Yesterday morning, I caught a great bit on NPR’s On the Media concerning the novelist Audrey Braun (the pen name of the author Deborah Read) and the stunning success she’s had publishing her work with Amazon. She’s not just selling it on Amazon; she chose Amazon as her publisher, in an end-run around the old-media publishers in New York City. On the Media pretends to be critiquing the journalism of others, but I know better: It’s actually practicing great journalism of its own.
When I got a chance to sit down, it occurred to me to look at what OTM has done on science journalism. I was eager to see how they handle science, figuring I could learn something from hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield. (You can tell one from the other because Gladstone is the gracious, charming one, and Garfield is the irreverant, funny one. Actually, charm, humor and irreverance are hallmarks of both hosts, so maybe you’ll need to find some other way to tell them apart.)
So I did a Google date-range search of stories containing the word “science” from 2010 until now. And I was amazed by what I found:
Many of the items referred to political science, or science fiction. Science, it seems, doesn’t often make the cut at OTM.
Gladstone did a piece in May, 2010 on the Interphone study on the relationship between cell phones and cancer. She interviewed one of the study’s authors; a very controversial researcher who has examined and written about the issue; and a reporter who covered the study. She did a useful job of exploring the issues, but the segment was directed more at the study than at the coverage of the study–presumably OTM’s mandate.
Garfield did a nice piece in January, 2011 on the discrediting of the article in The Lancet by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues claiming a link between vaccines and autism. Garfield relied heavily on Seth Mnookin, a first-rate reporter who knows the story and knows his science. That segment addressed the coverage and the reaction–as well as the substance of the story.
I spotted a few other things in the past year-and-a-half or so, but not many. Going back a little further, OTM had a piece in 2009 on Paul Ekman and a television series based on his research and including a character based on him; a 2006 piece taking a critical look at a book on alternative medicine; a 2006 piece on Gary Schwitzer, the dean of health-reporting critics, whose name comes up regularly on the Tracker; and various other pieces.
A search on the site of OTM segments tagged “health-science” on the OTM website was a little more productive. It found 13 such segments in 2009 and 10 in 2008. This led me to reconsider. OTM does five or six segments per show, it seems, which adds up to about 20-25 a month. If it does one science story a month, that’s not too bad. Or is it? If one segment out of 25 is a “health-science” segment, is that enough?
The math here is some of my fuzziest, and I fear OTM will bury me in statistics showing that my math is not only fuzzy, it’s phony.
So, my verdict, based, as it is, on my questionable numbers: OTM could, and should, be doing a little more with science, medicine, and the environment. Newsrooms have long given far more value to political reporting, disaster coverage, and business reporting than to science. So you could argue that OTM is only following the honorable tradition.
But Garfield and Gladstone clearly get it; when they do address science, they generally do it well–not something that can be said of many general-assignment reporters. This is a very good show, and my parochial view is that they should do more coverage of science coverage. If you agree, send them a note.
– Paul Raeburn