Journalists and scientists at Monday’s Scientific American sponsored panel discussion, “Does Science Get a Fair Shake in the Media?,” hosted at USC Annenberg, unanimously agreed that while the public is consuming more science reporting now than ever before, mainstream journalism is doing a lousier job of covering the field.
Pronouncing the situation “dire,” USC biological sciences professor Michael Quick declared right off the bat, “We need a revolution… a whole sea change… nobody is going to solve this overnight by writing a better article about biotechnology or the environment.”
Why is the state of science reporting so deplorable? Are the problems systemic? How will the field evolve with the advent of new media technologies?
The problem is everybody
The general populace, though overall showing more interest in science than in sports, has quite a poor understanding of science, according to author and USC journalism professor K.C. Cole.
Many simply regard the field as “a form of magic,” Quick quipped.
The media isn’t doing its job to educate the public – most journalists have little to no background in science and statistics, either.
“Every beat I’ve ever had, I haven’t had a clue when I started,” said Reuters biotechnology reporter Lisa Baertlein.
Furthermore, due to traditional media’s budget considerations, a science reporter is often responsible for several scientific disciplines, and that inevitably leads to a lack of intelligent, dependable coverage, or worse, over-coverage of wacky, pseudoscientific studies such as Jessica Alba’s score in an index of female desirability.
On the other hand, many scientists cannot talk in layman’s terms about what they do. Neither are they trained to do so.
“No effort has been made to help us reach out or learn to talk to the media and to the public,” Quick said, admitting that scientists as a group are “very bad” at communicating.
What’s “news” in science?
As it stands, an overwhelming number of science pieces are outgrowths of PR memos detailing the latest discoveries or “eureka!” moments of studies published in reputable journals. NASA has particularly well-oiled machine and that leads directly to more media coverage, said Cole.
But without proper framing and context, an article whose sole premise is “An important study was published today…” is just parroted PR.
At the point of publication, most individual papers have “had almost no impact on thinking,” said Scientific American Editor in Chief and discussion moderator John Rennie. Many papers are later proven wrong.
“Science is the field of qualifications,” Quick noted, and that “doesn’t come through in the reporting.”
In certain fields, especially the environment, a high proportion of studies are controversial and industry-funded, according to author and environmental journalist Marla Cone, making for “very tricky” reporting.
But journalism loves the conflict and drama of topics such as global warming, intelligent design, and stem cell research, and editors are biased in favor of interesting stories.
“Instead of reporting what is true, people report sides,” said Cole.
So why doesn’t the media build a new model of reporting that focuses less on discrete observations and more on the “bodies of work taking shape” in various fields?, Rennie asked.
Scientists are blogging. Why aren’t journalists listening?
Journalism may very well be on the cusp of a momentous change whereby it redefines the paradigm within which it approaches science reporting.
The proliferation of blogs written by scientists (biology blogs being the most popular, followed by physics and climatology) means that the scientific discourse that used to take place behind lab doors is now open to everyone.
The blogs present an opportunity for journalists to bring scientists into the story writing process much earlier on. Everyone agreed that this is necessary, but are journalists using science blogs to immerse themselves in the scientific community – as a resource to hear directly what scientists are talking about and as an opportunity to talk directly to scientists?
“Most of it is too much ‘inside baseball,'” Cone said. For inexperienced science reporters, reading just one scientist’s blog “can easily lead them in the wrong direction.”
The most popular science blogs are admittedly peppered with politics.
“I wouldn’t trust them for reporting,” Cone said. Blogs should be used to gather background, as “a tip in the right direction.”
Ironically, scientists are the ones eager to reach out to reluctant journalists, who tend to “lurk” and “watch” science blogs from the shadows, according to USC astronomy and physics professor Clifford Johnson (his blog on physics and life is at Asymptotia.com).
Very few science bloggers know that their writing is being read. “The older generation who read blogs don’t say so,” said Johnson. “I usually end up talking to journalists for some other reason when it becomes apparent that they’ve read the blog.”
Every time a blog get cited in mainstream media, Johnson said, the science blogger community feels more legitimized.
“I would hope that editors and journalists would seize this opportunity to help guide the bloggers and help bring out a little bit the quality of writing,” Johnson said. “There are an awful lot of people doing great work out there. Feedback might help.”