Science. Communication. Community.
What will a veteran science journalist do after leaving TV to join a university, and how does he think the field has — or hasn’t — changed?
Science journalism pioneer Robert Bazell is going back to school. After 38 years as the chief science and health correspondent for NBC News, Bazell in March announced that he was leaving the network to join Yale University as an adjunct professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology. Since I’ve spent this summer writing at Yale’s School of Medicine, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to speak to Bazell about science, science journalism, and what he’ll be doing in New Haven once the semester starts. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
AA: Let’s go back in time. You got your start in both science and journalism at UC Berkeley (which incidentally was also the case for me).
RB: I was getting a PhD at Berkeley in immunology, and wrote a science column for The Daily Californian as a grad student. I passed my orals, but then I had an opportunity to go to the news and comment section at Science magazine, which was small then. I covered the executive branch and Capitol Hill. After that I worked at the New York Post, and when NBC was looking for someone with both a science and journalism background, I fit the bill.
AA: What will you be doing now, as a member of the Yale faculty?
RB: The main thing I’ll be doing at Yale is setting up a program where we teach and coach postdocs to communicate more effectively with non-science audiences: the public, funders, or venture capitalists. This program will be part of the Center for Scientific Teaching, and the workshops will start in the fall. I’ll also be teaching an undergraduate seminar on the politics of cancer. I didn’t want to teach journalism, and Yale doesn’t have a journalism school so that was attractive, and I can’t teach immunology or biology because I don’t remember anything!
AA: From your prolific career at NBC, what stories stuck with you?
RB: I did more than 4,500 stories for NBC. I spent a lot of time covering AIDS, before it even had a name. That shook everybody to their very foundations, and changed people’s relationships to disease, sexuality, drugs. It was a tragedy with so many nuances. More recently I was privileged to be with the medical corps in Iraq. I had never been in a war before and it makes you look at the world in a different way.
AA: How do you feel about the visibility of science and health news today, and has there been a decline?
RB: I don’t think there’s been a decline, but people get what they want, and what they pay for. The Discovery Channel on TV started out as covering more science but now does other things as well. There is an audience who will watch NOVA but that audience isn’t big enough to sustain it for commercial television. Audiences are fragmented. Plenty of young people still want to go into science, even if they’re not watching it on TV.
AA: How do you avoid rhetoric and still do a story justice?
RB: To the extent that anyone is successful in journalism, how you balance this is one measure. For example, people have an irrational fear of radiation. Fukushima was a terrible disaster of engineering, but the only people who have been harmed were workers in the plant. And yes, there are increased cancer risks, but nothing gigantic. But radiation monitors went off in San Diego, and people started buying iodine. People don’t understand risk, and conveying risk is extremely difficult. The new MERS virus, how scary is that? It kills half of those it infects, but we don’t know where it comes from. It was the same thing with H1N1 swine flu, back in 2009. There’s no simple answer to how worried people should be, or how we can communicate risk effectively.
AA: What, if anything, has changed in the way science and health stories are covered in the news?
RB: There hasn’t been an enormous shift. What has grown is the scientific enterprise, especially biomedical. What the public wants may have changed. A small part of the population wants very intellectual science journalism, and you get that from magazines like Scientific American and Nautilus, where I’m on the board of advisors. So there’s a small market for high level stuff. Popular media tends to be more about health than science – have we cured cancer yet, the occasional scandal, or drug company misbehavior.
I’ve thought about it quite a lot, and looked at the history of the coverage of cancer over the years. There’s been responsible reporting, but mostly on breakthroughs, and military metaphors are common (“the war on cancer”). There’s an ebb and a flow. Progress in genetics and the ability to find genes linked to diseases was big news for a while, especially with the discovery of BRCA1 and 2, the genes for breast cancer. That of course didn’t tell us the whole story, and didn’t solve the cancer problem. Progress takes a long time – the tuberculosis bacillus was found but it took many decades for a treatment and vaccine.
There’s a quote, attributed to A.J. Liebling, that there are only two kinds of news stories: “Isn’t it wonderful!” or “Isn’t it awful!” It’s a very cynical way to look at it. But editors love outrage, or hope. It’s a good way to sell.
AA: What is the outlook for those coming into science journalism from graduate school science backgrounds, like the AAAS Mass Media Fellows?
RB: There’s a lot of pressure on science now, with few academic positions, which is why so many people want to make the switch. But journalism is also changing, so it’s not an easy time. You’re going from one profession with problems to another with problems. There’s no common theme or one right way to move over. An outstanding example is Carl Zimmer, a Yale graduate. He’s a terrific writer who got interested in science and now writes for The New York Times. You can come at it from either direction – you don’t need a science background to be a science journalist, but it helps. An analogy is that you don’t need to speak Turkish to be the ambassador to Turkey; you can have an interpreter.
The only way to become a science journalist is to do it. Build up a record online, or in a magazine. Local neighborhood websites are exploding. People care about local stuff, local medical or research facilities, or even stuff bordering on science and health, like their neighborhood garbage pickup and how that’s working. You need to be creative about the possibilities.