An inability to reach researchers and frustrated background research are a couple of the ways that the shutdown of the U.S. federal government is already having an effect on science reporting, and the impact may become more pronounced if the shutdown drags on for weeks.
To get a handle on how the shutdown is affecting science journalism, I contacted 15 science reporters who cover a variety of beats. (Yes, I know that an n of 15 makes this anecdotal data.) So far the shutdown has been little more than an annoyance for most of them. The most significant problems, though not the most common, have been for reporters trying to reach federal researchers for stories.
For example, Hillary Rosner, a freelancer based in Colorado, reports that “Every time I email a source who works at a federal agency, I get an auto-reply saying they’re out until further notice, or it takes a couple days for them to get back to me, and then it’s a short message from an alternate email account. Luckily I’m not on deadline…but it’s slowing things down for me and could become problematic if it keeps up for more than another week.”
And she’s not alone. Health reporters Maryn McKenna and Melinda Wenner Moyer report being unable to reach scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for stories they were working on.
But the most common effect among the reporters I spoke to appears to be a newfound awareness of just how much they relied on federal websites, which are now either offline or working on a limited basis.
Wenner Moyer notes that she had “hoped to look up some Census stats for a statistical comparison I was making about the overall risks of flu shots compared to risks of flu complications, and I couldn’t get these stats because Census.gov was shut down, so I had to base them on (potentially inaccurate) numbers I found elsewhere. I was still able to file my story, but fact-gathering/fact-checking was more time-consuming than it otherwise would have been, and I was unable to be as thorough as I would have liked. I hope the accuracy didn’t suffer—I guess time will tell.”
And many of the other reporters I spoke to reported similar experiences. “I really didn’t realize how many government websites I go to on a daily basis while doing research,” says freelancer Rose Eveleth. “For the past few days (it feels like it’s been much longer than that, doesn’t it?) I’ve found myself running into the shutdown wall over and over again. ‘Oh I need a picture from the Library of Congress…. oh wait, can’t do that.’ ‘I wonder how many women there are in STEM careers… oh I can’t use that site.’ ‘I can just get that statistic from census data … oh no I can’t.’”
At this point, few reporters say the shutdown has affected the stories they are choosing to pursue. But most of them said they expect the shutdown to have a more pronounced impact on their work if it drags on for weeks.
“Other than [being prevented from reaching research on NASA’s website], I’ve been fortunate not to be personally affected,” says Ferris Jabr, a Scientific American writer whose shutdown experience seem to be fairly representative. “Right now I’m not working on any stories that require me to speak directly with government officials, but that could change.”
If you’re a science journalist, and the shutdown has affected your reporting, please share your experiences in the comments.
Note: I wrote more about the shutdown’s impact on science communication here.