«Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES Science and the Media Please direct inquiries to: American Academy ...»
28 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA American University communications researcher Matthew C. Nisbet agrees.45 He says that Americans’ views on controversial science and policy are often based on what political or religious leaders believe rather than on their own understanding of the issues. “The dominant assumption in science literacy is if only the public knew more, the debates would go away,” says Nisbet. “But most of the public is unlikely to have the motivation or ability to be fully informed about topics like stem cell research, global warming, or intelligent design.” Instead, he says, they tend to use shortcuts, taking their cues from politicians or other opinion leaders they respect. “They take the information and filter it through underlying values like ideology and religion,” says Nisbet.
Ultimately, how the media cover or frame these debates—the slant of the articles and the sources of scientific and political information—helps shape the way both politicians and other leaders, as well as the public, view scientific and technological issues.
IMPROVING COVERAGE OF SCIENCE AND PUBLIC POLICYScience Writers versus General-Assignment Coverage Are readers and listeners best served by coverage of science and policy topics by specialized science reporters or by reporters with a general assignment or political background?
I would argue that coverage of recent controversies in science and public policy suggests that reporters with a specialty in science journalism are better equipped than general-assignment reporters to provide context and background on the research itself; science reporters can pick up skills needed to write about the legal, political, and ethical debates surrounding the research. This is true of both breaking news, where there is little time to get up to speed on the science, as well as more in-depth features, which require greater understanding of a given science field.
In a 2005 review of coverage of the debate over teaching evolution and intelligent design in schools, authors Mooney and Nisbet agree. They contend that press coverage is often misleading when science moves into political and legal realms, and “it ceases to be covered by context-oriented science reporters and is instead bounced to political pages, opinion pages and television news.”46 In the process, they argue, the science is distorted, as non-science reporters “deemphasize the strong scientific case in favor of evolution and instead lend credence to the notion that a growing ‘controversy’ exists over evolutionary science.”
45. Matthew C. Nisbet (Assistant Professor, School of Communication, American University), telephone interview by the author, May 19, 2006.
46. Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet, “Undoing Darwin,” Columbia Journalism Review (September/October 2005).
I M P RO VI NG RE P ORT I NG ON S C IEN CE AN D P U BLIC P O LICY 29After reviewing seventeen months of evolution stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as television news and local papers, Mooney and Nisbet concluded that science writers generally provide an accurate description of the scientific view of evolution, while political, general assignment, and TV reporters provide little “real context” for the basic science and instead bend over backward to give false “balance” to their stories by lending “undue credibility to theological attacks that masquerade as being ‘scientific’ in nature.” Too often, intelligent design is presented as an alternative scientific explanation, rather than as a sophisticated religious argument that cannot be tested through normal scientific channels.
Mooney and Nisbet say that the news media, and the public, will be better served by assigning coverage of complex scientific and political debates to reporters with training and experience in covering science. “The intelligentdesign debate is one among a growing number of controversies in which technical complexity, with disputes over ‘facts,’ data and expertise, has altered the political battleground. The traditional generalist correspondent will be hard-pressed to cover these topics in any other format... balancing arguments while narrowly focusing on the implications for who’s ahead and who’s behind in the contest to decide policy.”47 Instead, they argue, there should be a “growing demand for journalists with specialized expertise and background.” “Political writers clearly don’t have the background. They don’t know how to judge the validity” of conflicting scientific and technical information, says author K. C. Cole, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California (USC) and former Los Angeles Times science reporter. Science writers, she says, “have a bullshit detector. You know your field and smell stuff that doesn’t sound right.”48 But science writers themselves need to push for a primary role in the science-policy turf. Science writer Hotz criticizes the tendency of some newspaper science writers to “head for the hills” when breaking news or a sciencepolicy story presents itself, preferring instead to hang out in the ivory tower and do more timeless feature science stories.49 Others caution that science writers need to be careful not to become cheerleaders for science or appear to get too close to their science sources.
Nonetheless, some of the most effective science-policy coverage has come from experienced science reporters who have covered their fields “from soup to nuts” and have developed the ability to analyze both complex science and policy with equal competency.
48. K. C. Cole, telephone interview by the author, March 20, 2006.
49. Hotz, interview by the author.
Despite the current cutbacks in news-reporting jobs, the pipeline for new science writers is bigger than ever before. There are about fifty American universities that offer science writing programs or courses in science writing, with most of the programs at the graduate level, according to a 2007 online Directory of Science Communication Courses and Programs compiled by a team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Some of the oldest programs, at places like Columbia University and Boston University, started in the 1960s, in part because of the boost for science writing as a result of the space program.
A number of new programs started over the past decade. Most are broadly focused on science, while some specialize in environmental or health journalism, says Wisconsin journalism professor Sharon Dunwoody.50 Many of the newer programs give preference to students with an undergraduate or graduate science background. However, her own research indicates that the primary predictor of effective science reporting is number of years on the job, rather than formal science training.51 Improving specialty journalism, including science and medical reporting, was targeted in an Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, launched in 2005 by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L.
Knight Foundation. “Reporters need to know even more about complex beats if they are to deliver stories that are both shorter and more interesting. Whether reporting on the economy, medical advances, or the government, reporters need to provide not just facts but context,” said a McKinsey & Company report prepared for the initiative.52 In response to a Carnegie-Knight curriculum enrichment grant, the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism launched a new master of arts specialized journalism program to allow journalists to retool their skills and knowledge, with science and technology as one of the core areas.53 The Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, expanded the curriculum of its two-year master’s degree program to include joint degrees with other disciplines and schools, such as public health. And the
50. Directory of Science Communication Courses and Programs, 2007, http://dsc.journalism.wisc.edu/index.html; and Sharon Dunwoody (Evjue Bascom Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison), email message to and telephone interview by the author, March 17, 2006.
51. Sharon Dunwoody, “How Valuable is Formal Science Training to Science Journalists?” Comunicacao e Sociedade 6 (2004): 75–78.
52. McKinsey & Company Report, “Improving the Education of Tomorrow’s Journalists,” based on individual interviews with forty leaders in the news industry, http://www.carnegie.org/publications.
53. Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, Curriculum Enrichment, http://newsinitiative.org/initiative/curriculum.html. Also Annenberg Specialized Journalism, http://annenberg.usc.edu/Prospective/Masters/Specialized.aspx.
I M P RO VI NG RE P ORT I NG ON S C IEN CE AN D P U BLIC P O LICY 31Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, in Fall 2005, launched a new master of arts program for experienced journalists to gain expertise in specific subject areas, including health and science, “so that they may cover complicated issues in a sophisticated, nuanced manner.”54
On-the-Job Training for Journalists
There is no single route to becoming a science writer. While young science journalists are coming increasingly from specialized science journalism programs (many with formal science training), other science writers have long come from general assignment or other beats. (One trip to an emergency room to cover a local disaster can create an instant medical writer.) In any case, rapid advancements in science require continuous on-the-job training.
NASW, the main professional membership organization, provides a variety of services and publishes a quarterly magazine, ScienceWriters.55 NASW holds its annual journalism workshops in conjunction with the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), a fifty-year-old educational organization started by science journalists to improve the quality of science information reaching the public. CASW’s New Horizons in Science program showcases cutting-edge science by bringing distinguished scientists from a variety of disciplines to a host university for an intensive journalism seminar.56 The Society for Environmental Journalists, Association of Health Care Journalists, and American Medical Writers Association also host annual meetings to update their members. International science writers now gather regularly under the auspices of the World Federation of Science Journalists, an association of more than forty science and technology journalism groups from Africa, the Americas, the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, and the Middle East that was founded in
2002.57 The federation’s meetings are creating new global science writing relationships, including an upcoming 2011 international meeting in Cairo hosted by Arab and American science writers. Universities, scientific organizations, government agencies, and other groups also host seminars and backgrounders for journalists.
Increasingly, mid-career fellowships offer opportunities for science journalists to go back to school, allowing them to delve more deeply into scientific disciplines. The Knight Science Journalism Fellowships, started in 1982
54. Ibid. See also http://www.journalism.columbia.edu for information on the master of arts in journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
55. ScienceWriters is published four times a year by NASW. Archives are available to members at http://www.nasw.org.
56. CASW, http://www.casw.org, is an independent nonprofit organization devoted to improving science writing and is run by longtime Executive Director Ben Patrusky and Administrator Diane McGurgan. Paul Raeburn is the Program Director for New Horizons in Science. The author is the current President.
57. Cristine Russell, “Science Journalism Goes Global,” Science 324 (June 19, 2009): 1491.
The World Federation of Science Journalists, http://www.wfsj.org, will hold the 7th World Conference of Science Journalists in Cairo, June 2011.
32 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, give experienced journalists from around the world who cover science, technology, medicine, or the environment a chance to spend an academic year on campus; the MIT program also holds short “boot camps” on topical science issues to help reporters learn about everything from “medical evidence” to nanotechnology.58 Journalism fellowships offered by the MBL (Marine Biological Laboratory) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, allow journalists to experience biomedical and environmental research firsthand by working in the lab and the field, while the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Narragansett, Rhode Island, also sponsors immersion workshops and environmental fellowships. Other programs in biomedicine and health, including at Harvard Medical School and the Centers for Disease Control, provide journalism training as well.
The quality of science journalism for the general public is another issue.
While a host of prizes from journalism and scientific organizations have long rewarded the top science writers, there has been less scrutiny of science writing across the spectrum. Now, the Internet has spawned several new sites for evaluating science stories.