Science journalism for the uninformed

The discussions about science journalism are heated up these days. With the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists going on in London, many media including Nature (it runs a very nice special), Science and the blogsphere (e.g., here and here) put out columns to discuss the current status and the future of science journalism.

What is science journalism? For me, it obviously indicates that two outlandish professions come together. What is common about science and journalism? Both are of evidence-based (in contrast to ideology- or belief-based) profession that embraces criticism and skepticism. Scientists report findings in research by collecting, analyzing and showing data. Journalists report stories by collecting, interpreting and disseminating facts. How different are these two professions? They play distinct roles in our human society. Scientists discover new knowledge, improve technology and seek hidden truth. Journalists provide information, stimulate public debate and serve as watchdogs. Why do we need science journalism and reporters for science? — two immediate points: to improve the public awareness of science and to provide guidelines for the policy making by governments.

Here in China, science and journalism as formal professions, are still far from mature. If you search "科学新闻" in, you won’t get much back. If you go to science and technology sectors of major web portals like or, you’ll more likely get flooded by information about how to use cell phones. This lack of does not bode well for a country that wants to become more influential. Looking for excuses, people often relies on the point that the Chinese culture does not encourage critical thinking, direct confrontation, vigorous arguments and debates about issues that affect personal and public life. For more important reasons in modern China, the country’s governing power often deliberately prevents citizens (with state-run mechanisms) from monitoring the short-term and long-term government policy that spends taxpayers money and impacts their lives.

New York Times started a dedicated science section ever since 1978 (I am now a daily subscriber to its RSS feed). In 1989, there were 95 newspapers that routinely run science columns (down to 34 in year 2008 because of the emergence of web reporting and the current economic crisis). There are also established science writing programs that provide trainings for future science journalists (for good examples, University of California at Santa Cruz, Boston University, MIT). The World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) has a helpful online training courses in multiple languages including Chinese.

In the developing world, Arab and India have increasing emphasis on science journalism. See this essay in Nature, which describes the current development of science journalism in the Arabic world, in which I see much similarity to the current situation in China: walk along the government line instead of be critical and skeptical because most media are state-owned, lack of English-language skills in communication, lack of PR departments in research institutes and universities that write and disseminate high-quality research news. Also,
as a side note, one of my students is going to Saudi Arabia for graduate study in
biology. We used to see flocks of students going overseas to the United States (still the best destination for graduate students to gain higher education).
Now things are evolving.

China is yet to develop a professional reporting industry (left alone science journalism). I am not aware of any major news outlet that has any serious reporting for science (UPDATE: in earlier this year, a new magazine called Science News starts to publish biweekly. I will be certainly following it). Not in China Daily and not in Shanghai Daily (both are state-owned media in English language). Even if these newspaper publish science reports, most reports are copied from foreign news agencies (most time without even citing the sources) and it is uncommon to find original reports. When you go to any newsstand on the street, you won’t be able to find any magazine that contributes science contents to general public (with exception such Chinese translation of Scientific American). The iconic examples in the US are Scientific American, Discover Magazine, Popular Science, Seed Magazine, National Geographic (China has a cooperative counterpart of NG, which publishes translated articles from NG. In the current July issue, it runs a story about my home city — Chengdu. Great!). All the above news media run professional web contents as well.

In this country where internet contents are systematically filtered and blocked and where TV, radio and newspapers are controlled (by your tax money), there is a dire need to report in a journalistic manner. We’ve witness that science debates fell on deaf ears. Rationales gave way to unjustifiable decisions that ignore hard evidences and scientific data. Notorious examples include disastrous Three Gorge Dam (see this report at Scientific American) and wasteful Shanghai Maglev.