Scientists and journalists, still going….

Really, one of these times I’ll get onto a new topic, but every time I turn around, new posts pop up in the scientists and journalists conversation. The most recent updates:

Chris Mooney, part II. I want to emphasize a resource he linked: the report from a 2005 workshop on “Science Communications and the News Media.” I haven’t had time to do more than skim it yet, but it’s interesting reading.

Chris also notes:

The real upshot of all this is that scientists–at least those planning on doing interviews–need to study the media, at least in enough detail to get a sense of some of these basics. And vice-versa: Journalists need to talk to scientists to understand their qualms. But sweeping generalizations and lashings out from either camp won’t help things.


Mike also has a follow-up, and Chad shares his own media stories, and reaction to it by colleagues:

The most interesting thing about this, to me, was how many people seemed to find the whole business radioactive. Three people turned it down outright, and the fourth was willing to do it, but very happy to hand it off to me. And the faculty from other departments who I ate lunch with also regarded it as completely ridiculous.

I sympathize more with this one, because it was TV, which to me is a whole other ball of wax. (Just wait until the ASM video clip comes out…you’ll see why I stick to print media!)

Finally, the Chronicle had a timely story–not exactly on this topic, but on a journalist who received a PhD in comparative literature, but decided not to go into academia. It contained this on-topic quote:

But journalists often look down on Ph.D.’s. That was the flip side of my problem. There’s a mutual disdain between academics and journalists that is based more on an unwillingness to understand the other’s position than anything else. Academics are in constant fear of being misunderstood in the popular press, and think journalists often miss the nuances of a particular subject.

It’s been interesting reading all the comments…but what I want to know now is, where do we go from here? How do we educate the rest of our colleagues–or do we even bother to try? Your thoughts are welcome.

[Edited to add: and speaking of The Chronicle, they also have mentioned the discussion on their blog.]

8 Replies to “Scientists and journalists, still going….”

  1. Thanks for starting this conversation Tara.

    As an aspiring science journalist it’s been depressing to read the many negative comments and bleak outlooks.

    “Where do we go from here? How do we educate the rest of our colleagues–or do we even bother to try?”

    I think a productive solution must also include educating EDITORS (especially those from general, non-science media outlets) about how to specifically deal with science stories.

    Just a thought.

  2. say what you will about science journalists. but the bottom line is if you don’t interact with us, don’t expect anyone to care about issues that affect you.
    for instance, a lot of researchers i know are chagrined about the state of US biomedical research funding right now, and they argue that the public should care about the funding issue because it impacts public health and welfare. but if the public buys that argument, and supports agencies like the NIH, scientists who receive that funding have an obligation to show taxpayers that the investment is worth it. communicating with journalists is perhaps the most efficient way of doing that.

  3. What if journalists built a relationship with a community of scientists? Andy Revkin of the New York Times, for example, is widely respected by Earth scientists at NASA.

    Or let the source review an article for accuracy before it is published? Probably not a good idea for political reporting, but an excellent one for much of science journalism.

  4. Re relationships: Some of the best journalism does come out of those relationships–although you can get just as blinded in science reporting as Judy Miller was in political reporting if you get too close to your sources.

    But the reality is that there’s less and less room for relationships, as the serious mainstream press keeps contracting and infotainment continues to expand.

    The challenge is to get the word out engagingly and accurately to a continually revolving cast of characters. That’s tough but it’s also democracy in action. The alternative is for all of us to bury our heads in the sand–and we know how well that works!

    On a practical note, I’ve always appreciated any sources who had come up with a one-page summary (sometimes on their web site, sometimes in a .pdf or .doc) that gave some background on their work and put it into context for a lay audience (like one commenter’s non-scientist grandparents).

    Could be in the form of an FAQ: What are the three most important things the general public needs to know about this field and how your work fits into it? How is your research funded? How did you become interested in this subject? What has surprised you most in your research? Who else is doing similar or related work? Anecdotes may not make for good science but they are always appreciated by journalists and other humans.

  5. Hi Tara,

    I’ve been traveling and out the blogosphere for awhile, so was amazed to find all strings upon strings about science journalists. Mostly bad science journalists. It was a relief, then, to read a short comment by the brilliant Carl Zimmer (I don’t know him personally but have read and admired his books for years), noting that for the most part he’d gotten on just fine with the scientists he’d interviewed. Me, too. In fact, interviewing scientists and researching research is the point, the pay-off, the joy. Ironically, because I have interviewed such a broad range of scientists, I have often found myself in the position to connect dots more easily than individual researchers who, by the nature of their work, must focus more narrowly. On occasion, I’ve even acted as a sort of science yenta (“That reminds of X’s work in Y field. Are you familiar with it?”) It’s a give and take that is magic. I’ve learned so much, and am deeply grateful for those who have taken the time to explain, to answer, and to consider new ways of looking at their work.

    That said, my job as a journalist is not to be loved, but to translate and distill complex information for a non-scientist audience (they may be “lay,” but they’re darn smart) and to tell a story as accurately as I can. That doesn’t only mean accuracy in quoting, it means accuracy in seeing the big picture with an informed critical eye.

    A curmudgeonous editor at the old City News Bureau in Chicago was famous for barking at young wide-eyed cub reporters, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out!” That’s the essence of journalism. You go to the mat to get it as right as you can, and then do it again.

    It’s really the same in science. Think of all the things that used to be “known” that are now known not to be. I read a lovely piece in the current issue of “The Economist” on rna, which used to be thought of mostly as dna’s primitive copycat cousin. Jeepers…

    The point is it’s a process. And a pretty darn exciting one, too.

  6. I might be late to this debate, but I think I have a nearly unique viewpoint. I got a BA in journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter for about four years. I then went back to school and eventually received a PhD in atmospheric science. As a reporter I believed that journalism was one of the few pure areas of endeavor. It was a calling, not a job, and a pretty high calling at that. I think that attitude is not uncommon among journalists.

    However, once I freed myself from that cult, I realized that journalists are not professionals at all – they are craftsmen at best, and their calling is no better or worse than the calling of someone who sells cars. Yhey are almost universally extremely poorly educated in anything other than the mechanics of reporting or, in some cases, areas like history or literature. That makes it really hard for them to write intelligently about serious, complex subjects. All they know to do is ask a question of an expert, and then run to someone who disagrees and get some quotes from them. “Balance”, you know.

    There are a few good science writers, but they are notable for their rarity. Unfortunately, they are not the only journalists that report about science. If you get a science story from a small to medium-sized newspaper, it will almost certainly be written by a general news reporter or a feature writer. Good luck explaining anything hard to them (unless it involves politics, a subject at which every journalist considers himself an expert). And if you get a story in a small to medium-sized TV market, well, you will be fortunate if they get your name right. And don’t expect to compete with a good automobile smashup if they get video.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *