Science Journalism and Television

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SCIENCE JOURNALISM AND TELEVISION. Scientific knowledge and the accomplishments of scientists have long attracted the attention of the media in the United States. Newspapers have described the latest discoveries and chronicled the progress of research; books and magazines have explained scientific concepts and examined the lives of scientists. In interviews broadcast on radio and television, scientists have discussed their current research and commented on science-related ethical and political issues. And on television, science has often been presented as entertainment laced with educational content.


In early American magazines, attention to science reflected ideals of progress and national pride. During the 1790s, articles by botanists, geologists, and explorers sought to satisfy curiosity about the vast North American continent. In the 1800s, a growing cadre of experimentalists and inventors described their discoveries to other interested amateurs; popular articles trumpeted innovative agricultural techniques or explained the medicinal value of certain herbs. By the end of the nineteenth century, literary monthlies like Harper's, Atlantic, and Scribner's, and general-content weeklies like the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's carried increasingly more fore-casts of how advances in research would benefit public health, agriculture, and industry, many written by scientists themselves.

Specialized periodicals like Scientific American (founded in 1845) and National Geographic Magazine (1888) sought to translate science for interested laypeople. Scientific American's focus reflected nineteenth-century interest in invention and technology, while National Geographic tapped Americans' growing fascination with people and places elsewhere in the world. From its first issue in 1872, Popular Science Monthly also promoted the cause of popularizing science, drawing authority from close connections to the scientific community. Its first two editors, Edward L. Youmans and James McKeen Cattell, emphasized the importance of expertise through publication of essays by the greatest scientists of the day.

By the early twentieth century, readers were seeking more practical information—how to operate (and repair) technological innovations, from typewriters and automobiles to radios and electric irons. Periodicals like Popular Mechanics, founded by Henry Haven Windsor in 1902, met this demand with articles that explained the "mechanics" behind new inventions and consumer devices. After 1915, as part of the same marketing trend, Popular Science Monthly began to focus more on technology and on the scientific concepts believed to interest amateurs or hobbyists, rather than only those deemed important by scientists.

Newspaper coverage of science rose and, by the 1920s, more professional journalists were specializing in science and medicine. Some of the increased press attention derived from science's expansion and from genuine public interest, but the scientific community's promotional efforts also played a role. Even though many scientists approached the popularization process with skepticism, others, such as physicist Robert A. Millikan and astronomer George Ellery Hale, believed that positive publicity would help in attracting federal government support and in erasing the negative public images associated with development of chemical weapons for World War I (1914–1918). The American Chemical Society, for example, joined with various chemical corporations and private foundations in a public relations campaign to popularize chemistry. The Society established its permanent News Service in 1919, the first of many such operations created by scientific associations.

The founding in 1921 of Science Service, a nonprofit news syndicate underwritten by newspaper publisher E. W. Scripps, was a direct outgrowth of the scientists' public relations campaigns. Directed by chemist E. E. Slosson and science writer Watson C. Davis, Science Service initially sought to assist journalists and news operations by issuing press releases and providing photos and other illustrations, but the organization's ultimate goal was to influence coverage overall. Eventually, Science Service engaged in radio production, providing programs to stations at no cost and thereby disseminating science's message to millions of listeners.

A few newspapers, like the New York Times, began to assign reporters to cover science exclusively. One influential journalist, Waldemar Kaempffert, started his career in 1897 at Scientific American, leaving in 1915 to become editor of Popular Science Monthly and then turning to newspaper journalism in the 1920s. Kaempffert served as Science Editor of the New York Times from 1927–1928 and 1931–1956. Another Times reporter, William L. Laurence, who worked at the paper from 1930–1964, helped to found the National Association of Science Writers in 1934, a further sign of science journalism's growing professionalism.

Many of these reporters also published frequently in popular magazines or wrote books for the growing numbers of Americans fascinated by what scientists were doing. The success of books like Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters (1926), which recounted the achievements of pioneers in bacteriology, had sparked a market for popular science texts. The March of Science (1936), by New York Times reporter H. Gordon Garbedian, explored the work of prominent researchers like anthropologist Franz Boas, physicist Michael Pupin, and chemist Harold C. Urey, and trumpeted the benefits of scientific progress.

Radio Broadcasting

Events such as the Scopes trial in 1925 heightened public interest in science, stimulating numerous newspaper columns, magazine articles, and books debating the viability of the concept of evolution and whether it should be taught in schools. That trial also featured one of the first remote news broadcasts; the open microphones of WGN, a station owned by the Chicago Tribune, allowed Americans all over the country to listen to the testimony, arguments, and judge's decision.

From its earliest days, radio offered an important platform for scientific discourse, to the extent that in 1925 opponents of evolution attempted to ban discussions of it from radio altogether. The approach to broadcasting science initially differed little from how scientists had been performing in public lecture halls for years; but as various scientific organizations began to engage in educational outreach through radio, they realized that, to compete for audience attention, science would have to be presented in more engaging and interesting formats. They began to work directly with commercial networks to develop such programming. Science Service's Adventures in Science, broadcast on CBS from 1938 until 1957, attempted to infuse drama into descriptions of the latest discoveries. The Smithsonian Institution's radio program The World Is Yours (1936–1942) included segments on its own scientific research, part of an experimental Works Progress Administration project with the U.S. Office of Education. The American Association for the Advancement of Science worked with NBC on three separate programs—Science Everywhere (1937–1938), Science on the March (1938), and Science in the News (1936–1940)—which the association perceived as a way for scientists to speak directly to the public and thereby to encourage confidence in research and scientific reasoning.

Universities and corporations sponsored radio talks by scientists, sometimes during the intermissions of symphony concerts. These talks were then printed and distributed to interested listeners. General Electric's program Excursions in Science, which ran nationally from 1936 to 1949, took this conventional lecture and interview approach as it emphasized the science behind the company's engineering work.

Radio played a significant role in public education in other science-related areas. From the beginning of commercial broadcasting, farm market reports included scientific advice on such things as pest control and soil enhancement. For thirty-two years, beginning in 1928, NBC's National Farm and Home Hour integrated agricultural news and educational presentations with entertainment, alternating segments produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the network's commercially sponsored ones.

By the early 1930s, government agencies, dairy councils, pharmaceutical companies, and insurance firms were all producing public health broadcasts. The most significant contribution toward improvement of medical news and information on radio was made by the American Medical Association, which underwrote production of various weekly series from the 1930s through the 1950s. The Association's programs like Your Health (1935–1940) combined dramatizations with expert discussions and were distributed to stations at no cost.

The use of dramatization represented an important change in popular science's tone and techniques, one not always welcomed by the scientific community, even though its own organizations adopted similar approaches. Radio producers attempted to emphasize science's inherent dramatic aspects in order to satisfy audiences accustomed to fast-paced comedies, mysteries, and quiz shows. One successful and highly acclaimed series, The Human Adventure, produced by the University of Chicago from 1939 to 1946, re-created moments of discovery and used dramatizations to explain complex theories; other science programs employed orchestras and Hollywood actors to attract their audiences. With radio broadcasts, the popularization of science shifted from efforts driven solely by educational goals and the interests of the scientific community to communications designed to attract and sustain large audiences.

Explaining the Atom

World War II (1939–1945) interrupted the flow of some scientific information to the public. It also stimulated the publication of technical material related to wartime training programs for engineers, factory workers, and military personnel. Guidelines developed by the U.S. Office of Censorship strove not to inhibit all discussion of science and technology. Government officials also recognized the importance of informed publicity. New York Times reporter William L. Laurence was invited to be the only journalist present at the Trinity test at Alamogordo, asked to write the official press releases about the test, and allowed to travel with the mission to bomb Nagasaki, Japan (winning a Pulitzer prize for his eyewitness accounts of these events).

After the war, American publishers moved quickly to produce articles and books to "explain" the atom, while conforming to new government restrictions on the discussion of atomic energy. Among the first publications were Pocket Books' The Atomic Age Opens! (August 1945) and Life magazine's 20 August 1945 issue on the atomic bomb. Although the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and other agencies established public information staffs to assist writers, publishers, and broadcasters in interpreting government restrictions, it is emblematic of postwar changes in science communication that the same offices also engaged in promotional activities intended to increase media attention to government research.

Science had undeniable relevance to human life, welfare, and survival. Information about science was also an instrument of political and national power. Scientists, government officials, and the media did not always agree on when or if scientific information should be shared with the public. Science journalists, once inclined to be protective and promoting of science, began engaging in sharper, more investigative reporting about research organizations and research policies and paying closer attention to science's social and political context. Scientific American's circulation increased dramatically after 1947 when its new owners and editors broadened the scope to include technical discussion of political issues like arms control and environmental policy, alongside explanations of theoretical work in physics, chemistry, and mathematics.

Magazine articles and radio documentaries played important roles in enhancing public discussion of the political and moral issues raised by the development of nuclear weapons because they could include more technical details than newspaper accounts. During the 1940s, the Federation of American Scientists and other action groups encouraged scientists to give media interviews and they developed public service broadcasts for their disarmament campaigns. By 1949, hundreds of separate documentaries about atomic energy had been broadcast on American radio stations, sometimes combining dramatizations by famous actors like Bob Hope with interviews of real scientists and politicians.


Television offered an unparalleled platform for visualizing science for the public. Technical explanations could be supplemented with illustrations and animation; programs could include film of natural phenomena, show the insides of laboratories, and even project images directly from microscopes and telescopes. Early series like NBC's The Nature of Things (1948–1954), starring astronomer Roy K. Marshall, featured illustrated talks and interviews with guest scientists. Even more popular were programs in which scientists demonstrated simple experiments, as in the primetime show The Johns Hopkins Science Review (1948–1954), created by university administrator Lynn Poole, and the children's series Watch Mr. Wizard (1951– 1965), starring Donald H. Herbert. Each week, "Mr. Wizard" would explain one or two simple scientific principles to children who acted as his helpers.

With a few notable exceptions, the majority of science on American television has appeared not in regular commercial series, but within news reports or in special programming subsidized by corporations and charitable foundations. In the 1960s, network news operations began to employ their own science and medical correspondents, often with professional degrees, to produce special reports or comment on emerging controversies, and television science coverage increased slightly. More entertaining science came via special programming. From 1956 to 1962, for example, the Bell Telephone System under-wrote production and primetime broadcast of nine specials that combined animation, films of natural phenomena, and scientists' explanations of technical concepts. Beginning with Our Mr. Sun (1956) and Hemo the Magnificent (1957), the popular programs featured a professor of English literature, Frank H. Baxter, as the host; film and video versions have been distributed and shown in American classrooms ever since.

Other references to science occurred in the nature series that became popular following the success of Zoo-parade (1949–1957) and Wild Kingdom (1953–1976), starring zoo director Marlin Perkins. Beginning in 1965, television specials produced by the National Geographic Society set high standards for photographic quality, and exploited television's ability to transport viewers to exotic places, visiting natural habitats and archaeological digs around the world. Television's nature programs did not merely display beautiful natural scenes or discuss the lives of animals; they also espoused conservation and environ-mental values, with varying attention to the underlying science.

Television has offered three important venues for informing the public about medicine and public health: news and public affairs coverage of advances in medical research; educational programming about public health topics; and attention to ethical issues within medical drama shows. Fictional drama shows have freely incorporated factual material, including film footage of real surgery, within their plots, and they routinely address contemporary medical issues, from fetal alcohol syndrome to AIDS research and the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

Despite national campaigns to improve science education, the amount of science programming on American television has been modest at best, much of it sustained by external underwriting rather than commercial sponsor-ship. Television transformed coverage of space launches into show business, culminating in the Apollo Moon landing of 1969, but network broadcasts included only minor amounts of science information. Public television became a dominant source of popularized science in the 1970s, beginning with the premiere of the NOVA series in 1974. American broadcast of the British miniseries Ascent of Man (1975), followed in 1980 by astronomer Carl Sagan's Cosmos, established a model of lavish science documentaries, distinguished by their charismatic scientist-hosts, expensive computer-generated graphics and animation, and reliance on government, corporate, and charitable support.

Television science programming in the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated the dominance of entertainment approaches. The children's educational series 3-2-1 Contact (1980–1992), created for public broadcasting by Children's Television Workshop, used celebrities and popular music to teach science. The advent of cable channels provided new opportunities for reaching both children and adults. Don Herbert rejuvenated his old children's series for the Nickelodeon cable channel; Mr. Wizard's World ran from 1983–1991, wholly underwritten by government and corporate grants. Both The Learning Channel, created in 1981, and the Discovery Channel, started in 1985, feature a full schedule of science series and specials. Two other acclaimed noncommercial series are Nature, which premiered in 1982, and Scientific American Frontiers, which premiered in 1990. Like the magazine for which it is named, Scientific American Frontiers presents technical material for educated adult audiences. Science broadcasts also now routinely offer information in print and on the World Wide Web, for both teachers and regular viewers, to supplement their program content.

Late-Twentieth-Century Science Journalism

Although print and broadcast news enthusiastically tracked the advances of science, a number of controversies in the 1970s and 1980s, such as the debate over regulation of recombinant DNA research and the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility, in Pennsylvania, chilled previously warm relations between scientists and the reporters who covered their activities. Scientific organizations became more protective of their public image and more skillful in their media relations. Other situations, such as the onset of the AIDS epidemic, focused attention on the importance of accurate reporting and on the adverse consequences of sensationalism. Starting in the 1970s, many U.S. newspapers initiated regular science pages or sections; online news operations now regularly include sections on science or health.

Through the years, prominent scientists have ventured into the mass media, gaining public visibility as they write articles for popular magazines, give interviews for radio and television, or host television shows. These scientists have become celebrities not because of their scientific accomplishments (although that expertise under-lines their authority in a public forum), but because they are articulate, photogenic, and knowledgeable about the media; they have also helped to shape the public's image of what scientists are like. Through the 1990s, however, few of these visible scientists were female or were members of ethnic or racial minorities.

Books and popular magazines have continued to be important sources for public information about science, thanks to writers like biologist Stephen Jay Gould and physicist Stephen Hawking and to publications like Discover and Scientific American. Americans interested in learning more about science can sample continuously from a wide range of print, broadcast, and Internet sources, many of them now cross-linked to assist in the search for information. Most of these are produced by commercial groups or private foundations rather than scientists and their organizations, representing an important change in who presents science to the public.


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Marcel C.LaFollette

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Science Journalism and Television

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