«Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES Science and the Media Please direct inquiries to: American Academy ...»
70. These guidelines were drawn up by the author, based on personal experience as a science writer for more than thirty years, on research for this paper, and on presentations on science writing.
2. Stop the yo-yo approach to science, environment, medical, and technology coverage (swinging from “breakthrough” to “disaster”). My colleague, the late Washington Post medical writer and columnist Victor Cohn, quipped that there are two kinds of front-page newspaper stories: “new hope and no hope.” Journalists often emphasize the dramatic over the ordinary; pushing to get on page one or the top of the television news can distort a story. But there is plenty of blame to go around. Scientists and physicians are often overly enthusiastic about their work; business interests can over-promote new products; interest groups often grab attention with dire warnings. Experienced science reporters put in the disclaimers, stay away from the word breakthrough (not always easily, since doctors and scientists themselves may throw around the term rather loosely), and let the story sell itself.
3. Avoid “dueling” experts on science and policy. Traditional journalistic fairness means giving both sides in a controversy a chance to be heard.
But it can be confusing—or even misleading—for the public if each side is given equal weight just to make a story appear “balanced.” Too often science-policy stories create drama by citing experts arguing from two extremes without trying to find out whether there is a scientific middle ground. Is there a consensus view among leading researchers or mainstream professional scientific organizations? If not, what is the degree of uncertainty? Try to sort the science from the policy, and find out which hat various experts are wearing. “More than in any other field of reporting, balance in science writing requires something other than just providing an equal number of column inches to quotes from each side. Balance in science writing requires authorial guidance; it requires context, and knowing when certain points of view simply need to be ignored,” notes NASW’s science-writing guide.71 This is where experience counts, says former Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss, now communications director for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “It’s not [a reporter’s] job to find equal numbers of voices on both sides of the issue and give them all equal time,”
71. Blum, Knudson, and Henig, A Field Guide for Science Writers, ix.
4. Write about the process of science as well as the end results. Science evolves;
it is incremental; it has false starts; it needs to be replicated by others.
Unfortunately, we often focus on artificial end points, when studies are reported at meetings or published in journals (and, of course, negative findings are seldom touted in such proceedings). Getting into the lab or out in the field gives the reporter—and the audience—a better understanding of how science is really done. It results in a better enterprise piece that, unlike the stories from prepackaged journal articles, is not being written by every other reporter. The ability to make science come alive for the reader or viewer only comes with time on the road.
But even a basic news story can benefit from some explanation of how the research was done. Reporters should try to add information about how an experiment or study was conducted and not just provide the outcome. “I’ve become so aware of how little people understand science, how difficult people find it to think scientifically,” says Weiss.73
5. Watch out for anecdotes. Stories involving children or celebrities may dramatize or personalize a particular problem, helping draw in the audience, particularly on local television. But they may overshadow the underlying science (or lack thereof). A story needs to distinguish an individual case or set of cases from what is known or not known about a given problem. Victims of cancer, or a cluster of cancer cases, may prematurely point the blame at certain products or polluters, for example. But science reporters need to explain the uncertainties in proving cause-and-effect without extensive research, and even then it may be extremely hard to determine conclusively for chronic diseases like cancer. In the early 1990s, claims by individuals, citizen groups, and politicians on Long Island, New York, that environmental pollution was responsible for an increased rate of breast cancer among women there drew national attention and a clamor for scientific research. But several studies have since found no evidence to support such claims, including a June 2006 New York State Health Department study that found “no local environmental factors that were likely related to the elevated breast cancer rates.”74
72. Rick Weiss (former Washington Post Science Reporter), telephone interview by the author, March 27, 2006.
74. “State Health Department Releases Final Results of Breast Cancer Investigation in Suffolk County,” New York State Health Department Press Release, June 23, 2006, http://www.nyhealth.gov/press/releases/2006/2006-06-23_cmp_final_report_release.htm.
7. Distinguish between the impact on individuals versus the impact on society.
Public policy is generally geared toward societal impact, not individual problems or risks. Information in the story should give individuals a sense of who is most at risk and what the consequences of that risk may be. A large individual risk may affect only a small group of people. A small risk for any one individual may still pose a larger societal risk if a significant number of individuals are involved in a shared activity. Does the risk involve voluntary or involuntary exposure (through common sources of air, water, or food)? Much of public outrage, as well as government regulation, focuses on involuntary exposure, even though such risks may be far smaller than voluntary everyday risky behaviors, such as driving, eating poorly, or smoking. (Watch out for parties with economic interests that may try to diminish concern about an involuntary risk, like environmental pollution, by comparing it to remote risks, like the chance of being hit by lightning, and then suggesting that nothing really needs to done. It may be apples and oranges for your audience.)
8. Provide information on what, if anything, can be done about a given problem by individuals, government, or the private sector, as well as the degree to which the available science supports such action. There is always more research to do; the question for citizens and public policy-makers
75. Cristine Russell, “Risk Reporting,” in A Field Guide for Science Writers, ed. Blum, Knudson, and Henig, 253.
40 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA is when to act on the results of incomplete science, weighing the dangers of premature action and being wrong against the hazards of waiting too long for more answers and causing more harm along the way. It’s really a judgment call, with input from scientific (and often legal) experts and decision-making by policy-makers and politicians. “Most people think science is about facts and are quite frustrated when they find that science is in large part about uncertainty,” says University of Michigan professor Gilbert S. Omenn,76 former president of the AAAS and a former federal government official. Prudent public policy, particularly in the health arena, may require action before there is definitive evidence; “more research is needed” may sometimes be an excuse for avoiding tough policy decisions, particularly those with large economic consequences. Complex science-policy stories often require presenting the array of options—including knowns and unknowns— on both sides of the equation. What is the best available scientific advice, and how long will it take to get better answers? What are the economic and human costs of taking action now versus waiting? Who pays? Who may benefit? Is it prevention or treatment/amelioration?
What can individuals do on a voluntary basis to help solve a problem?
What can businesses do? What are the options for government agencies charged with deciding whether to take action? In terms of climate change, for example, there is a limited amount that individuals can do to make a big dent in the problem; however, public understanding of this polarized issue is crucial to the policy and political debate about what actions to take in the public and private sector, as well as when, or if, to take them.
9. Avoid becoming an advocate for any side if you are a news reporter or editor. Leave that to the editorial pages. Present the information fairly, but be skeptical about the sources of information. Look for conflicts;
follow the money. And remember, even “good” causes can distort a news or feature story. Advocacy groups push hard for their positions.
It is not the traditional journalist’s job to side with one group or point of view; rather, he or she should help the audience figure out who is behind what cause and why. A scientist may be wearing both a research and a policy hat; find out which one and what personal or financial incentives may be involved. Transparency is the best approach. The growing number of reporters who also bring a personal voice by blogging and tweeting for their media outlets may create added tensions, and sometimes confusion, as to what hat the journalist is wearing.
76. Gilbert S. Omenn (Professor of Internal Medicine, Human Genetics, and Public Health, University of Michigan; Associate Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Associate Director, Office of Management and Budget, Executive Office of the President, during the Carter administration), interview by the author, February 17, 2006.
Media coverage of controversial scientific issues needs to be improved on both the science and policy sides. This paper has provided a wide-ranging look at the state of science writing for the general public, with the following
· There are more potential science and science-policy stories than ever before, as new scientific developments push the ethical, political, and legal envelopes of the past.
· The news media are shorthanded, with fewer reporting and editing jobs for reporters trained or experienced in covering specialty beats like science. There is also less space and time to tell the story in traditional media outlets; science sections, particularly in smaller newspapers, have been cut back in numbers and scope.
· The existing coverage is skewed toward one end of the spectrum of science coverage—consumer-driven health and medicine—leaving the audience less informed about many other important developments in science and technology that may affect their lives.
· Reporters with knowledge of how best to communicate about science and technology, as well as the policy issues that these topics generate, are better equipped to tell the story than general-assignment reporters with no science-writing experience.
· New initiatives are needed to help improve coverage by all reporters who might cover science and policy issues. These initiatives must include better training about how to cover technical stories, as well as convenient access to resources that may provide accurate information about science and policy issues. Again, the Internet offers the potential for training journalists and providing better and faster information gathering than in the past.
42 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA · Members of the scientific community, particularly those receiving public funding, have an obligation to make communication with the public through the news media a valued part of their jobs. Scientists also need more training about how best to work with the media.
· There is an opportunity for the news media to use new media to provide better information to a diverse public that is generally not well educated about issues involving science and technology. The media can help bridge this gap, using traditional news outlets as well as nontraditional outlets such as the Internet to provide helpful, accurate, thoughtful, and engaging coverage of science and technology that is accessible to a wide audience.
Ultimately, better, more balanced coverage of science and technology policy will help the public, and their representatives, understand the crucial issues that individuals, local communities, the United States, and countries of the world face in the years to come.
The health of American democracy in the twenty-first century will depend on the development of a larger number of scientifically literate citizens. Today’s political agenda includes a raging debate over the causes and consequences of global climate change, a continuing bitter debate over the use of embryonic stem cells in biomedical research, a spirited set of disagreements over future energy sources, and a lingering concern over the possibility of a viral pandemic.
In Europe, the political landscape is still divided over nuclear power and genetically modified foods. No serious student of public policy or science policy thinks that the public-policy agenda will become less populated by scientific issues in the twenty-first century. Yet only one in four Americans has sufficient understanding of basic scientific ideas to be able to read the Science section in the Tuesday New York Times (Miller, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2010). Some research suggests that the proportion may be substantially lower when citizens are faced with strong advocates on both sides, as in the current global warming debate and the embryonic stem cell debate.
At the same time, most adults will learn most of their science information after they leave formal schooling. How many current adults can claim that they studied stem cells or nanotechnology when they were students? In the years and decades ahead, the number and nature of new scientific issues reaching the public-policy agenda will not be limited to subjects that might have been studied in school, but will reflect the dynamic of modern science and technology.