«Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES Science and the Media Please direct inquiries to: American Academy ...»
adulatory stories.” If only news judgment and enterprise reporting, two of the sturdiest pillars of good journalism, were more common, science reporting would be far better for it. Instead, even the most cursory look at the coverage today by almost any news organization reveals mostly stories regurgitated from journals or institutional press releases and often hyped as breakthroughs. The biggest chunk of the reporting pie goes to medicine and biomedical stories. But that is hardly surprising. Newspapers, TV news shows, and other outlets want to attract the maximum audience. People care most about what affects them.
The “praise-singers” to whom Borchelt, Friedmann, and Holland refer from the previous generation included large numbers of journalists identified as science specialists who covered the manned space program—big news in those days. NASA’s public relations machine stands as the paragon of the “science” public relations industry that is at the heart of Borchelt, Friedmann, and Holland’s paper. For most space reporters, if NASA did not spoon-feed them the story, there was no story.
R ES P ONS E T O S C I E NC E P U B L I C RE L ATIO N S AN D SO CIAL RESP O N SIBILITY 71
Of course, science faces competing demands on the federal budget—Medicare, Social Security, and the Iraq War are but a few of the current competitors.
So we pass through times of relative scarcity of public funding of science research. But the slope of the curve of America’s financial support for science has only increased, and I see no reason to think it will not continue to do so.
Borchelt, Friedmann, and Holland cite concern about the profits from technology transfer arrangements as one reason why the public mistrusts science. Except for the occasional book or magazine article, this is not an issue about which the public hears much. University administrators certainly lust after the money. But few—especially outside the Boston and San Francisco Bay areas—ever make much money from technology transfer. Arguments about commercialization of the academy are heard mostly inside its administration buildings. The effect on public support for science is negligible.
Are we missing good science stories in newspapers and on TV? Indeed we are. But to discuss that gap without considering the tectonic changes that are threatening to obliterate newspapers, TV news, and other “old media” is impossible. If scientists think times are financially tough, they should spend some time in a newsroom.
But my own experiences and those of colleagues suggest that even in the current environment, editors and producers still have a huge appetite for informative, interesting articles on science. Stories like those about the death of eighteen-year-old Jesse Gelsinger in a gene therapy experiment at the University of Pennsylvania (the University and chief researcher were raking in big profits from the experiment) occasionally make headlines. But such incidents are, thankfully, rare. The public holds science in high regard and wants to hear more about it.
Which brings us back to the major topic of Borchelt, Friedmann, and Holland’s paper: the public information office, or public relations specialist, or whatever terms emerge from the worlds of advertising and “crisis management.” Science takes place in universities, hospitals, government labs, independent nonprofit labs, and private companies. These institutions variously compete for esteem, profit, private money, public money, students, patients, or all of the above. The public information officer’s job is to interact with the press and the public to make his or her institution achieve it goals as well as possible. To see this person’s function in any other light is just silly. As with any profession, the individual can carry out the task with varying degrees of integrity.
72 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA In my thirty-seven years as a reporter, I have dealt with many public information officers. They differ little from journalists or members of most professions. Some are dreadfully bad—laziness being the biggest offense—and others are fantastic. The good ones manage to assist both reporters and their employers while playing a major role in the public dissemination of science.
What makes for a good public information officer? The best will assist reporters who call with questions and help them obtain answers that confirm, refute, or enhance without trying to block access or put a false spin on the response.
Furthermore, in dealing with research, a good public information officer (PIO) will make an effort to understand what the scientists who work in his or her institution are doing. The PIO should not reflexively send press releases about the latest appointment to an assistant deanship: that makes reporters stop paying attention in a hurry. When an important piece of research is complete, the PIO should put out a press release to everyone and make certain that reporters who will do the best job know about it. In the meantime, the PIO should initiate ongoing dialogues with reporters that can lead to important feature stories on research that is interesting even if it has not just been published. That is what I believe Borchelt, Friedmann, and Holland mean about “managing the trust portfolio.” And they are right: it can work very well.
I have been working as a science journalist for more than twenty years, and for almost all that time I have had on my mind the collective unwillingness and/ or inability of scientists to talk to the public.
Lately, I have been trying to do something about it, in seminars and short courses at Harvard University and other institutions. People elsewhere have embarked on similar efforts. I believe this work has had some good effects. I believe these or similar efforts should be part of every scientist’s graduate education.
This paper will discuss these efforts in the context of the public’s uncertain understanding of science, the problems of science journalism, characteristics of the culture of science that feed these problems, and efforts on the part of journalists and journalism teachers to mitigate the situation—and how some of these efforts have fared.
The need for such efforts was first brought home to me, vividly, more than a decade ago, when I attended a presentation for journalists at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The topic was Earth’s climate, in particular the possibility that human activity, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels, was vastly increasing the amount of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, with potentially disastrous consequences. The presentation had been organized by eminent experts on climate. They hoped that once the journalists knew the facts, they would realize climate change was an important story they would have to cover closely.
But when the scientists were making their concluding remarks, one of the journalists, Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, interrupted with a question.
Come on, he impatiently asked, are we really supposed to believe that this— he mimed spraying himself with an underarm deodorant—is going to change the weather?
The scientists were astonished. How could Bradlee be so dense? Did he not realize that chlorofluorocarbons, the propellants in sprays like deodorants, are factors in atmospheric ozone depletion, not climate change? Did he not realize that weather and climate were two different phenomena? Had he listened to anything they had said?
74 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA Some of the scientists later told me Bradlee’s performance convinced them their effort had been a waste of time, another pointless exchange with a dullwitted journalist.
But Bradlee was nothing like dull-witted. As the newspaper’s executive editor, he had presided as The Washington Post transformed itself from a moreor-less provincial daily into a newspaper of national importance. Reporters he led had uncovered the Watergate scandal and forced the resignation of a president. He was not stupid. But he was ignorant. He had obviously not been paying close attention either to efforts to preserve the ozone layer that insulates Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation or to the debate over what the burning of fossil fuels was doing to Earth’s climate. In this, he was far from alone (then and now).
In fact, it was the scientists who were making the fundamental and more important error. Rather than dismissing Bradlee as a dunce, they should have been wondering how someone in such an influential position in the nation’s news media could make such a mistake. Rather than complaining that he had failed to grasp their message, they should have been thinking about how they had failed to convey it.
Later, when I became science editor of The New York Times, I would often address scientific groups of one kind or another, and participants would often denounce the way the news media ignored, overhyped, misrepresented, or just plain screwed up their coverage of science, medicine, and health. Though their complaints were often directed at other news outlets, we at the Times came in for a share of this abuse.
When I heard those complaints, especially when I had to concede they had merit, I realized something important: if covering this material challenged us in the science department of the Times, probably the largest, best trained, and most lavishly supported science department of any lay language news outlet in the world, it could only be much harder for journalists elsewhere. If we were having trouble—and the scientists were telling me we were—it could only be worse for our colleagues with fewer resources.
I realized then that if we journalists were going to improve the coverage of science, scientists would have to help us. But two problems existed. First, many scientists are not good at talking about their work in ways ordinary people—and journalists—can understand. Second, many scientists do not believe they have any reason, still less obligation, to do so. This belief is by far the more serious problem.
At about the time I realized science coverage would improve only with the help of scientists, I started receiving speaking invitations from organizations, notably the Aldo Leopold Program and the Pew Foundation, that hold regular conferences for high-achieving scientists. At meeting after meeting, I found myself preaching the same sermon: scientists have an obligation as citizens to participate in the nation’s public discourse, particularly when the issue at hand relates to science.
T H E S C I E NT I S T AS CITIZEN 75There was a time, I would tell my audiences, when the disconnect between scientists and the public was not so important. But today the disconnect has big implications for the nation’s public life. More and more questions of public importance, questions people address in the voting booth, have major science components. Must we take aggressive action to avoid global warming?
Your answer may depend on how much faith you put in computerized climate models. Should we press ahead with the missile defense shield? The answer hangs on the physics of ballistic missile detection. Should stem cell research be financed by federal taxpayers? Should it even be legal in the United States?
Decision-makers—whether in government or in the voting booth—will want to know what price society will pay for shutting off this avenue of research.
Is mammography worthwhile? If so, for whom? What about prostate cancer screening? For many scientists these are open questions; few members of the public realize this.
Many scientists embraced my message. All too often, though, it was greeted with lack of interest, antagonism, even contempt. Unfortunately, there are good reasons for this response.
First, science as an institution rewards research findings and publication in scholarly literature—and that is it. As a scientist once put it to me, “Every minute away from the bench is time wasted.” Scientists do not earn tenure or grants or promotion or anything else they value by spending time explaining things to reporters or seeing their names in newspapers or their images on a television screen or website.
Second, to spend time talking to a reporter only to find one’s work misrepresented in print or electronically is excruciating. Regrettably, this is not a rare occurrence—not, as many scientists profess to believe, because journalists are unconcerned about accuracy but in large part because of the inability of scientists to describe their work in clear and simple terms.
Then there is “the problem of objectivity”—the reflexive desire of journalists (in the mainstream, at least) to give all sides of a story. The problem is, without the help of scientists, journalists may be unable to discern when a legitimate scientific debate exists about one subject or another and when the collective weight of science falls on one side, with only a few arm-waving fanatics on the other. The result, as science writer Eugene Linden puts it, is “the systematic overweighting of dissent.” Or, as the pollster Daniel Yankelovich has written, many scientists find themselves seeming to argue in print with a crank or a shill, seemingly on hand only to provide the requisite journalistic objectivity or “balance.” Imagining how frustrating and horrifying this must be is hard for a journalist like me, but the problem will be difficult to fix without the cooperation of scientists, especially as cutbacks in the news business leave journalists with less time to educate themselves on the scientific background of the subjects they cover. But if more scientists were willing to speak candidly, and clearly, about their work and its context in the larger world of science, it would help a lot.
76 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA Even if everything goes brilliantly, the result for scientists who talk to reporters is often denigration by their research peers. Scientists call this “the Carl Sagan effect,” after the Cornell University astronomer who was blackballed at the National Academy of Sciences because his television series Cosmos was too big a hit with the lay public.