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The Knight Science Journalism Program

The Knight Science Journalism program at MIT has several key parts: The full-year Fellowships, the short course workshops (called “boot camps”) in specific subjects, and the blog called the KSJ Tracker.

The nine-month Fellowships have now trained 301 journalists from every continent. Non-U.S. fellows have been appointed since 1984, and now typically comprise half  of each class. Graduates of the program continue to move up, to win prizes (including the Pulitzer), and to extend their work to new levels (including 170 books by the latest count). One former Fellow has headed the “NOVA” public television series since 1984.

The program's second major activity, the short courses on urgent topics launched ten years ago, continue at the rate of three per year, of which two are attended by the nine-month Fellows. Enlisting a large fraction of the leading science journalists, the short courses have trained 318 of them.

A third major activity, reflecting the rapid expansion of Internet journalism, is our five-day-a-week online critique of the latest science stories, called KSJ Tracker. Launched in 2006, the Tracker has commented on the effectiveness and balance of thousands of news stories (usually covered by several journalists from different media). The site attracts about 30,000 “hits’ per month, but more importantly, it has about 10,000 frequent users who work in science and science journalism.

The turmoil in all of journalism, creating a general trend toward multi-media freelancing, has pushed up the demand for training in new skills at MIT and other university mid-career programs for journalists. The MIT Knight Science Journalism program has begun offering multimedia training.

The Knight Science Journalism program, while similar in shape to its sister journalism fellowships at Harvard, Stanford and Michigan, is nevertheless an institution that is unique to MIT, grew directly out of MIT’s post-war history, and was established under the leadership of Carl Kaysen with the backing of two successive Presidents of MIT, Jerome B. Wiesner (1971–80) and Paul E. Gray (1980–90). The program was initially named the Vannevar Bush Fellowships, because it was in the spirit of Bush himself and his vision of science as the engine of progress in society that the program was started.

Working with Kaysen and Gray, Victor McElheny made the case that America’s new-found reliance on science, and the public’s support of that science, make it incumbent upon institutions of science and learning to advance the public understanding of science. What is centrally needed for this understanding is to maintain within journalism a corps of writers who are steeped in the sciences and can effectively follow and report on them.

There are writers who gladly commit themselves to this work, but they are not central characters to journalism, and must struggle to keep following science against the economic and social currents within journalism and journalism institutions. They need professional support. They need confidence, knowledge, and access to sources within science. The Fellowships can be instrumental in cementing the interests of reporters in covering science. At the same time, it is important that those who write about science are independent of science while being dedicated to its understanding. The credibility of the information about science depends on the existence of independent, skilled and knowledgeable journalists.

The funding for the Fellowships has come from Foundations: Sloan and Mellon first, then the bulk of donation from the Knight Foundation. The program was built essentially on the model of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard (where Victor McElheny was a Fellow, and later Phil Hilts was also a Fellow). The idea was to bring professions within the circle of scholarship to keep them up to date on the latest research and thinking, to allow those professionals to think of their work as distinctly linked to the creation and use of knowledge that goes on at universities.

From the beginning, journalism Fellowships like the MIT Knight program have always been established as non-degree programs. The Fellowships are placed in slightly different positions in each university, but all have their own funds and set their own goals while also working within the budget and administrative rules of the institution.

Over the 29 years of the Knight program at MIT, this small program has come to be known around the world and its works have come to exert a far-reaching influence in science journalism. While practices in journalism differ somewhat from culture to culture, essentially all journalists are aware of what the “international standard” is for journalistic work, and in science journalism, the Knight program has had a significant effect in establishing that norm, with leadership of the national and international journalism organizations coming often from former Fellows.

In the U.S., Fellows work at all of the top-tier newspapers, magazines, broadcast outlets and news services. (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, “NOVA”, BBC, CBC, Time, Newsweek, Business Week, and Forbes, among others.)

While the readership of print newspapers and magazines in the U.S. has gone down (while going up abroad), the demand for news, and specifically science and health news, has continued upward. Much of the new demand is now online, and the MIT Knight Program is working to keep science journalists ahead of this curve.

Typically, Fellows audit three to five courses per semester, attend more than 40 required seminars, as well as about two dozen workshop sessions. In addition, they spend a substantial amount of time interviewing researchers and participating in lab work. They also serve as a resource for MIT and other institutions, where they often serve as panelists and speakers on media matters.