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Science journalism: bright future ahead

"There's never been a better time to become a journalist," declared Dianne Lynch, dean of the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, in her talk at a two-day MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellowships symposium last week on the future of science journalism.

Some people might have thought otherwise, given the spate of reports recently about the falling circulation and revenues of newspapers and the resulting staff layoffs and buyouts. But those problems have nothing to do with journalism itself, Lynch said, but only with "the demise of a business model" that's based on "an outdated delivery system."

The news business is changing fast, but it's not going away. In fact, more people than ever are reading about science and technology, but just doing it in different ways--for the most part, online instead of in traditional printed newspapers, Lynch explained.

The symposium, held to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the MIT fellowship program that has become the leading professional program for mid-career science journalists, drew 192 ex-Knight fellows (or Bush fellows, as the program was known in its initial years) and other journalists from around the country and several other nations.

The event also marked another milestone, the impending retirement of the program's director, Boyce Rensberger, after 10 years. He will be replaced in June by Philip Hilts, who teaches science journalism at Boston University. The program was founded by Victor McElheny in 1983.

MIT President Susan Hockfield opened the meeting by stressing the importance of good science communications in this era when people are constantly faced with increasingly complex scientific and technical issues. "We need to help the public make decisions based on fact, not fear," she said. "Without incisive, nuanced writing, we at MIT might as well fold up our solar collectors and go home."

The role of journalists is changing in this evolving media landscape, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. While their role has often been described as that of gatekeepers, the more appropriate role is now that of authenticator--helping readers figure out, from the vast array of sources of information now available, what can be believed and trusted and "where the good stuff is." Comparing science to sports, he said the journalist's role is evolving from that of color commentator to being a referee on the field.

But as much as the means of distribution may change and business models may need to shift accordingly, people's interest in reading authoritative reporting has not diminished, Rosenstiel said. "The problem is not a demand problem," he said. For example, "more people actually read what comes out of The New York Times newsroom" than ever before. Although we are now in a period of transition in terms of how people receive their news and information, "things will work out," he predicted. "There's a golden age of science journalism ahead."

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