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If you had to assign a grade for the news coverage of science issues, what would it be?
In many cases, the grade would be poor because most scientists have a negative perception of journalists. According to a 1997 survey by the nonprofit Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, 88% of scientists surveyed thought that news managers were more interested in selling newspapers and attracting viewers than telling people what they needed to know, and 76% believed the news media were more interested in sensationalism than in truth.
Imagine, then, the shock of my professors when I accepted the IFT/AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, forsaking a summer in the lab to work in a newsroom. Fortunately, my placement at The Oregonian in Portland, one of the nation’s top newspapers, provided one of the most rewarding and productive summers of my graduate career.
Granted, I did not spend any time “at the bench,” but I did spend the summer talking about science with other scientists. I had to think critically about complicated subjects and learn how to ask good questions—all skills I wanted to develop during my graduate studies. I also practiced organizing complex ideas and presenting scientific information in an interesting and understandable manner, another important aspect of my professional development.
Unlike many of the fellowship participants, I had no prior media experience. My perception of the newsroom was based on years of watching Mary Tyler Moore on TV. Although I felt strongly about the importance of improving science communication, I did not have a thorough understanding of how the system worked from the journalist’s perspective. During my fellowship, I gained a deeper respect for and understanding of journalists. I even discovered some unexpected connections between scientists and journalists.
Both scientists and journalists are naturally curious, and have, as their primary goal, the quest for truth. As scientists, we may not always agree with the journalists’ interpretation of the truth, but it is important to remember that they are sincere in their quest.
A second, surprising similarity between the two groups is that both strive for accuracy. Now, I can hear a lot of scientists scoffing at this idea, but it is true. Every journalist I met was almost paranoid about getting the facts correct. They would double check and sometimes even triple check, time allowing. The whole newsroom is organized to minimize errors, and staff at all levels work to ensure that errors are found and corrected before going to print.
So why do mistakes still occur? A number of fundamental differences between the two groups make communication challenging.
One of these differences is range of focus. Scientists tend to be narrowly focused on a particular project, which allows them to become experts in a single field. In contrast, journalists are required to cover many subjects. Even in organizations that have the luxury of a staff writer who covers only science issues, this still leaves a wide range of topics to cover—from food science, to math and physics, to social science. Few people, scientists included, are fluent in all areas of science.
As a result, the journalist is like a bumblebee going from flower to flower. It is the journalist’s job to find the essence of each flower, which means distilling months or years of scientific work into a single 20-inch story. No matter how effective the scientist is at communicating or how skilled the journalist, this kind of summarizing is bound to result in inaccuracies.
A second factor is time. Scientists tend to work on a single project for months, or even years. They have a different sense of time than journalists, who are assigned a story and generally need to research, write, and finish it in the span of hours or days. After the journalist writes the story, it undergoes multiple rounds of editing. Ideally, the writer will have adequate time to check the final version of the story to ensure no errors were introduced during editing, but this is not always the case.
A third difference is audience. While as scientists we might find the trade and professional journals fascinating, they just do not have popular appeal. The journalist has failed to inform the reader if the public cannot understand or is uninterested in a story. The quandary for many science journalists is how to convey as much science as possible while maintaining reader interest. Additionally, the journalist feels a primary responsibility to the reader and is less concerned with the story’s effect on how the scientist is viewed by his or her peers.
The fellowship experience built on my previous knowledge to help me understand why the system works the way it does, even if I sometimes disagree with how things are done. As a result, I am better prepared to work with both scientists and journalists in communicating science to the public.
I would like to thank IFT, AAAS, and The Oregonian for their support, and encourage other scientists to consider a summer walking in a journalist’s shoes.
by LISA DURSO
2000 IFT/AAAS Mass Media Fellow