Science and the popular press have never been the best of friends – yet babbler-extraordinaire Russ Swan thinks all that is changing. But are red-tops really becoming our best advocates?
Have you seen the papers lately? More specifically, have you noticed anything about the coverage of science in the newspapers lately? It seems to me that something quite extraordinary is going on, with the best coverage now to be found in the mass-market papers rather than the so-called quality press.
Now, I can’t claim to have done a double-blind statistical assessment of the quality and quantity of coverage, but I did spend a good part of a week looking at daily newspapers in a bit more depth than my normal casual skimming. There was a time, not that many years ago, that I made a point of reading several newspapers each day. That all seems a little quaint now, and it was a bit of a trip down memory lane to hear the rustle of paper and feel the ink on my fingers.
In the old days we could be sure of a couple of things. The posh papers had big pages, lots of words, and more intelligent coverage of issues of interest to the more educated reader. The tabloids had smaller pages, big pictures, and mostly didn’t cover anything more technical than the offside rule.
This, despite the fact that they obviously employed a lot of technically-competent people. All those mobile phones and email accounts didn’t hack themselves, after all.
Page size is no longer a reliable guide to the quality of a newspaper’s content, since most of what used to be called broadsheets reformatted themselves into smaller packages. Where once we had tabloids and broadsheets, today the distinction is between the red-tops and the broadloids. And here’s the shock: I reckon the science coverage is better in the red-tops.
Taking a day at random, and the UK’s best-selling paper, I counted seven stories with a scientific element, including a two-pager on that perennial favourite, the end of the world. Coverage wasn’t exactly in-depth, mind you, nor was it free from silly errors. The dreaded phrase “scientists say” appeared three times, along with other passive-aggressive scientific catchphrases – like ‘invisible nano-dust’, and ‘spawn tiny black holes’, while the classic silicon/silicone confusion was also to be seen.
For a newspaper that takes an obsessive interest in women’s anatomy, you might think they would know the difference between the stuff that goes into semiconductors and the stuff that inflates their models’ outlines.
Over in the posh papers, such carelessness would be welcomed if only it meant that areas of science got some coverage. Compared to the handful of (admittedly short) news items and the occasional doom-watch spread, the quality papers seems to have turned their back on us altogether.
The one notable exception, in the week under consideration, was coverage of the conjunction of planets which had delighted so many people (who were probably more surprised to have had clear skies over the UK in March than anything else). So how did the poshest of posh papers cover the story? By describing – both in headline and text – the scientists most interested in the phenomenon as ‘astrologists’.
I don’t know about you, but I find it a great deal more depressing when a science correspondent on a ‘quality’ paper doesn’t understand the difference between science and superstition, than when a writer on a red-top confuses a couple of sound-alike chemicals.
The real question is this: why have the ‘quality’ papers practically abandoned their coverage of science, while the mass-market papers have improved theirs? I think I might know.
The posh papers are increasingly put together by posh people, rather than the hardbitten journalists of yesteryear. At the risk of a huge generalisation, posh people who go into the newspaper business are not much interested in science, but are very interested in fashion, business, and the arts. They create their newspapers for what they refer to as ‘PLUs’ (people like us), and obviously that means placing more emphasis on the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) than the RSC (Royal Society of Chemistry).
The ‘bloids, however, exist only to sell in great numbers. They are called the popular papers because they are popular, outselling the quality papers by a vast margin. They do this by providing the news that interests their readers, rather than what they think their readers ought to be interested in. And, it would seem, people like to read about science.
I never thought I’d say it, but I think the red-tops are currently making all the running in science coverage. That coverage may be shallow, and it may be sensational, but at least it exists.
By Russ Swan