New York Times editor melds science, journalism

Issues on science and journalism filled Newton Hall on Tuesday, as Geneseo students and faculty gathered for a presentation given by New York Times assistant science editor David Corcoran.

Corcoran's talk on the pitfalls of scientific journalism, entitled, "Clones, Creationism, and Cholesterol: Explaining Science to a Skeptical World," was delivered to a filled Newton 204.

The event was sponsored by the American Democracy Project for Civic Engagement in conjunction with the Times. According to the ADP mission statement, the talk was part of a "national, multi-campus initiative that seeks to foster informed civic engagement in the United States."

Corcoran discussed rapid breakthroughs in science, the advent of the Internet, trustworthiness and how they tie in to scientific journalism.

"Even when a major scientific journal publishes a story, it is hard for journalists to know if it really is a breakthrough or just hype," Corcoran said.

He cited two cases that jeopardized the overall credibility of The New York Times. In 2003, reporter Jason Blair was accused of fabricating stories from locations he had never been. Corcoran explained that The New York Times is still reeling from that instance of irresponsible journalism.

In 2004, the story of a South Korean scientist claiming to have cloned a human embryo made it to the front page of the Times but was, in 2005, decried on the front page as a fraud. The scientist lied about his finding to major scientific journals.

"There is a great crisis of skepticism in the world of science journalism," Corcoran advised. "You have to do as good of a job as you can in educating yourself…there is a tremendous glut of information."

SUNY Brockport student Peter Bannister, who traveled to Geneseo to hear Corcoran speak, said that he appreciated, "the multi-faceted aspect of journalism with the printed newspaper and the news available online."

Corcoran pointed out that although convenient for readers, 24-hour journalism online causes difficulties for newspapers.

"This is a difficult time for newspapers because newspapers depend on advertising to pay the bills," Corcoran said. "A lot of advertising that has made the Times fat has migrated to the Web."

An editor for the Times since 2001, Corcoran oversees a staff of 30 journalists who report on everything from string theory to breakthroughs in medical technology. The Times, he said, has the largest staff of scientific journalists in the country.

"The primary goal of the science section is to explain science," Corcoran said.

The section deals not only with breakthroughs in the scientific community but broader stories such as the relevance of manned-flight space program.

Although the presentation seemed geared toward the scientific community at Geneseo, it dealt mostly with journalism and the process of editing a newspaper.

"I was sold a false bill of sales concerning the title versus the content," said Jeff Over, professor and chair of the geology department.