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Oct. 20, 2016, 11:53 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Connecting science with society, Undark hopes to help elevate the standards for science journalism

“Science influences our lives in countless ways every day, and as science journalists, if we don’t make that connection really clear, we’re not doing our jobs.”

Hurricane Matthew, the most powerful tropical storm to hit the Caribbean in a decade, killed over 300 people when it ravaged Haiti earlier this month. But in the U.S., as meteorologists warned to expect the worst from the storm when it hit the coasts of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, conservative commentators pointed to a different source of concern: science itself.

“It’s in the interest of the left to have destructive hurricanes because then they can blame it on climate change, which they can desperately continue trying to sell,” asserted conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, whose show reaches 13.3 million listeners each week. Drudge Report founder Matt Drudge echoed the theory a few hours later: “The deplorables are starting to wonder if govt has been lying to them about Hurricane Matthew intensity to make exaggerated point on climate,” he said in a tweet (which was deleted soon after).

The spread of science conspiracy theories makes Deborah Blum long for the old days of media, where “there was a kind of filter for crackpot-ism that you don’t see today,” she said. But Blum, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and the director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) program, wants to have a hand in building the future of science journalism, not just pining for its past. Earlier this year, she helped launch Undark, a digital science magazine run out of KSJ. Undark, whose tagline is “Truth, Beauty, Science,” focuses on how science intersects — or, just as often, collides — with society. While there are many science publications online today, none (not even the highbrow cross-disciplinary magazine Nautilus) cover the topic the way that Undark plans to, said Blum.

“It’s really important for science journalists to remind people that science is not some abstract thing. It influences your life in countless ways every day, and if we as science journalists don’t make that connection really clear, we’re not doing our jobs,” she said.

As Undark describes its editorial mission:

The name Undark arises from a murky, century-old mingling of science and commerce — one that resulted in an industrial and consumer product that was both awe-inspiring and, as scientists would later prove, toxic and deadly. We appropriate the name as a signal to readers that our magazine will explore science not just as a “gee-whiz” phenomenon, but as a frequently wondrous, sometimes contentious, and occasionally troubling byproduct of human culture.

As such, the intersection of science and society — the place where science is articulated in our politics and our economics; or where it is made potent and real in our everyday lives — is a fundamental part of our mission at Undark. As journalists, we recognize that science can often be politically, economically and ethically fraught, even as it captures the imagination and showcases the astonishing scope of human endeavor. Undark will therefore aim to explore science in both light and shadow, and to bring that exploration to a broad, international audience.

Undark is not interested in “science communication” or related euphemisms, but in true journalistic coverage of the sciences.

Undark’s goal is to help raise the bar for science journalism by creating a home for the kind of science coverage that today’s publishing environment has made an endangered species. Tom Zeller, the magazine’s editor and a 11-year New York Times veteran, said that the ideal Undark story is one that takes a scientific concept or story and covers it in a way that directly relates to the lives of readers. He pointed to recent stories about the relationship between the stigma against and criminalization of HIV, the regulation challenges around milk from genetically modified goats, and the frequent misdiagnoses of autistic children of color.

Undark has ardently avoided that “gee-whiz” science writing, which covers attention-grabbing scientific discoveries but fails go deeper into how those discoveries actually matter to the average person. “There’s obviously an underlying din of that kind of writing on the internet. There’s a rich market for it, but that’s not what we want to do,” he said. “It has to have some connection to and currency with the here-and-now for me to feel like it’s worth our while.”

Undark is the spiritual successor to KSJ’s popular Tracker blog, which covered the failures and successes of science, technology, and health journalism for almost a decade before KSJ shut it down in 2014. That legacy of media criticism, which Zeller said is “a fundamental part of the mission of Undark,” continues with the “Cross Sections” blog, which has touched on topics like how journalists should cover the studies linking cell phones and cancer and the bitter ongoing battle over whether the National Association of Science Writers should let communications professionals from universities and nonprofits become officers of the organization.

Undark also attempts to set itself apart through the way it organizes its content. While most science publication stature their sites by topic — “physics,” “space,” “biology,” etc — Undark structures itself by thinking about how readers are most likely to engage with it. Its “Case Studies” section, for example, is home to its monthly deep-dive stories, while “Variables” is the site’s catch-all section for book reviews, essays, and op-eds. “Figures” is where it puts its data visualizations and videos, and its “Colloquia” section is home to its monthly podcast and other forms of audio storytelling. “We think of this as part of our social mission. We’re focused on our own material intersects with people and how they live their lives,” said Zeller.

Undark is still in its early days, but one measure of the site’s influence is the number of pitches the magazine has received from science writers looking to contribute. That interest, significant for a site that’s just a few months old, is as much of a product of Undark’s unique approach it is a refection of the influence of the site’s founders and advisory board of well-known authors and professors. “Our history with Tracker connected us with the science journalism from the very beginning. People knew we were serious about this,” said Zeller.

Both Zeller and Blum say it’s the right time for this kind of science publication. While the anti-science screeds of climate change deniers don’t mark a new phenomenon, the Hurricane Matthew fear-mongering in particular comes at time in which mistrust in scientific authority is at an all-time high. A 2015 Pew study found double-digit gaps between scientists’ and U.S. adults’ views on topics such as vaccines, genetically modified food, and whether humans are to blame for climate change. Skepticism about science is an extension of the mistrust facing the institutions of politics, religion, and even journalism itself. “We’re dealing with science journalism in the age of denial,” Blum said. “For a lot of people science is just another interest group. They say, ‘Science is not our friend.’ That kind of thread is much more obvious today than it once was.”

Many news organizations have been forced to shutter or scale back their science sections. This, in turn, has increased the influence of the communications arms of universities, which have been able to take advantage of a weakened science press. Undark, which is funded by KSJ, is less vulnerable to most those pressures, though it is still a relatively small operation of just five staffers and a large pool of freelancers.

“We’re in the great position of saying, ‘Here’s what we want to do and here’s what we care about,’ and if we don’t get a million money-making clicks on every story, that’s okay,” said Blum. “As long as we love it and think it’s important, financially we’ve got really good bedrock. That’s not true for most publications.”

POSTED     Oct. 20, 2016, 11:53 a.m.
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