«Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES Science and the Media Please direct inquiries to: American Academy ...»
Scientists also worry that if they speak too much about a public issue, they will seem to be taking sides. This is their problem of objectivity. In part, I think, worries about this problem arise from the view, widely held among scientists I have met, that “if everyone knew what I knew, everyone would think as I think—and act as I would act, if I were making policy.” In fact, as Sherwood Boehlert, the former chairman of the House Science Committee, said in a speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in April 2007, scientific evidence is often only one factor policymakers consider when making decisions. If scientists tell policy-makers the facts, they will not necessarily be determining a policy outcome. But they will be helping to ensure that policy decisions are made in the best way possible, given the realities of politics.
In 2003, I stepped down as science editor of the Times and accepted a fellowship at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to start work on a book about the misuse of science in American public life. I had the idea that scientists needed to hear someone tell them about their obligations to the public and to help them communicate better. So I got in touch with people I knew at three nearby research institutions—Brown University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island—and asked if I could offer short courses to graduate students and postdocs. The response to these short courses was gratifying.
A year later, Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, invited me to offer a seminar on the subject for graduate students, which I have taught once a year ever since, now also under the auspices of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
The content of the course evolves, but among the topics covered are:
· The public’s knowledge of and attitudes toward science—in particular, the public’s collective (and well-documented) inability to reason statistically and assess risk rationally.
· The landscape of journalism and the problems journalists encounter covering science, particularly given the changes under way now in the news business. Ordinarily, scientists do not need any instruction in the widespread inability of journalists to cover science well. But scientists are often surprised to discover the high odds journalists face getting science news into the paper or on the air. And they are chagrined to discover how many journalists take their own time and spend their own money to improve their ability to tell the stories of science, especially when they compare these efforts with the minuscule efforts science, as a whole, makes to improve their side of this equation.
· How (and whether) to be an expert witness. This is an important topic given the degree to which junk science and accusations of junk science flood the nation’s courtrooms. Many powerful factors discourage scientists from taking part in court proceedings. They need to know as much as possible about how to avoid bad outcomes in court, and they need to realize how court victories can do more to change the face of the world than any number of scholarly publications.
· How to offer policy advice—effectively. As with everything else, there are more- and less-effective ways for scientists to have their voices heard in Washington and other places where policy is made.
Throughout the seminar, the scientist participants write stories of their own, long and short, and practice making oral presentations—talking—about their work. I am far from alone in bringing this information to scientists. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently published a guide for talking to reporters.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has produced a book on working with Congress. I am turning my suggestions into a book I hope will be published soon.
78 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA Meanwhile, the American Association for the Advancement of Science offers mass media fellowships to a small number of scientists who work as interns with newspapers, National Public Radio, newsweeklies, and elsewhere. A similar AAAS program places scientists in congressional offices and elsewhere in Washington. Seminars similar to the one I offer at Harvard are under way at the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere.
I cannot speak in detail about the results other efforts have produced.
But my small programs have been greeted with enthusiasm. Participants have had many suggestions for improvements, but they have spoken, sometimes in surprise, about the usefulness of this kind of training. And I have seen its effects.
For example, soon after my first short seminar, at MIT, one of the participants sent me an op-ed he wanted to submit to his hometown paper, The Seattle Times. I made a couple of small suggestions, he sent it in, and it appeared in print. Since then several former students have told me of their op-ed efforts— I am always gratified to hear about them. Another former seminar student now contributes to a website of short takes on science. When he told me about it I was thrilled to be able to tell him that one of my neighbors was a regular visitor to the site, and a big fan.
Still another student realized in my seminar that his research could produce not just a number of research papers but also a useful and engaging article for lay readers on the difficulty of conserving endangered ecosystems in impoverished regions. This idea was not greeted with universal enthusiasm among the faculty with whom he works (to say the least), but he persevered and is at work on this project now.
A number of students have told me that the issues we discussed and the hints I offered helped them when their publications in scientific journals brought them to the attention of the lay press. One of them recently sent me an email message describing his first encounter with a journalist. “It was just awful,” he wrote. “I fumbled, said the wrong things, contradicted myself a dozen times, you name it.” He contrasted this experience with one he had later, after sitting in on one of my short seminars: “I asked [the journalist] to give me a few minutes to get ready. I went to my office to have a good quiet spot to talk, stood up while talking, and tried to follow your guidelines. It went a lot better this time!” Needless to say, he made my day.
I believe all scientists should encounter this kind of training—a short course, a semester-long program if they want it, or even an internship in a news outlet or policy-making venue. I would not give students advanced degrees in science until they had heard the message this kind of training offers.
Is this enough to solve the problem? No. But it is a start. Seeding the nation’s scientific establishment with researchers who understand the importance of communicating with the lay public, and who are willing to take the time to communicate, can only be good. More important, the establishment of university programs to advance this goal tells scientists-in-training that their institutions value the effort and regard it as a worthwhile use of their time.
That is perhaps their most important lesson.
Revitalizing Science Journalism for a Digital Age Alfred Hermida When a dozen U.S. newspaper science journalists gathered in New York in 1934 to form a professional association, little did they know how their vocation would change in less than a century. Since that meeting, science journalism has evolved from the “gee whiz” of early reporting to focus on the interplay between science, society, and politics. Yet science journalism must continue to evolve, and must now look beyond the print model and its inherent limitations.
Advances in information and communication technologies allow for complex and controversial issues in science to be presented in compelling and innovative forms online. With the Internet, never before have so many had access to so much, so easily, so quickly. As a result, all journalists must learn new ways to gather, distill, and communicate news. These new methods have arisen not only because the Internet is different from the forms of media that came before it, but also because the Internet has had an undisputed impact on the shape of journalism.
Online journalism is emerging from its infancy and experiencing the growing pains of its teenage years. Behind the hyperbole of the transformative potential of the Internet lies a pressing reality of how changes are taking place in the way news is produced, distributed, and consumed. Online information dissemination has transformed the way that news and science reach the public.
Research shows that audiences are increasingly turning to the Internet as a
source for news. Indeed, as early as 2005, Merrill Brown, founding editor-inchief of MSNBC.com, warned of changing habits:
80 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA This message is taking its time to filter into the minds of media executives wedded to years of news habits. In November 2007, Tom Curley, the CEO of the Associated Press, echoed the words of Brown when he presented research
conducted for the AP on the changing habits of news consumers:
Young people the world over are hungry for news. They just don’t prefer our traditional platforms and packaging.
The irony of the disrupted news economy of the 21st century is that the news is hot, but the news business is not.
Curley’s message insists that there is still a need for professional journalistic skills—sourcing, researching, storytelling, and editing—but the way these skills are used has to change to create new forms of journalism and reach new and, invariably, younger audiences. These new forms, especially those online, may be particularly important for science journalism. Horrigan (2006) found that 20 percent of all Americans, or forty million adults, turn to the Internet for most of their science news. The percentage is second only to television, cited by 41 percent of respondents, with newspapers accounting for 14 percent.
The picture changes for the generation that grew up as computers and the Internet started to occupy a prominent role in society. The Internet is the most popular source for science news and information for adults under the age of thirty who enjoy broadband at home. In this group, Horrigan found that 44 percent cited the Internet as their primary source, compared to 32 percent who cited television and just 3 percent who mentioned newspapers.
If the future is online, then the way journalism is practiced must change to take account of this new medium. The short history of online journalism shows that the adoption of new technologies is colored by the experience of past technologies. Early approaches were framed within a professional journalistic context, resulting in online practices that fit within existing newsroom norms and values.
One of the leading characteristics associated with the Internet is the notion of immediacy (Ward, 2002). This is a relatively easy concept for journalists to grasp, as it fits with the established notion of being first with the news.
At the same time, it can present challenges for the traditional journalistic model.
The Web creates a news environment that is always live, shifting the news business toward around-the-clock reporting. (This is, in fact, an outcome of the development of progressively faster forms of communication: the telegraph, radio, television, and, lately, the Internet.) Online journalism can be published in real time. Breaking news can be made available on a website within seconds and updated constantly. The emergence of micro-blogging technologies such as Twitter has further accelerated the pace of news. Twitter allows for the real-time dissemination of short fragments of data from a variety of official and unofficial sources, creating what has been described as ambient journalism (Hermida, 2010).
RE VI TA L I ZI NG S C I E NC E J OU RN ALISM F O R A D IG ITAL AG E 81This immediacy of news and information represents a major cultural shift for news outlets, which largely have been fixed to a specific time—the daily newspaper or the evening TV newscast, for example. With news available anytime online, audiences come to expect news when they want it, rather than when a news outlet decides to give it to them. This audience demand runs counter to established practices of science journalism, which has tended to operate like a train system: controlled by a timetable that is itself a function of the embargo system. Findings reported in the world’s premier peer-reviewed journals, such as Science and Nature, are sent to journalists under embargo ahead of publication. The system is designed to provide journalists with enough time to research a scientific paper, interview scientists, and prepare a considered article on the research. However, former Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy (quoted in Hermida, 2007a) has suggested that the embargo system is unlikely to survive in its current form for much longer. Instead, peer-reviewed research would come out in “driblets,” rather than in weekly packages for journalists.
At first glance, this change might appear to be a negative development for science reporting. But such an estimation overlooks the limitations of the embargo system. Critics charge that it encourages lazy reporting and props up poor science journalists (Kiernan, 2006; Whitehouse, 2007). The embargo system has led to a process whereby a handful of journals set the news agenda, even though there are hundreds of publications. Reporters tend to cover the same stories so as not to miss out, and, even then, their reporting is marked by Eureka moments, portraying science as a process of discoveries.
A shift away from this model may encourage a greater variety of stories and issues and may free up journalists to investigate science. The transition may be a messy process—but then the scientific process is messy rather than managed.
Science reporting would become more like political or financial reporting, with breaking news first, followed by context, explanation, and analysis.