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.

Mediasaurus, prepare for the Mass Extinction Event!

WCSJ London

“There is soon going to be a mass extinction event for the media (as we know it) – it’s triggered by the spreading of online media, and accelerated by the economic recession. Very few media organisations will survive…”

This sobering prognosis was offered by John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American during the
6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London last week.

John Rennie (photo courtesy Yale University)
John Rennie (photo courtesy Yale University)
He added: “Only some very large media organisations and a few really small ones will be able to withstand this mass extinction.”

He then posed the critical question to the several hundred journalists, editors and broadcasters from all over the world: does the rest of us deserve to survive?

He wasn’t so sure – no media organisation, however large or prestigious it may be, and how deep its pockets are, can carry on business as usual amidst this transformative event. In other words, adapt fast – or go the way of the dinosaurs…

It’s probably time for editors to redefine what constitutes science news, he said. “We should move away from the current model of reporting the ‘big paper of the week’.”

Calling such news the ‘low-hanging fruit’, he challenged his peers: “We need to be better than that. Good bloggers can now match us in most of our routine work. So how and where do professional journalists add value?”

We can always depend on Rennie to sum up complex issues in an interesting soundbite or two. My blog post from the previous WCSJ in Melbourne, where he talked (joked) about Vatican condoms and global warming, has drawn consistently high levels of visitor interest since.

Strangely symbolic? WCSJ 2009 delegates were entertained at London's Natural History Museum...around the skeleton of a Diplodocus!
Strangely symbolic? WCSJ 2009 delegates were entertained at London's Natural History Museum...around the skeleton of a Diplodocus!

He didn’t actually use the term ‘mediasaurus’, but clearly his remarks tally with what the American writer Michael Crichton had anticipated as far back as 1993, in a landmark essay titled “Mediasaurus“. In this essay, written for the then newly launched Wired magazine, he prophesied the death of the mass media — specifically the New York Times and the American commercial TV networks.

“To my mind, it is likely that what we now understand as the mass media will be gone within ten years. Vanished, without a trace,” he wrote. Building on his credentials as the author of a best-seller on dinosaurs, Crichton called this endangered beast ‘mediasaurus’.

As later events showed, Crichton foresaw the trend ahead of most people, but didn’t get the timeline right. He was off by a few years — but only a few.

John Rennie is only the seventh editor in chief in the 164-year history of Scientific American magazine. Since his appointment in late 1994, he has been the executive force behind the modernization and reinvigoration of this great publishing institution. So it seems that he is at least trying to prepare his own publication for the coming mass extinction event…

Why can’t researchers just pay the media to cover their work?

WCSJ London
“Why can’t researchers pay media to cover their work?”

This was the question asked by one African editor participating in the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London last week. He raised it during a luncheon session titled ‘Friendship or Friction: How the media relates to the research community’ organised by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

The question was asked in apparent sincerity and seriousness. Since media space/time is limited, and different groups and interests are competing to get in, he reasoned, why can’t research budgets include a legitimate allocation for buying newspaper space or radio/TV air time.

Luckily, good sense prevailed and the suggestion was gently cast aside by the moderator. Participants felt such a practice, if allowed, could seriously distort both the news values of media organisations and their public service brief. Listening to this exchange in the audience, I heaved a sigh of relief.

It’s true that many mainstream media organisations are struggling these days to stay in business. But resorting to selling their column inches or air time to the highest bidder would take them a whole different realm where advertising and public relations set the agenda.

This can cast a long and dubious shadow...
This can cast a long and dubious shadow...
This is the reverse of cheque-book journalism, where some media organisations pay celebrity or other sources for exclusive access to their stories. When development agencies are paying sections of the media to get promotional or favourable stories aired, we must call it ‘cheque-book development’.

In August 2007, I wrote an op ed essay on this concern, titled ‘Cheque-book Development’ Corrupting the Media?. It appeared in several websites, and was later reprinted in newspapers such as Nepali Times. I was reacting to a disturbing trend where development agencies were simply throwing money at the media to gain access for their (supposedly public interest) messages.

I wrote: “As development organisations compete more intensely for external funding, they are increasingly adopting desperate strategies to gain higher media visibility for their names, logos and bosses.

“Communication officers in some leading development and humanitarian organisations have been reduced to publicists. When certain UN agency chiefs tour disaster or conflict zones, their spin doctors precede or follow them. Some top honchos now travel with their own ’embedded journalists’ — all at agency expense.

“In this publicity frenzy, these agencies’ communication products are less and less on the issues they stand for or reforms they passionately advocate. Instead, the printed material, online offerings and video films have become ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.”

Read full essay: ‘Cheque-book Development’ Corrupting the Media?

I have long argued, and shown with results, that there is really no need for productive researchers to pay anything to have their work covered in the media. If all they want is to bring the essence of their analysis, findings and recommendations to the attention of public and policy makers, there are ways they can engage the media without paying. I’ve called this Hitch-hiking with the media.

If on the other hand, researchers or their institutions want ego-massaging, vanity-promoting kind of coverage, the media will be far less likely to provide that for free. Throwing money is then the only way forward, but beware: it’s a slippery slope…

See also:
1 December 2007: Moving images moving research…beyond academic circles
16 December 2007: Teleuse@BOP film launched at GK3 – Interactive Quiz – a novel format to communicate research

Read SciDev.Net’s blog post on the same session

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.”