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«Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES Science and the Media Please direct inquiries to: American Academy ...»

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Science and the Media

Edited by Donald Kennedy

and Geneva Overholser


Science and the Media

Please direct inquiries to:

American Academy of Arts and Sciences

136 Irving Street

Cambridge, MA 02138-1996

Telephone: 617-576-5000

Fax: 617-576-5050

Email: aaas@amacad.org

Web: www.amacad.org

Science and the Media

Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser

© 2010 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences All rights reserved.

ISBN#: 0-87724-087-6 The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is grateful to the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands for supporting The Media in Society project. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands or the Officers and Fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Contents Acknowledgments vi Preface vii Chapter 1 1 Science and the Media Donald Kennedy Chapter 2 10 In Your Own Voice Alan Alda Chapter 3 13 Covering Controversial Science: Improving Reporting on Science and Public Policy Cristine Russell Chapter 4 44 Civic Scientific Literacy: The Role of the Media in the Electronic Era Jon D. Miller Chapter 5 64 Managing the Trust Portfolio: Science Public Relations and Social Responsibility Rick E. Borchelt, Lynne T. Friedmann, and Earle Holland Chapter 6 71 Response to Borchelt, Friedmann, and Holland on Managing the Trust Portfolio: Science Public Relations and Social Responsibility Robert Bazell Chapter 7 74 The Scientist as Citizen Cornelia Dean Chapter 8 80 Revitalizing Science Journalism for a Digital Age Alfred Hermida Chapter 9 88 Responsible Reporting in a Technological Democracy William A. Wulf Contributors 94 Acknowledgments This publication is part of the American Academy’s project on The Media in Society. The project also produced two online publications—Media, Business, and the Economy and The Future of News—that are available on the Academy’s website. The Media in Society project was supported by a generous grant from the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands. We are grateful to the Foun- dation for its support and to its director, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, for her con- tinued interest and advice.

The essays that appear in this volume were developed at a series of workshops organized by the American Academy in Cambridge and in Washington, D.C.

The Academy thanks especially Donald Kennedy (Stanford University) and Geneva Overholser (University of Southern California), cochairs of the working group on Science, Technology, and the Media, for their guidance and for serv- ing as the editors of this publication. We are grateful also to all the authors and workshop participants, including: Alan Alda (New York City); Robert Bazell (NBC News); Pablo Boczkowski (Northwestern University); Rick E. Borchelt (U.S. Department of Agriculture); Thomas Cline (University of California, Berkeley); K. C. Cole (University of Southern California); Cornelia Dean (formerly The New York Times); Sean Eddy (Howard Hughes Medical Institute);

Harvey Fineberg (Institute of Medicine of the National Academies); Lynne T. Friedmann (Friedmann Communications); Alfred Hermida (University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism); Earle Holland (Ohio State University); Thomas Lovejoy (H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment); Jon D. Miller (Michigan State University); Boyce Rensberger (Massachusetts Institute of Technology); Cristine Russell (Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School); Daniel Schrag (Harvard University); Samuel Thier (Harvard Medical School); Harold Varmus (National Cancer Institute); Dan Vergano (USA TODAY); John Noble Wilford (The New York Times); and William A. Wulf (University of Virginia).

Thank you also to Academy staff Paul Karoff, Phyllis Bendell, Micah Buis, Erica Dorpalen, and Scott Wilder in helping advance this work and for producing this publication. Most of all, we express our gratitude to the contributors for bringing their knowledge and insight to bear on these important and timely issues.

Leslie Berlowitz Chief Executive Officer and William T. Golden Chair American Academy of Arts and Sciences

–  –  –

How do we enrich Americans’ engagement with science and technology? That is the quest that brought scientists, journalists, and leaders of science institutions together at a series of workshops organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and supported by the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands.

Why did the participants find this topic so compelling? Discomfort with or disinterest in science is widespread enough to seem “normal” in the United States. Since somebody must understand science and technology well enough, why worry that others don’t?

In fact, scientific illiteracy has deep and wide implications for public policy in the United States and around the world. Having a minority in a democracy conversant with science and technology produces a low level of public discussion and makes for impoverished policy-making. On issues of great public import, from energy policy to climate change, from how to teach evolution to how to fight disease, a lack of scientific knowledge undermines progress. When a nation invades another with little clarity about the science and technology underlying the war’s proximate cause, when a population is seized by fears that science has shown to be unreasonable, when children may not learn basic building blocks of knowledge because scientific understanding and moral judgments are conflated—then a widespread understanding of science seems a compelling need. And this is true not just for Americans. With the rest of the world feeling the results of our policy decisions, the responsibilities of this nation’s citizens are ever greater.

So what accounts for the sorry state of Americans’ civic scientific literacy?

The educational system, of course. But many other factors contribute. Journalists and their conventions play a powerful role, one made more complex today with growing resource pressures on the media. Scientists and their traditions are also part of the problem—and solution—along with public information officers and public officials. The Academy’s working group on Science, Technology, and the Media wrangled with all these questions, trying to determine which issues seemed most critical—and what eventually might be done to address them.

How science and technology are covered by the media is a central factor in scientific illiteracy. Journalists value timeliness, speed, simplicity, and clarity.

Yet stories about science and technology may be long-building, complex, and without dramatic, time-pegged events. The need to grab and hold attention, to write tight stories or produce short segments, can come at the cost of context and nuance. One observer, noting journalism’s preference for attention-grabPREFACE vii bing, conflict-driven events, has joked that reporters two thousand years ago would have covered the heck out of the crucifixion—and missed Christianity.

To make science and technology coverage still more challenging, the journalistic tradition of objectivity has often been distorted into a kind of false balance, giving equal weight to opposing views, no matter how much or little credibility or value they possess. Scientific issues may be closely interwoven with moral or ethical controversy—consider stem-cell research, evolution, even climate change. Yet journalism’s conventions make it ill-suited to aiding the public in disentangling the underlying science from the controversy, sometimes creating in the observer the notion that scientific thinking is divided even when it is not. And it is not always easy for journalists—or the public—to accept the tenet that all scientific knowledge is provisional. As one of the journalists put it: should we have covered Newton or should we have waited for Einstein?

Meanwhile, many in the scientific community are reluctant to speak to the press or to engage with the public. One bad experience with an interviewer may turn a scientist off to journalists for a lifetime. And “popularization” of one’s work in mainstream media, far from winning acclaim for a scientist, is often viewed instead with disdain by colleagues. Our group also noted the glaring lack of training opportunities for scientists and engineers to acquire the skills to make them strong communicators. In fact, courses that might prepare future scientists to present their work to lay audiences are completely absent from most graduate training programs.

On the other side of the spectrum, some scientists who have become adept at dealing with the press and the public either hype or over-simplify their work for an all-too-credulous interviewer. Little wonder, then, that science and medical stories—as one of our participants noted—seem always to fall into one of two categories: either no hope or new hope.

While the group focused much of its attention on science journalists, it recognized that many—perhaps the majority of—big science and technology news stories are covered by reporters who do not specialize in these areas. In fact, coverage of stories that have important science components appears every day, written or produced by journalists who lack any particular training or experience in science. The fact is there are fewer and fewer reporters on the science beat and ever smaller science news holes at the nation’s daily newspapers and broadcast and cable outlets.

Into this mix, add public-relations people with varying degrees of training and government officials with varying degrees of scientific understanding themselves—not to mention the pull of institutional loyalties and varying attitudes toward openness. Meanwhile, traditional news media resources dwindle, and competition for limited government money for scientific research increases, while those determined to “spin” scientific stories grow ever more adept at doing so.

viii S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA And what of the public? How well prepared are American citizens to engage in science and technology issues? The single largest determinant of a person’s scientific literacy, one of the workshop participants noted, is whether he or she has taken a science course in college. Surveys indicate that Americans have a healthy respect for science. And they evince considerable interest in it.

It’s the understanding of science and technology that’s lacking.

A piece of emerging good news is that enormous possibilities are opening now, with new media, for citizens to inform themselves. And the evidence suggests that there is a healthy appetite among news consumers for information about science and technology (and health); these topics are among the ones that people search for most frequently online. But what about their vulnerability to the pressures of narrow interests in the Wild West atmosphere of the Web? And, if understanding and communicating complex science stories is sometimes challenging even for veteran science reporters, what happens in an environment in which the user is king and the audience drives the discussion?

The participants in the workshops resolved to address this complex set of issues in a number of ways. The essays in this volume discuss the roles of scientists, journalists, and public information officers in communicating about science and technology. The authors look at the role the media play in boosting Americans’ scientific literacy and at how the new digital media are changing the coverage (and consumption) of science news. They discuss how inadequate press coverage combined with poor communication by scientists can lead to disastrous public policy decisions.

*** The relationship between scientists and science journalists is the subject of the introductory essay by project cochair Donald Kennedy, former Editor-inChief of Science and President Emeritus of Stanford University. Starting with the assumption that citizens’ broad understanding of science and technology is “a public good,” Kennedy explores the complaints on both sides of the relationship and discusses ways to improve the clarity of communication.

Actor, writer, and director Alan Alda, who has interviewed dozens of scientists as the host of science-themed programs on public television, admonishes scientists to share their passion for their work with the public. Noting that good communication is fundamental to successful science at multiple levels, he suggests that some of the actor’s techniques are well suited to enhancing scientists’ ability to convey their work to the public.

According to Cristine Russell, Senior Fellow in the Environment and Natural Resources Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and President of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the greatest challenge for the news media is to enhance public understanding of policy options. Russell provides a wide-ranging look at the state of science writing and explores opportunities for the media to provide more balanced coverage to benefit a wider audience.


Most Americans receive foundational instruction about science in school.

But if science literacy is crucial to an informed citizenry, then adults need to continue learning about science long after their formal schooling, argues Jon D. Miller, the John A. Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies at Michigan State University. Miller, who has developed a scorecard for measuring a nation’s “civic scientific literacy,” examines the impact of the media on adult scientific literacy in the United States.

An essay coauthored by Rick E. Borchelt, Director of Communications for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research, education, and economics mission area, Lynne T. Friedmann, freelance science writer, and Earle Holland, Assistant Vice President for Research Communications at Ohio State University, addresses a “trust gap” in science as an enterprise, and holds public relations practitioners responsible for a lack of dialogue and transparency. To cultivate trust, the authors argue for a fundamental change in the way information flows —from the current model of “one-way” communication to “two-way symmetric communication” between scientific organizations and their stakeholders.

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