«Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES Science and the Media Please direct inquiries to: American Academy ...»
Robert Bazell, Chief Science and Health Correspondent for NBC News, has spent his journalistic career interacting with public information officers like Borchelt and his coauthors. While agreeing with many of their conclusions, Bazell questions the basic assertion that Americans no longer trust science or the scientific enterprise. He also offers his own pragmatic assessment of the role that institutions play in disseminating science news.
Cornelia Dean, science writer and former Science Editor at The New York Times, discusses the “collective unwillingness and/or inability of scientists” to talk to the public. Dean recalls a time when the disconnect between scientists and the public was not very important. Today, however, it has big implications for the nation’s public life. She offers practical suggestions for bridging the gap between scientists and the public.
In assessing the prospects for science journalism in a digital age, Alfred Hermida, a veteran BBC correspondent and now Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, explores the changing nature of science news. Hermida welcomes the participatory potential of the Internet for science stories but warns that the nonlinear nature of the Web can make it a challenging medium, in which readers may “jump straight into a deep end.” Although journalists need not be scientists or engineers, they do need to have enough technical understanding to communicate effectively the scientific or technological dimensions of public policy issues that dominate the news.
In his essay, William A. Wulf, University Professor and AT&T Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Virginia, cites six “poor, and perhaps even dangerous” examples of media coverage. His intention is not to condemn the media, but rather to invite journalists and the technical community to share a responsibility to inform the public.
x S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA*** As the world grows more complex, there is an increasing need for citizens to understand the scientific and technological dimensions of daily news events.
Journalists play a critical role in helping readers, listeners, and viewers appreciate the science underlying major policy choices. And scientists, in turn, must effectively communicate to the public, especially through the media. We hope that the essays gathered in this volume will generate a broader understanding of the intertwined roles of the media and the scientific and technical community in helping to ensure a well-informed public.
Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser, Cochairs American Academy working group on Science, Technology, and the Media
Science and the Media Donald Kennedy Geneva Overholser, Director of the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, and I have been engaged with a fine group of colleagues in thinking about an old and sometimes difficult topic: the relationship between journalists who report science and scientists who do the science on which they report. We are not the first group to have tackled this problem, nor do we seriously expect to have the last word on it. We have had wonderfully thoughtful written analyses by some of those involved in the transaction—not only science journalists like Corey Dean, Boyce Rensberger, and Bob Bazell; but scientists like Tom Lovejoy and Dan Schrag; and public information officers like Earl Holland and Rick Borchelt, who are often found near the center of such exchanges. Our committee has proceeded with some enthusiasm because we think scientific understanding is a precious resource for society and because we believe the interface for scientific communication can be improved.
Why is this issue worth so much attention? A broadly spread citizen understanding of science and technology is a public good, one the United States cannot have too much of. Several arguments support this proposition. First, Americans are a curious people, equipped with a lively sense of wonder. Knowledge about the natural world is a mainstream of the culture—absolutely on a par with the arts and humanities, though unaccountably often given second place on the liberal arts menu. Second, American democracy has to decide, in any given year, on a host of issues that have important scientific and technological content: what to do about climate change, how to organize human or robotic exploration of space, how to develop a sustainable national energy policy, how to treat the health potential offered by embryonic stem cells, and the like. To vote intelligently, citizens will increasingly require a level of scientific literacy. Finally, the United States needs to develop a layer of committed
Those are the three legs that support science in our culture, and they all depend on this singularly important relationship between scientists and science journalists. In a number of respects that relationship is in good health: the best reporters have learned a lot of science, and the best scientists have forged productive relationships with journalists. Nevertheless, complaints are heard from both sides—enough to encourage a kind of caricature of misunderstanding. Scientist A complains that the reporter has not taken the trouble to get some background on climate change science and has to be educated from scratch. After a certain amount of that, the reporter writes a story in which A’s view is paired with criticism from a person who denies global warming.
“The trouble with these guys,” Scientist A says, “is that they each have a twocard Rolodex with an IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] name on one and Fred Singer’s on the other.” The journalist might point out that had scientists in this area been both more careful and more understandable in describing the underlying issues to journalists, Scientist A would not have had to deliver a cram course to a reporter with a short deadline. As for the two contending views, to ask that journalists count the ayes and nays for every issue may be asking too much—although in the climate change case the scientists’ complaint has some grounding.
A second concern revolves around a disturbing question: is science writing a disappearing culture? Cristine Russell contributed a poignant piece to the journal of the National Association of Science Writers in which she describes the demise of the science page—in its time a very good one—at The Baltimore Sun. The number of sections or departments dedicated to science in major American metropolitan dailies is estimated to have fallen by half over the past ten years as declining newspaper economics have tightened their grip. Even at The New York Times, with its splendid staff of science writers, fans have watched its excellent Tuesday Science section gradually morph from mostly science to mostly health.
At Science we faced some interesting choices because we had some welltrained and careful science writers in our news department, which has sent several of its alumni to The New York Times and National Public Radio, as well as two dozen or so science editors who are all well post-Ph.D. in their disciplinary specialties. Every week the two groups met to decide which among the papers we planned to publish would be covered by the news section and
2 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IAwhich would instead be covered in a “perspectives” written by a scientist recruited by the editorial staff. Blood was never shed on these occasions, but sometimes problems followed. The purpose of the perspective was to look at the broader field to which the paper contributes; it was written by a scientist who knew the field well and could establish a context for the new findings.
If the news section covered the paper, the writer could ask questions that challenged the judgment of an editor. Although this occasionally happened, a clear separation was maintained: editors did not tell writers who the peer reviewers of a paper were, and writers did not ask editors who ought to be contacted or avoided.
A HYPOTHETICAL PROBLEM
In pondering the understandings and failures of understanding that occur when a scientist from, say, the University of the Midwest is talking to journalists from, say, the Capitol Star, our committee has tried to identify some common themes. The scientist thinks that her discovery is important, and with great enthusiasm she describes the problem and her experimental solution of it. The journalist, for whom the science beat constitutes only a small part of his portfolio, has little knowledge of the context for his interviewee’s work and cannot judge its significance. To check things out, he calls the public information officer (PIO) at the scientist’s university to get some background.
This particular PIO had prepared a press release based on discussing the work with the investigator and her colleagues and is able to supply the journalist with what he needs. Part of the release does seem clearer to the reporter than the investigator had been. Being on short deadline, he makes use of a paragraph from the release as the lead for his story, but he adds additional material he had absorbed from the researcher’s account. The story appears the next morning with the headline “University of the Midwest Researcher Finds Gene for Muscular Dystrophy.” This story initiates a brisk conversation between the researcher and the journalist. The former points out that the gene relates to a mouse model of muscular dystrophy and that what she had actually found was a site on one chromosome that probably contains the gene.
The journalist blames the headline writer, pointing out that the text of the story is far more realistic—save perhaps for some modest overreaching in the part of the press release he had quoted—which naturally he blames on the PIO. No one is left entirely happy with the outcome.
This scenario is not only hypothetical; it is a caricature. But it is a not unrealistic scenario for understanding the roles played by different actors in this complex and challenging relationship.
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TRANSLATION: WHEN CULTURES MIXPublic understanding of science is a major social good. Understandable and inspiring writing about science changes lives: consider the number of young men and women whose passion for nature was stirred by Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind or, more recently, by David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo; or consider the Los Angeles children who started thinking about the cosmos because K. C. Cole’s books based on her Los Angeles Times pieces roused their curiosity. Beyond the value inherent in the creation of an inquiring citizenry, another case is to be made for public understanding of science.
Important social decisions have to be made wherever science and technology have a powerful impact on prospective public policies. Support for those policies is dependent on voters who can sort out that relationship and evaluate the science. That, in turn, depends heavily on what the scientists say and how carefully they say it and on the journalists who record and interpret the outcome for the public. The relationship between scientists and journalists must be improved—not because it is in trouble but because it is important.
Various forces—some natural, some human—make the junction of science and policy a perilous place in which to move from the one to the other in a seamless, untroubled way. The case of climate change and what to do about it is perhaps the clearest venue where science is interacting with policy formation.
The IPCC, a project begun in 1988 as a collaboration between the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, has assembled a large body of the best climate scientists from around the world.
Their reports include not only briefings on the status of the science—drawing on atmospheric physics, oceanography, paleoclimatology, and other disciplines —but also sections on adaptation and mitigation strategies from groups including economists and other social scientists. Each IPCC assessment report includes a summary for policy-makers. The summary represents a consensus view of the climate science as developed by government officials and others.
As such, the views expressed in the summary are sometimes marginally more cautious than the views of the scientists. The nuances of this process, well understood in the climate-change science community, may be lost in published accounts of IPCC findings.
For example, the general conclusions relate the increase in average global temperature already experienced—about 0.7 degrees Celsius—to the increase in greenhouse gases (especially CO2, which has risen from a preindustrial level of 280 ppm/v to the present 388 ppm/v) that has resulted from human activity. The conclusions are also firm in supporting the use, for projection, of general circulation models that predict a gradual increase in average global temperature of between 2.5 and 7.0 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, as well as a sea-level rise of 20 to 82 cm and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events. A small number of scientists in the field still disagree with the IPCC consensus. Some of these scientists believe that the consensus