gravitate toward truth. Instead the bulk of readers and viewers seem comfortable with sensationalism and xenophobia — as reflected by an April poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan revealing that 76% of Pakistanis “believe Pakistani media [are] unbiased to a great or somewhat extent.” In other words, Pakistanis like their media the way they are.

Baker cites examples where the print and broadcast media in Pakistan regularly rumour and peddle conspiracy theories as news. She ends with a strong plea: “Pakistan’s press needs to take a hard look at itself and its level of professionalism. Only then will it live up to its potential, and only then will Pakistan get the media it deserves.”

Shooting the news...

Shooting the news...

I couldn’t agree more. Having cheered the collapse of state broadcasting monopolies across Asia in the 1990s, I have very much felt the same way about news channels across the region (here I’m talking about the English language channels only, which are outnumbered in most markets by local language channels). While there are a few news channels that stand above the rest, a majority would come close to what Aryn Baker describes for Pakistan.

Speaking at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London in early July, I called this the ’24/7 TV Deficit’ in Asia’s broadcast media. In summary, it is this: In the developed world, all-news channels like CNN evolved over time, building capacity and experience along the way. In emerging Asia, news channel explosion hasn’t allowed time for such evolution – so skills and resources are spread too thin. There are genuine limitations of competence and capacity. Sometimes this leads to sensationalism or distortion.

I said: “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.”