One of the frustrations of working in journalism is the perception that content has to be dumbed down or no one will be interested. That the “public” is an attention-deficit riddled entity incapable of reading more than 140 characters at a time or tuning into a show that requires cognitive ability.
Sure, some of the most frightening mirrors of human shortcomings get huge ratings, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an appetite for intelligent programming and storytelling.
Traditional media sometimes seem to have a hard time grasping this, but scientists like Dr. Craig McClain don’t. Just check out his Deep Sea News blog. McClain blogs because he wasn’t seeing the types of stories he thought were interesting reflected in mainstream media, and he thought people might want to know about things other than whether chocolate or wine were good for you.
I contacted McClain because I’m in the midst of working on a presentation about the CBC’s relationship with UTSC (University of Toronto) on the Geologic Journey II website, a site hosted by CBC. The presentation is based on a paper I published in Media Watch.
The Geologic Journey II website showcased a CBC documentary series on the earth’s development: things like volcanoes, tectonic shifts, and other cool research with a somewhat doomsday edge. It also featured the Twitter feeds of scientists doing geologic research across the globe, and blogs of researchers at UTSC.
It was a great example of how scientific work that often only finds its way to academic journals can be showcased for a broader audience—an audience that can then interact with the content and further expand public discourse in the public sphere. And it’s also a perfect example of publicly funded television making the most of free, original material created outside the network.
When I started to put my presentation together, however, I discovered Geologic Journey II is no longer accessible on CBC’s website (although if you dig you can find the series). When I contacted one of the participants in my thesis research I was told there isn’t enough funding to support a staff that can manage new and archival material. And even worse, there’s no future plans for a project like this or the type of interactive apps created for the recently aired Wild Canada series.
While ruminating on what this might mean for future science/journalist participatory relationships, I stumbled across an article on McClain’s scientific social media outreach. I thought he might be an interesting person to talk to about partnerships between media and scientists that could expand discourse in the public sphere.
But here’s the thing–in a very humble and apologetic manner, when I talked to McClain he said, “I don’t need journalists.”
His site gets half a million hits a month and he has complete control over content. He can ignore and disrupt the theory that, as he eloquently stated,
“The best story of all would be chocolate dinosaurs having sex during climate change—you have a real winner there.”
My initial response, besides the ping that goes off in your brain when you’ve been handed a fantastic quote, is that if scientists don’t need journalists my research on participatory journalism within the science community was pretty much nullified.
But as McClain acknowledged, you can’t just write a blog and expect people to read it. There’s marketing required, technical savvy, and the ability to write about complicated material in a way that can be easily digested.
You don’t wake up one morning and get the number of hits CBC’s website does. McClain’s blog is successful and a great read bursting with interesting information, but not every scientist is gathering that kind of attention to his or her work. And for every site the quality of Deep Sea News, there are countless others spreading incorrect information.
And as I pointed out to McClain, I actually discovered his blog through the archaic method of reading the newspaper. He agreed that traditional media do help spread his findings (he often builds relationships with them through Twitter). In fact, four journalists were coming out with articles about his work on the same day his latest paper was scheduled to be released. Although mainstream coverage doesn’t make or break dissemination, it does have an impact.
Most importantly, McClain recognized that his work isn’t journalism. He isn’t investigating all angles of a story. He’s being a “cheerleader” for science. So what does this mean for journalism on a wider scale?
Perhaps that instead of assuming we know what people are interested in, we should focus on capturing interesting stories. And for CBC, cutting resources that affect websites like Geologic Journey II is a missed opportunity to build relationships in the science community, improve public discourse, and provide Canadians with a space they can easily access trusted material.