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The best and worst of times for science reporting

Happy 100th birthday, science journalism! It’s hard to say when popular writing about science really began—surely centuries ago—but Deborah Blum’s editorial in this week’s Science identifies as good a start as any for science journalism as a profession: the founding in 1921 of Science Service, a collaboration between a scientist and a newspaper publisher dedicated, as Blum puts it, “to providing smart and positive science stories to the public.” As Blum notes, science reporting at its best is still smart, but not always so positive. Science journalists are right to celebrate the wonders of science. But they also need to bring detachment and skepticism to their coverage. Science is a human activity, shaped by politics, emotion, and money as well as the joy of discovery. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven home both lessons as never before.

First, the wonders of science. Few examples of the power of basic research can surpass the way years of groundwork—on genome sequencing, protein engineering, and vaccine design—made possible the extraordinary sprint from the first sequence of the new coronavirus in the early days of 2020 to the approval of two highly effective vaccines based on messenger RNA before the end of the year. Science reporters were rightly in awe, and Science provided our own celebratory coverage.

But the pandemic also provided lesson after lesson in the need for skeptical, probing science reporting. The COVID-19 emergency meant that far more biomedical research than ever before was published as preprints, without peer review, depriving reporters of the stamp of approval that many have long relied on (perhaps too heavily). Now more than ever it was up to journalists to make sure the claims that they highlighted were, if not certain, at least plausible, and potentially important enough to demand early coverage.

Beyond that, the swirl of politics, ideology, and sheer urgency generated by the pandemic meant that science’s human side has rarely been more evident. Prominent researchers joined together to urge, with little evidence, that the virus should be given free rein as a quick route to herd immunity—a path others, including many scientists and health experts, decried as dangerous. Some remedies were authorized and funded on the basis of ideology and special pleading rather than persuasive data. Over a year later, we know little about the origin of the virus, with the hunt impeded by China and muddled by claims—from scientists and politicians alike—that sometimes seem based more on conviction than evidence.

For science reporters, including Science’s news team, keeping up with the torrent of developments and assessing them skeptically, often in a matter of hours, has been the challenge of a lifetime. Simple news stories became mini-investigations, and deeper investigations became labyrinths of politics and personalities. I’m proud to work for a publication that has a long tradition of warts-and-all news coverage of science, and I think Science’s journalists have acquitted ourselves well. We’ve sometimes been prescient, and we’ve rarely been fooled. And I’m proud of colleagues everywhere, some of them drawn into COVID coverage from other beats, whose work in recent months showed that at age 100, science journalism is more vibrant and necessary than ever.

Tim Appenzeller is the Editor of News at Science.