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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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But a few minutes into our talk she realized, I suppose, that what she was saying was very much like a lecture she was used to giving. She turned slowly away from me and started speaking directly to the camera. Our conversation came to a halt. Now, she was in lecture mode. Her tone of voice lost its simple, natural quality, and her words became more formal and laced with jargon. Within a minute, I found her hard to understand and I knew she had probably left the audience behind, too. This was unsettling because I wanted very much to understand her work. I coaxed her back with naive questions and her tone became warm again. Looking into the face of another human, eager to understand, her language once more became comprehensible. After a couple of 10 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA minutes, though, she drifted off into lecture mode again and I had to draw her back. This happened three or four times, and it made a profound impression on me. There seemed to be a tremendous difference between talking in general, to no one in particular, and speaking to an actual person. It was the difference between speaking in her own natural voice and becoming almost an automaton. It reminded me of my days as a young actor when I had studied the rigorous art of improvisation. I, too, went from mechanically seeming to relate to actual contact.

It made me wonder: if scientists could communicate more in their own voices—in a familiar tone, with a less specialized vocabulary—would a wide range of people understand them better? Would their work be better understood by the general public, policy-makers, funders, and, even in some cases, other scientists?

As a young actor, I was transformed by learning to improvise. Almost everyone I knew who had studied it was changed for the better by it—because the heart of improvisation, far less than the ability to make things up, is relating and communicating with others.

I wondered if being exposed to the techniques of improvisation could help scientists improve their oral presentations. I asked a friend at USC if she could arrange for me to work for an afternoon with twenty engineering students. I began the session by having the students talk for a couple of minutes about their work. Then we improvised for three hours, and after that the students spoke again. There was a noticeable improvement in their ability to communicate and to speak with an animation and presence that encouraged listeners to stay with them. They had begun to relate better.

Oral presentation is, of course, only one small part of the communication of science. But I was curious to see if this unconventional approach might have a place in building a bridge between the rigor of science and the curiosity of non-scientists.

A couple of years later, we tried the experiment again at Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory, and we seemed to get similar, positive results. (A short video of what we did is available at www.stonybrook.edu/journalism/science.) The next step will be to test the results more rigorously—for instance, we might poll audiences on the clarity of scientists’ presentations before the scientists learn to use these techniques and then again after they’ve studied them to see if their second presentations actually rate higher.

It’s clear that improvisation is not the only way to improve oral presentations, and neither is oral presentation the only kind of communication that’s keeping non-scientists away from the pleasures of science. Stronger writing skills need to be developed as well. To address the full range, Stony Brook has founded a Center for Communicating Science, which will offer courses in all forms of communication. In Spring 2010, the center began a series of conferences in partnership with Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory that included workshops on distilling the message, writing I N Y O U R OWN VO ICE 11 for the public, interacting with the media, using newer media, and improvisation. An early review of questionnaires completed by scientists who participated showed a strong interest in these workshops.

The effort is not to oversimplify science. We need clarity and vividness, but not—please, not—dumbing down. Some of our great science communicators have shown that there are deeply engaging stories in science (science itself is the greatest detective story ever told) and that it’s possible to be personal and passionate about the study of nature without losing respect for the precision and accuracy at the heart of that study. Richard Feynman was both fun to listen to and precise. Even when he explained something in simple terms, he usually let you know that it was often more complicated than that. And when you were ready, he let you in on a little more of the complexity.

Feynman was one of those extraordinary communicators that nature produces from time to time. But they occur by chance. Why should effective, inspiring communication of science be left to chance? Science is rigorous; can’t we be just as rigorous about teaching its communication?

Is it too much to hope that there will be a time when the skills of communicating science will be taught as a regular part of the science curriculum, and not as something added on for a few hours at the end? Isn’t good communication fundamental to science? How else can it be successfully replicated, funded, and taught?

But don’t let my high-flown arguments fool you. This is really a selfish plea. I’m too old to learn all the math and chemistry I need to understand the subtleties of the Higgs particle or the intricacies of reverse transcriptase. Even if I did, I’d only have access to one small part of the whole. I want to stand next to you scientists and gaze out at the entire horizon, while you point out what to look for.

Every scientist reading this has a deep passion for science. I implore you:

let your passion out. Share it with us. Warmly, with stories, imagination, even with humor. But most of all, in your own voice.

–  –  –

Covering Controversial Science:

Improving Reporting on Science and Public Policy Cristine Russell On a daily basis, news headlines blast warnings and trumpet battles over controversial scientific research and public-policy issues that confront the United States and the rest of the world in the early twenty-first century.1 Global climate change, influenza pandemics, embryonic stem cell research, genetic engineering, diet and obesity, teaching evolution in schools, space exploration, renewable energy technologies, and bioterrorism are just a few of the media subjects that have significant implications for both public policy and personal decisionmaking.

There is a greater need than ever before for journalists who are skilled in reporting both the underlying complexity of science and technology as well as the legal, ethical, and political ramifications. Unfortunately, jobs for full-time science writers at major print and electronic outlets are declining, while the number of important science and science-policy developments to cover is increasing. The news hole is shrinking, and the stories that do appear may be confusing, misleading, or downright wrong. Many important topics are left unreported in favor of soft “news you can use” consumer health and medical features on everything from fad diets to the latest exercise machines. The Internet offers an unlimited source of real-time information, but, unsorted and unevaluated, it can be bewildering and inaccurate for the unsophisticated user.

The rise of partisan blogs on controversial science-policy topics, such as climate change, may mislead or further polarize the American public.

1. This paper was originally prepared during a Spring 2006 fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Additional work has been conducted by the author as a Senior Fellow at the Environment and Natural Resources Program of HKS’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. This updated version was prepared in Spring 2010, with the help of HKS research assistant Matt Homer. Please see http://www.hks.harvard.edu/presspol/publications/papers/working_papers/2006_04_russell.pdf for the full 2006 paper on the Shorenstein website.


Surveys show that many Americans are “scientifically illiterate” and woefully unprepared to understand basic scientific concepts or the applications of science and technology. Since the general public gets most of its scientific, environmental, and health information from the news media, journalists have an opportunity to help fill the information gap. But leaders in both the scientific and journalistic communities feel that too often reporters and scientists are themselves ill-prepared for communicating about science and public policy in a manner that helps the public better understand pressing issues, from climate change to the pandemic spread of the novel H1N1 influenza virus.

As a result, science and policy issues are frequently presented as a battle between dueling experts at two extremes, an approach that gives a false sense of balance and often overemphasizes minority views. Complicated issues become oversimplified; uncertainty is underemphasized; controversy trumps consensus. “Yo-yo” reporting swings from breakthroughs that over-promise to disasters that disproportionately emphasize the negative. Coverage, particularly by inexperienced reporters, may fall short on science and long on political reporting, promoting conflict and personality over substance. This type of coverage trumpets who is winning or losing the race in an effort to capture public and political support.

The challenge ahead is to boost both spot news and analytical coverage— in old and new media—of the important issues in science and technology, providing insight and context for understanding the status of important debates involving scientific research. In doing so, the news media must help sort out the potential public and personal choices facing both decision-makers and individual citizens.

This paper will examine some of the following questions:

–  –  –

In this paper, science will be defined broadly: physical and life sciences;

social sciences such as psychology; medicine and health; environment and energy; space; engineering and technology. The common denominator is the use of standard research methodology designed to ask questions and derive answers. Science news ranges from basic research to applications of science and 14 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA technology, as well as society’s responses to scientific developments. Given the breadth of the subject, this paper will focus primarily on the mainstream news media, particularly newspaper coverage of science.


History of Science News Coverage in the United States The development of science writing as a journalism specialty mirrors the growth of the scientific research enterprise in the United States. Starting as early as 1934, a dozen science writers from major American newspapers banded together to form the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), an organization dedicated to improving the popular reporting of new scientific developments for the general public.2 Since then, science writers have covered “some of the most momentous events in human history. Science reporters were the first to tell the public of the splitting of the uranium atom and of the consequent explosion of the first atomic bomb” as well as the discovery of antibiotic “wonder drugs” that could cure deadly diseases.3 Following World War II, as the federal government began to invest heavily in scientific and medical research, the pace of new developments required science reporters to be prepared to follow everything from physics to polio vaccine development. Science writing took off as a staple of daily news coverage when a large cadre of general-assignment reporters, many with little or no knowledge of science, were “flung into covering science by editors seeking to sate the reader appetite for science news that exploded in the wake of the Soviet Sputnik in the fall of 1957,”4 noted the late Jerry Bishop, a pioneering science reporter for The Wall Street Journal. For much of the 1960s, science reporting was on-the-job training, as the space race received extensive—and usually laudatory—coverage in newspapers and magazines and on television.

At the same time, the successful transplant of a heart into a human patient in 1967 and the pioneering use of chemotherapy to treat cancer promoted the ever-growing coverage of medicine.

Early science reporting was often characterized by a “gee whiz” fascination with the new developments in science, medicine, and technology. But in the 1970s, the coverage turned more skeptical as concerns about environmental contamination led to calls for more government regulation, and rapid developments in biomedical research raised new ethical concerns. In the 1980s, new diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, surprised a world that thought deadly infectious diseases were a thing of the past, while the pace of technological developments, such as the computer, quickened.

2. National Association of Science Writers (NASW), http://www.nasw.org.

3. Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), “Careers in Science Writing,” http://www.casw.org/casw/resources-students.

4. The late Jerry Bishop was a former president of CASW, http://www.casw.org/casw/history.


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