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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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In May 2006, the MIT program launched the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, a website for science, medical, and environmental reporters and editors to view major stories from around the world. KSJ Tracker, written primarily by veteran science writer Charles Petit, provides a sampling of recent science news—from research to policy—and, where possible, related press releases and links. Its goal is to improve the quality of science writing by giving science reporters and editors “convenient and timely access to the work of peers across the country” so “they can better evaluate and improve their own performance.”59 Another ambitious foundation-funded website, Health News Review, has evaluated more than a thousand news stories in major U.S. media about medical treatments, tests, and procedures since it began in 2006. Using a standardized five-star grading scale that focuses on accuracy, balance, and completeness (the ABCs), a team of medical, public health, and journalism professionals provides tough—and sometimes unrealistic—critiques of health coverage in leading circulation newspapers, wire services, newsmagazines, and major online health news sites. (It has stopped daily reviews of health news stories by the major television networks because of the consistently poor ratings.)60 Health News Review, overseen by University of Minnesota health

58. The Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT, http://web.mit.edu/knight-science, is directed by science journalist and author Phil Hilts.

59. Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT, Knight Science Journalism Tracker, http:// ksjtracker.mit.edu. The head tracker is longtime science writer Charles Petit, CASW Vice President and a former NASW president.

60. The publisher of the website Health News Review, http://www.healthnewsreview.org, is Gary Schwitzer, a health journalism professor at the University of Minnesota and former CNN medical editor and reporter. It is funded by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making.


journalism professor Gary Schwitzer, is a valuable resource for journalists, the medical community, and consumers who use the Web for health information.

In January 2008, the Columbia Journalism Review, the leading American media monitor, started a new online section, The Observatory, which provides news analysis and commentary on developments and trends in science journalism coverage, from the environment to medicine. “As the twenty-first century unfolds, the need for clear, credible science journalism will only become more crucial. It is among the most important and complicated of all journalistic beats, informing all manner of public, policy, legal doctrine, financial investment, academic research and consumer behavior,” wrote founding editor Curtis Brainard.61 Sigma Xi, the national scientific research society, also has a daily science news website 62 that provides summaries and links to science stories from a variety of news organizations.

Training for Nonscience Writers and Editors

Many of the journalists who may be called upon to report about science on an occasional or regular basis are not up to the task. General assignment, education, business, investigative, religion, agriculture, political, or foreign correspondents need to be prepared for the inevitable moment when a challenging science, medical, or environmental story lands on their desks. As journalism programs expand specialty training, it is important to expose all journalism students to techniques for writing about science and policy issues, as well as the technical skills to evaluate numbers, public opinion polls, and surveys that are a regular part of all beats.

Similarly, working reporters and editors on a variety of beats need help doing a better job writing about science and technology controversies that regularly crop up in the news. On-the-job training through professional organizations and workshops offers an opportunity for reporters of all stripes to learn how to improve coverage of pressing science and technology topics— from biodiversity to biotechnology. More outreach work can and should be done in this area, finding novel ways to get professional science-writing training to journalists strapped for time and money. Two new Knight Foundation initiatives in online training, for example, could provide a means of improving coverage of science and technology issues. The News University, launched in 2005 by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, is an innovative way to provide interactive, inexpensive online courses for journalists of all backgrounds and media. For example, a self-directed course on “Covering Climate Change” on the Poynter site is geared toward the non-environment reporter and covers

61. Columbia Journalism Review, The Observatory, http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory.

The author is a contributing editor.

62. Sigma Xi, Science in the News, is part of the American Scientist website, http://www.americanscientist.org/science.

34 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA all the basics needed to report on climate change. The Knight Digital Media Center, started in April 2006, provides “training for New Media at all levels— from the traditional journalist making the transition to New Media to the New Media journalist seeking to improve critical thinking and beat reporting skills.” A March 2007 Knight seminar looked at best practices for “covering science in cyberspace.” 63 Television and radio reporters also need more opportunities for training in specialty beats like science.

Media outlets should explore ways to better utilize science writers in their coverage of local, national, and international policy issues. More team coverage, such as pairing a science writer with a political reporter, could result in a better product for readers (rather than assigning the science or medical reporter to the proverbial sidebar to a story written by a general assignment or political reporter). Also, given the potential for emergency news coverage in a variety of areas, from an outbreak of H1N1 influenza to a massive deepwater drilling oil spill, teams need to be trained for spot coverage that better utilizes the scientific, medical, environmental, and technical capacity of specialty reporters both in print, on the air, and online. Going behind the news, National Public Radio science journalist Richard Harris, for example, was among the first to challenge official estimates of the amount of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill in Spring 2010. He reported on an exclusive expert analysis suggesting that the amount of oil leaking was far higher than the company originally suggested.

As biotech and pharmaceutical companies fund an increasing array of basic and clinical research and actively court the media, business and technology reporters also need more training. It is now standard to scrutinize potential financial conflicts of interest among university as well as industry researchers, since many academics have become consultants or participants in businessfunded research projects. However, business and general-assignment reporters without experience in science coverage are also susceptible to overly promotional coverage of proponents’ claims of new product benefits or, alternatively, overly negative coverage of critics’ claims of side effects and other risks.

Communications Training for Scientists

Scientists need to become better communicators about science and policy, translating technical studies into plain English that both reporters and the public can understand. Trained science writers in the public information offices of universities, government agencies, and the private sector can be invaluable in guiding this process, as long as their goal is brokering the best

63. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, http://www.knightfdn.org, has funded a variety of journalism initiatives. The Knight Digital Media Center, http://www.knightdigital mediacenter.org, is a partnership between USC Annenberg School for Communication and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. The Poynter Institute News University is at http://www.newsu.org.


information possible for journalists and the public (rather than protective actions to keep scientists at arms length, as was the case with some federal government climate change stories during the Bush administration).64 Many of these public information offices, as well as scientific professional organizations, have organized their own training for scientists to better prepare them for the types of questions to expect in press briefings or interviews and have brought in reporters to talk about the process.

In addition, science journalism groups such as the CASW have long offered briefings for scientists at national meetings and at universities about how to improve communication to the public about science. They bring in leading science journalists to explain how the news media does its job and to provide tips for scientists on talking to the press.65 For thirty years, AAAS has offered “mass media” summer fellowships with media outlets nationwide for graduate and postgraduate science and engineering students who are interested in writing about science. (Some, such as NPR correspondent Harris, become science writers; others go into scientific careers better equipped to communicate about science.) The AAAS also has a variety of science and technology policy fellowships to better acquaint scientists with federal policy-making.66 The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, whose membership includes many distinguished scientists and journalists, launched a project in 2006 to look at “The Media in Society: How the Media Cover Science and the Economy.”67 One of the most intensive efforts to improve scientists’ ability to communicate to the media, policy-makers, and the public has been the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University; it offers a model for other disciplines. Aimed at mid-career academic environmental scientists who agree to participate in two weeklong seminars, the Leopold program has trained more than 150 Fellows since 1998. One of its founders, distinguished marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator, says the program has empowered previously gun-shy scientists to do a better job communicating with the public. “After training, they have a better understanding of what journalists need, how

64. See coverage by former New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin and Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin for examples of several attempts by Bush administration political appointees to control communications between journalists and scientists in agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

65. “Why Scientists Should Talk to the Media,” a video based on an October 2009 Yale University School of Medicine seminar organized by CASW, http://casw.org/videos-october-2009


66. American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), http://www.aaas.org.

67. American Academy of Arts and Sciences, interviews by the author and information online, http://www.amacad.org/projects/social.aspx.

36 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA much journalists know, and how to talk about science in ways that are useful and understandable,” she said in an earlier interview.68 A more portable version of how and why scientists should talk to the media can be found in recent books from two highly regarded science writers who have operated inside and outside the scientific fence. Veteran science reporter Cornelia Dean makes the case in her compact 2009 book, Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public. Dennis Meredith, in Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work, distills decades of work in science communication at the nation’s leading universities into a practical guide and website for scientists and engineers. He is fond of a succinct Albert Einstein quote that says it all: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”69

Guidelines for Improving Coverage

There is no instruction manual for writing about science. Good science writing combines knowledge of the subject, the skill to translate complexity into language understandable to the layman, and the ability to tell a story that will engage the reader, listener, or viewer. Writing about controversies involving science and public policy requires additional juggling skills, assessing the state of science, the stakeholders in the debate, and the means for managing the problem, now or in the future. Although each story is different, journalists and those they cover should keep the following ten guidelines in mind when communicating about controversial science and policy issues.70

1. Put new research in context. Is it preliminary or definitive? Are findings statistically significant, or could they have occurred by chance? Does the research confirm or conflict with past research? What additional research needs to be done? How important is the new research to advancing the field or to a given public-policy issue? Who conducted the research, and what is the individual or institutional reputation or track record? Who funded the research? Has it been presented at a scientific meeting or published in a reputable scientific journal? How was the

68. Jane Lubchenco (confirmed as Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, March 2009; former Distinguished Professor of Zoology and Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology, Oregon State University; former President, AAAS, and Ecological Society of America), interview by the author, February 19, 2006. The Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, http://leopoldleadership.stanford.edu, based at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, is funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

69. Cornelia Dean, Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009); Dennis Meredith, Explaining Research:

How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), http://www.explainingresearch.com.

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