Scientists and Journalists: Worlds Apart

The distrust of journalists by the science and technology community is more pronounced than that of the clergy, corporate leaders, the military, or politicians, according to research done by the First Amendment Center.

This is one of the most provocative ideas I gathered as one of the curious graduate students who attended a Science/Media Forum sponsored by the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and Research!America. The forum brought together scientists and local reporters from various media for a candid discussion about their necessary but often difficult relationship. The forum was mediated by Jim Hartz and Rick Chappell, authors of Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America?s Future . Participants discussed sources of the distrust and potential solutions, including actions scientists can take to improve understanding of science by the public and the media.

The need for public understanding of science

Government funding, through tax dollars, supports more than half of all scientific research in the United States. In order to maintain that level of funding, the public needs to support the work of scientists. Some might not think we are in danger of losing such support, riding the success of the campaign to double the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget. In general, the U.S. public supports scientific research and values science stories in the media. Nonetheless, most do not understand the fundamentals of research or scientific processes. This makes it difficult for them to comprehend highly specialized areas of current research. This, in turn, can have a direct impact on support for science: A report by the Department of Energy, addressing the crisis of its dwindling purchasing power, identifies a lack of appreciation of its research by the public as a source of this problem.

The President?s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology Statement of Principles asserts that ?Public support of science and technology should be considered as an investment for the future.? Initiatives such as Project 2061 are addressing the need for improved science education in order to keep U.S. science and technology at pace with that of other countries. Outreach programs also promote science at the local level. Research institutions create jobs and increase the quality of life in the community.

Science for the Public

AAAS, the publisher of Science's Next Wave, offers a full array of programs and resources--including media fellowships for graduate students and scientists--that specifically address the public and journalists. Check them out here.

Differences that affect the communication process

In the daily grind of lab life, scientists rarely focus their attention on such difficult issues. Pushed aside, scientists typically address this need only when the gap affects their own research niche. Scientists communicate their work primarily through scholarly publications and presentations at scientific meetings. Indeed, the peer-reviewed article is frequently described as the scientist?s currency. But in both cases--journal articles and conferences--it is scientists talking to other scientists.

In this way, scientists restrict the flow of information between the scientific community and the public. But what role do journalists play? There is a sincere lack of understanding between journalists and scientists for many reasons. The problem is pervasive and, as touched upon in the forum, has many critical consequences for our society.

Most journalists at the forum said that conveying science is a difficult task. Often scientists cannot translate the implications of their work in plain English. Scientists are most comfortable talking about their research using specialized jargon easily understood by other scientists. Moreover, scientists are often secretive about preliminary data in fear of being wrong or being ?scooped.? This might be particularly true in today?s climate, which emphasizes the proprietary value of patents and intellectual property. There is also the remnant influence of Cold War science that might be reviving following the World Trade Center attacks. In addition, we often believe that our work speaks for itself and does not need promotion. In fact, colleagues might shun scientists promoting science rather than doing science. Finally, according to Worlds Apart, most scientists do not trust journalists to report science accurately. They fear that if a reporter makes a mistake, some might think the scientist was to blame. Another contributing factor is that many journalists lack knowledge of the scientific process and are frustrated at the tentativeness on the part of scientists.

Dissimilarities between journalism and science

Journalists acknowledge that journalism is a business. Ratings are essential to survival. A Center for Media and Public Affairs report found that local newscasts devoted 7% of their stories to health news--less than crime, weather, accidents/disasters, and human interest stories. The average health report lasted 2 minutes, and most focused on causes and treatments of diseases. The study also found that reporters without a specific beat reported the majority of health news. When asked about the criteria for choosing science or health stories, journalists at the forum agreed that their focus is often on scientific breakthroughs. Taken together, these findings mean that local newscasts cover only a marginal amount of science.

In contrast to the fast-paced field of journalism, science is incremental and slow. Scientists test theories in multiple ways, and even then, we can come up with alternative ways to explain the data that might argue in support of or refute the hypothesis. A great deal of science is sometimes curiosity driven and, although not directly related to humans or disease, it is also important but usually is not the subject of media attention.

Solutions for scientists

So what can we, as scientists, do to foster a better appreciation of our science in the public? First, learn how to translate science into understandable language. Play the role of the ?civic scientist,? or those scientists who actively engage in promoting research to nonscientists. Seek out broader audiences to whom you can display your science in order to promote the importance to the public. Pulitzer Prize-winning planetary scientist Carl Sagan had many accomplishments, but, arguably, one of his most critical was his tireless promotion of science.

At the forum, Guy Caldwell of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, said that ?as taxpayers would uniformly support a war that they understand (e.g., terrorism), they should be made to understand that biomedical researchers are at the frontiers of a different war--one versus disease, a war that claims far more lives every year than all other wars combined.? Caldwell believes that it is the scientist?s obligation to inform the public about these issues.

Hart and Chappell suggests that along with every scientific article, a public abstract in plain English (100 words or less with no jargon) be posted on the Internet for the public as well as journalists. Undoubtedly this solution would help scientists as well as journalists. University public relations professionals can serve as liaisons between the scientific community and the media. In addition, scientists can help journalists understand the scientific peer-review process to avoid overplay of preliminary work by the media.

Scientists--professors and graduate students alike--who actively think about the ramifications of their work and talk with journalists as well as friends and family about what they do in the lab--are helping the cause of science.

Is the only reason to inform the public about science to secure future funding? Is the only way the public can participate through funding? I suspect that this kind of thinking is part of the reason that the gap between science and the public continues to grow. Journalists have a role to play. But scientists also need to begin to think more generously of their relationship with the public.