Science departments at newspapers everywhere are shrinking. One outlet that aims to help fill the coverage gap is Futurity.org, a new website that lets scientists publish their findings directly to the public. Michael Schoenfeld, Futurity’s co-founder, explains the site’s mission.
BOB GARFIELD: Here’s how laypeople used to find out about a new scientific advancement: A scientist made a discovery. The P.R. department at the scientist’s university issued a press release summarizing the findings. That press release would be mailed to the science reporters of various media outlets. Good science journalists would receive those releases and try to figure out if the story was indeed newsworthy and, if so, then to contextualize the findings, all through the filter of basic journalistic skepticism. Mediocre science journalists would just — rewrite the press release. Of course, all this was way back when media companies could afford to have trained science correspondents. As papers downsize, their science sections are often among the first places to be gutted. This year The Boston Globe earned the dubious honor of being one of the most prominent newspapers to dissolve its science section. In television, CNN did the same last December. In this new environment, where media coverage of science is sparser and sparser and tends to veer more towards the “rewrite the press release” school of reportage, perhaps it’s no surprise that some research universities have decided to bypass journalists altogether. That’s the idea behind Futurity.org, a new website which lets universities release word of their scientific findings directly to the audience, without stopping for a journalistic middleman. We spoke with Mike Schoenfeld, vice-president for public affairs and government relations at Duke University and one of the cofounders of the site. Mike, welcome to the show.
MICHAEL SCHOENFELD: Thank you very much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: I could conduct this interview in two ways, one skeptical and one so grateful, so I'll do both. Let's start with skeptical. [LAUGHS] When we lose the journalism part of the reporting cycle on science, don't we lose the skepticism and the arms-length relationship that we need to trust that which we are reading?
MICHAEL SCHOENFELD: The short answer is yes, of course. That, unfortunately, has happened in all too many ways and in all too many places. What Futurity is doing doesn't diminish the ability of journalists to be skeptical, to be appropriately thorough in vetting the kind of information that comes out of our institutions. It just provides another channel.
BOB GARFIELD: You actually could have given me a third response, which has to do with the dubious quality of some of the science journalism that we're losing. For now, let me just say what I miss on the Futurity website is, you know, a prominent disclaimer that says this is a P.R. newswire, it has not been mediated by anyone like a journalist. It’s direct from the public relations offices of the universities where the science is originating. Couldn't you put that on there, just to make things exquisitely clear?
MICHAEL SCHOENFELD: Well, I think that’s a bit dramatic, if I do say so myself. First of all, the site does say news from leading research universities. Second, I think it’s pretty clear, in both the datelines and in the content as you’re reading this, that this is information that’s coming directly from the source. Most of the content on Futurity comes from the very same people who, until a short time ago, were reporting these stories for the major news media. I daresay that the principal investigators, the researchers, the scholars who are producing this are pretty rigorous themselves before it ever goes out the door.
BOB GARFIELD: The problem, of course, is the circumstances when they aren't, and when some skepticism should taking place, when some eyebrows should be raised. And this mechanism doesn't really provide for that, does it?
MICHAEL SCHOENFELD: Well, what this mechanism does provide is direct access to information. The Internet is the great leveler here, and people have the ability to seek out primary information directly from sources, whether it’s politics or government or history or entertainment or science. So we're offering an opportunity to get access to this information in a convenient, easy-to-use place.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so let me do what I promised and now conduct the second part of the interview, which begins with, thank goodness, because at least, at a very minimum, Futurity does not fall prey to the temptations for oversimplification and overhype that so riddles the mainstream media’s coverage of health and science issues, and has for such a long time. These things are quite straightforward and very few of the “Cancer Cure?” question mark kind of headlines that we've come to expect. So I guess that, in the first instance, is pretty good.
MICHAEL SCHOENFELD: And that is very much a conscious decision. We are not interested in breakthroughs, in miracle cures, in saving the world discovery headlines. That, you can get in much of the news media that covers this. I would hope anybody who is coming to Futurity is also doing the things that you should be doing to become science and research literate. You’re reading Science Times and The New York Times. You are reading Scientific American. You’re listening to Science Friday on NPR. That is absolutely essential to get a full picture. If this is the only place that people get science, then we're in bigger trouble than we think.
BOB GARFIELD: Finally, let's just say that the traditional media’s coverage of science and health issues continues to plummet with the collapse of the media structures that have underwritten this kind of work for a couple of centuries, and Futurity and its like become more and more important, how do you resist the temptation to lead with the sexiest, you know, most populistic stories and, in fact, to exaggerate their importance in exactly the way that the media have for so long?
MICHAEL SCHOENFELD: At one level I would say we should be so lucky to have such influence. But really the more direct answer is that our names are attached to this, our names as research institutions, as creators of new knowledge, as education institutions. That’s a pretty valuable currency for us. So there will always be enough checks and balances, I'm confident, in the process.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, well Mike, thank you very much for joining us.
MICHAEL SCHOENFELD: You’re welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Mike Schoenfeld is one of Futurity’s cofounders and vice-president for public affairs and government relations at Duke University.