A history of science journalism

In the current Nature, the special section on science journalism (due to the upcoming World Conference of Science Journalists) includes an essay history of science writing, by Boyce Rensberger.

He traces the origin of the profession to H. G. Wells, and in his description, science writers have certainly had their moments:

In 1904 Adolph Ochs, founder of the modern New York Times, hired the legendary Carr Van Anda as his managing editor. Van Anda may have been the most scientifically astute news executive of the twentieth century. He had studied astronomy and physics at university, wrote science stories and encouraged his reporters to cover science. He stressed the need for accuracy: in an often-quoted anecdote, Van Anda corrected a mathematical error in a lecture of Albert Einstein's that The New York Times was about to print after, of course, checking with Einstein.

That sounds like the kind of story they would tell on the first day of science writing class. For me, the most important connection in the article is that it connects the dots between the environmental movement and the rise of “investigative” science reporting:

The 1970s offered increasing evidence of technology's potentially adverse effects, in part owing to controversies and crises such as the reactor meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. By this time there was no way science journalists could ignore the social and political implications of their topic. And so the next great age of science journalism began the 'Watchdog Age' as science reporters became much more like their colleagues in other parts of the newsroom.
The quantity of science journalism boomed too, starting with the birth of a science section in The New York Times in 1978. By the boom's peak in 1987, according to one count, some 147 newspapers had at least a weekly science page, and four new popular-science magazines had joined the venerable Scientific American and Science News. Sadly, this upturn was short-lived.

I doubt the value of a “Science Section” – I think it ghettoizes the science, generally in an attempt to drive subscriptions and defend editorial turf.

It is easy to forget that before this “golden age” of science reporting, big science (namely, NASA launches and before them other exploration) was covered on television and radio by mainstream news anchors, and science stories frontpaged national news magazines. Nowadays, that still happens but in a trivial, notably non-exciting way – particularly for the never-changing nuggets of “health reporting”. How many times do we need Robert Bazell to tell aging people to watch their cholesterol? It’s not exactly Walter Cronkite and the moon landing.