Have PIOs Killed the Science Beat?

There’s been a lot written about the decline of science journalism. In trying to find some concrete numbers to illustrate exactly how bad the decline has been, I came across a study that looked at U.S. newspapers with a weekly science section. From 1989 to 2005, the number dropped from 95 to 34. No doubt in 2009 that number is lower.

North Carolina ranks third in the United States in the biotechnology industry. In the Research Triangle Park-area where there are 119 research and development organizations and three major research institutions, there is no longer a full-time science journalist working in the media.

The institutions in the area have begun pushing their own news, becoming media outlets themselves. New media technologies have democratized the process of pushing news to a wide audience, especially a local audience that has a stake in what the institution is doing, the research it’s conducting, and the economic impact it is going to have on an area.

By utilizing cheap and effective new technologies to market, promote, and inform audiences without having to buy ads or pitch local science reporters, has this resulted in killing off the science beat?

I posed this question to a couple of colleagues. Both are former science journalists and now work in media offices at research institutes.

What I learned is that this is a serious chicken or egg issue at work, as my one colleague stated. Science beats are certainly not the only beat being cut from newspaper staff and science PIOs (Public Information Officers) are not the only communicators publishing their own news.

My other colleague said that he has seen his job shift from pitching stories to reporters to not having reporters to whom to pitch. And while he would rather have his news written by professional journalists, his responsibility is to promote the research at his university by whatever means necessary.

While many PIOs (most are former journalists) do a fine job of writing and telling stories, their job is to promote their institutions and their institution’s faculty in a positive light. This does not always provide the news filter that journalists can provide.

But, as for killing off the science beat, don’t blame the PIO.