As the H1N1 pandemic emerged in the spring of 2009, many media organizations — both commercial and non-profit — were facing immense financial pressures. “Unpopular Science,” an article that appeared in The Nation last summer, argues that the economic crisis of journalism threatens the quantity and quality of science and health coverage.
It’s no secret the newspaper industry is hemorrhaging staff writers and slashing coverage as its business model collapses in the face of declining readership and advertising revenues. But less recognized is how this trend is killing off a breed of journalistic specialists that we need now more than ever–science writers…who are uniquely trained for the most difficult stories, those with a complex technical component that are nevertheless critical to politics and society… [E]ven in places where you’d expect it to hold out the longest, science journalism is declining.
Does this argument extend to public media? Public radio and television have long prided themselves on providing science and health reporting that contains substance – not the gee-whiz info-tainment reporting that pervades commercial media. But public media has not been immune to the economic downturn. National producers and local stations alike have been forced to cut staff and reduce spending. But is this hurting our science and health coverage?
Bill Hammack is a professor of engineering at the University of Illinois and a frequent public radio contributor – both at his local station WILL in Urbana, and to national programs like Marketplace. Hammack agrees that fewer dollars to go around has the potential to lessen science and health coverage. “I see the Nation article as pretty accurate. It’s a case of hard numbers. There’s often only one science reporter at any news organization. If that position gets cut – there goes your science coverage.”
But Hammack doesn’t see it happening yet, and thinks public media science and health reporting will weather the economic storm. He points to the continued commitment from NPR to an active and robust science desk as well as audience demand for — and interest in — scientific news and ideas. It’s much harder to cut programming the audience values. “Public radio and television audiences value reflection and analysis. They desire context. That’s exactly why science reporting by public broadcasters is so strong when compared to commercial media.”
Connie Walker, the General Manager at WUNC in Chapel Hill, is also cautiously optimistic for public media science and health reporting. Walker mentioned that loyal listener support during the recession is a public media positive that commercial media can’t share in. “Corporate underwriting is down here, but our listeners have really showed great support during our pledge drives.”
WUNC has a full time health reporter on staff and, until recently, the position was funded by a foundation grant. When the economy went south, the funding was pulled and the station had a decision to make. WUNC kept the health reporter position and folded the cost into their general operating budget.
Walker says, “We maintained the science coverage because we feel it is a valuable part of our service and something our listeners have come to expect.” WUNC’s listening area includes a number of universities in the Research Triangle region of North Carolina. “We not only have an audience that is interested in science, but also local stories to cover.”
Although the station has been able to maintain its science coverage, it hasn’t been easy. Due to general budgetary pressures, the station has deferred filling a number of open positions and had to trim overall spending. Walker says, “We’re more fortunate than most, but the staff is feeling it. We’re asking them to do more with less.”
Have you noticed any decrease in the quality or quantity of public media science and health coverage? Does it remain a part of your station’s local coverage? Let us know in the comments.