Informed reporters an endangered species

I have seen a couple of blog posts lately grousing that the "mainstream media" is choosing not to cover this or that event or development, as if to suggest that a conspiracy is afoot to keep people in the dark on a particular topic.

As a staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, I am a member of the mainstream media, and I wonder if people have a good sense of what's happening in our industry. Ad revenues have been dropping, mostly as a result of services available on the Internet, and hordes of writers and editors have been bought out or laid off in recent years.

Fewer bodies mean less time per project -- less time to learn about a new topic, and often no time to take on a tough topic.

Just for example, I have seen complaints that many important aspects of childbirth, the topic I address here in Birth Story, don't get the attention they deserve in the media. I couldn't agree more, but I also know that a good airing of the issues would require a depth on the bench that simply isn't there at most media outlets right now.

The Tuesday Science section of the New York Times is one of the rare dedicated sections left that cover science and health. Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Times, said she has noticed that that section addresses health topics more than science ones these days, in a story posted by Mallary Jean Tenore on the Poynter Institute's website.

Readers appear to want stories that relate directly to their own lives, said Angier, who has written a number of science books, including Woman: An Intimate Geography. Her latest is The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.

"One of the things I try to do when writing about science is make it seem like it's part of your life already by making things into characters and protagonists, even if they're just molecules," she said.

Charles Petit, chief tracker for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, agrees that strong articles on science topics are becoming scarce.

While such issues as stem cell research and global warming still appear on newspapers' front pages, they are less likely to be written by reporters who have a solid understanding of those topics. So the stories are superficial, and readers don't get what they need to understand them, Petit told Tenore.

Even scientists are worried about this trend. In a Pew Research Center study published last year, nearly half of scientists polled said oversimplification of scientific findings in the media is a major problem. A whopping 85% of scientists said that the public’s lack of scientific knowledge is a major problem for science.