Science Journalists and Journalist Scientists

The science blogosphere is abuzz with a lively discussion about the interaction of scientists and science journalists. It all started when Tara Smith at Aetology put up her first post, Question for the academic types – Interview Requests. In it, she asks,

On a listserv I subscribe to, there recently was a discussion amongst writers regarding how to get academics (and business-types; don’t feel the question is limited *only* to academics) to respond to interview requests. However, given the wording of the question and some of the responses, I think the question itself highlighted a bit of the gulf between journalists and academics, so I’m putting some of my own thoughts on why academics don’t respond first (and particularly when they are at conferences or on business travel, which was the topic of one comment), and I welcome any suggestions you have on how you prefer to be contacted–and what might improve response rates for writers. It would be great if any writers out there added their additional comments as well–imagine, a dialogue!…

Some of the problems Tara highlighted are the packed schedules planned for scientists at conventions and such.

Sometimes you don’t feel like you have time for a bathroom break, much less a call to a reporter.

Then there’s the risk of a bad article.

I’m pretty young in my career, and even I’ve been burned by poor articles that have come out of interviews. So it’s sometimes a mixed blessing when we’re contacted by someone writing a story–you’re never real sure what’s going to come out of it, and whether responding will be a wise use of your time (or will, in the end, actually hurt you).

And then what’s your personal incentive for your career?

Third, to be blunt, there really just isn’t a lot of reward for us to take our research to the public.

In the comments, ideas ranged everywhere from “Don’t talk to journalists” to “who cares how it comes out – do it!”

Probably nobody here wants to hear this, but the scientific community in general needs to be a bit more sophisticated about its attitude towards journalism. Exactly WHY should being misquoted in a newspaper article undo all one’s hard work in one’s own scientific publications, when newspapers are not and never will be “peer reviewed”?

Some were saying that you should demand to see the article before it goes into print, which might help in terms of accuracy, however, what politician demands to see the articles quoting them before they go into print? (Is asking to see the quotes of theirs before going into print an acceptable compromise?) There was a lot of dumping on journalists, some people using anecdotes to make broad-sweeping conclusions about the field. (And we’re scientists?)

Then, Chris Mooney chimes in, with Science Journalists are NOT the problem.

Something that makes me very sad is going on over at Tara’s blog, I’m afraid. A number of commenters, who seem to be largely scientists, are beating up mercilessly on science writers for various sins, largely misquotation (which wasn’t even what Tara’s post was originally about). The comments got as nasty as this:

So why should we be interviewed and questioned? Contact us and ask us to write a piece on some topic. If the resulting language is terrible, then have the editor work with the scientist to improve it. I think the journalist is entirely unnecessary.

As someone who has both written about science and edited various types of journalism, I can assure you, journalistic writing is a specialized skill, and although some academics and scientists get it, many do not. The journalist is most emphatically necessary.
Much of what people on Tara’s blog were complaining about was simply shoddy reporting. One of the problems we face as scientists, and as communicators of science is that few reporters are well-trained to report on the sciences, and as Chris has often pointed out, use the journalistic style of “balance” to artificially insert doubt into articles about scientific discoveries where it is not warranted. (Like most articles on global warming, and some on stem cells and evolution.)

One of the commenters at Chris’s blog suggests:

Scientists’ first target should be the press offices at their own universities. Much of scientific reporting is shaped by press releases that vary wildly in quality. The journalists often try to work the quotes of researchers into the context of an article that’s basically been structured by the press release. This is why the quotes wind up seeming wildly out of context.

I have seen this many times. Journalists can be lazy sometimes, and will practically copy and paste parts of press-releases about discoveries rather than contact the scientists directly. Sometimes the press release written by the institution’s press department will take on an entirely different bent than the research actually covered – and will often make statements that do not line up with the scope of the research. I’ve seen too many press releases that have trumpeted the end of one paradigm after another, made sweeping claims from one piece of evidence, and more often than not, skipped over the good stuff – the real meat of the research that makes it so awesome.

Sometimes these press releases and their writers will not properly anticipate how the research will be received by the news community. For example, remember that study about plants producing methane? Within days, the anti-global-warming news machine was trumpeting that this new research proved that plants were causing global warming, and that humans were not to blame. The misinformation was so bad that the scientists themselves had to come out and set the record straight, which was not trumpeted nearly as widely. Had they reviewed the press release and realized how the research may be mis-interpreted, they could have inserted a statement in the release that highlighted how it does not remove humans from responsibility.

Also, on that note, personal experience from working in a newspaper office has shown me that yes, the copy desk and layout folks can also mess things up in the process. First, it takes me a while to understand a complicated topic, and then it takes me a while to figure out how to explain it without being wordy. And then in a few minutes, a copy writer “corrects” my capitalization and spelling, and within an hour a layout technician has removed a key sentence to make it fit on the page. So from my experience on the media side of things, the reporter/columnist can also do their own check-up within their own media organization before it hits the press.

I made notes at the bottom of my articles sometimes, specifically stating not to remove certain parts, or correct the spelling of certain words or concepts without calling me, and I put my phone number there. The problem evaporated – and I could only blame the misquotes and mis-statements on myself. (Oops..!) Then again, I had a pretty autonomous column on a pretty autonomous page – so edtorial interference was not common. Plus – it was a Science & Technology DESK! With a designated editor! Something that many major media outlets didn’t have, yet a student paper did.
Mike the Mad Biologist has a pretty harsh but poignant post about dealing with annoying journalists, and he seconds the notion that the editing process in the newspaper can present a problem, as well as pleads that the reporter do their homework before calling. And don’t call first, email.
Misquotes have been brought up as a problem, but here’s a thought: if you don’t get anything for your scientific career for communicating stuff, as in, no one notices, how are misquotes supposed to have a negative effect? No one’s noticing them anyway…

…However, misquotes are problematic when you think about how you want people to properly understand the research.

I agree with Chris that it is sad when scientists trash the media in general because one reporter did not do a good job. Those scientists are ultimately judged by their work as it appears in the peer-reviewed journals, not by what some writer publishes about the scientist or the work.

Carl Zimmer chimed in, with Madam Speaker, I Yield my Remaining Time to the Paleontologist from the Great State of California.

I thought I’d join the fray. I think, first off, that Chris is a bit off-base. He’s not feeling the genuine pain being expressed in the comments to Tara’s post. These are people who have had lousy experiences with reporters. You don’t have to be a prima donna to come out of the journalistic process feeling queasy.

Chris responds,

Sure, that’s true. And I want to emphasize: Misquotation is bad bad bad, and that’s why I strive to use tape recorders–to avoid it. I will add that unfortunately, there are journalists out there who make us all look bad.

Chris Mooney is one of the responsible types – and the trouble is, how do you deal with the journalists that aren’t?

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.

If scientists ever hope to turn the tide of public relations against the contrarians, pseudoscientists, and politicos, we will need to make mass communication a part of the basic training for becoming a scientist. Why don’t science Ph.D. programs make a communication course a basic part of our training? I’m not talking about seminars where you communicate to your peers – but courses where you learn how to present complicated scientific topics to non-specialist audiences.
Next, we need to make science communication also a significant-enough component of being a scientist. As Tara pointed out, there’s no reward system in place for scientists to communicate with the media, nor is there the same thing for scientists that do communication themselves. If anything, there’s no reward for communicating, and a penalty for communicating badly. Scientific contributions are part of a scientist’s evaluations (as well as how much grant money they bring into the university), why can’t communication be added to that?

Coturnix adds, with a long list of relevant posts (as usual – he searches the crap out of Technorati):

The scientists want to educate.

The journalists want to inform (if not outright entertain, or at least use entertaining hooks in order to inform).

There is a difference between the two goals. The former demands accuracy. The latter demands relevance. As long as both parties are aware of the existence of two disparate goals, there is a possibility of conversation that can lead to an article that satisfies both goals, thus both participants.

Media is not the place for education and scientists need to understand this simple fact. But media is great at attention-getting, so those who are intrigued by a news report can follow up and get educated on top of getting informed.

Right on. There’s a difference between science and media, and both the scientists and the journalists need to recognize that. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be a crossover. For example, science journalists are those that specialize in communicating science to the public. Maybe we need to officially recognize journalist scientists, who are the last corner on the square. Scientists need to not brush off the media, nor fellow scientists that specialize in the media.

Many science bloggers fall into this last category. Perhaps more well known are people like Richard Dawkins and the late Carl Sagan.

Anyway, I have to wrap this thing up, so I have a couple suggestions for both reporters and scientists, compiled from the discussion
Suggestions for Journalists:

1. If you’re going to send a reporter to write about science, make sure they are prepared. Hire trained science journalists, or train those you have hired.

2. Quote original sources. Contact the scientists directly with questions. If you can’t get a hold of anybody, wait a day to print the story so you can get it right.

3. Listen to what the scientists think about their own research – don’t try to turn the research into something it’s not.

4. Email, call, and be patient. Press time is your problem, not theirs. Look it up and read on it, then ask them a few questions at a pre-determined time to clarify or expand on it.

5. Don’t shy away from the details, and don’t you dare “dumb it down.” There is a way to explain every complicated topic, you just need to figure out how. In fact, ask the scientists for some metaphors – they think about this stuff all the time! For example, when a microbial genomics researcher talked about how the “Tree of Life” branches and comes back together, unlike a tree, I asked him how could we best describe this? And he had a ready answer – like a river delta, where the waters split and mix again and again, like chunks of DNA moving around from species to species.

Most importantly, about dumbing it down, you don’t have to tell all the details, or leave them out entirely and give a lie-to-children summary. It should be possible to tread the thin line between the two, and give enough details to be correct, leaving out the excess that would impede understanding. I might add that people can understand these things if you explain it well enough. It it a specialized skill and for that we need skilled journalists to do it well. The parent-child dichotomous view of things is part of the problem.
Suggestions for Scientists:

1. If you’re going to demand article-review-power at any time, make it with your own university’s press department. The press release out of the university will be quoted far more than you are contacted, so if anything

2. Prepare some press materials of your own. NASA often puts together tons of information about their research missions, like TROPI, for example. You don’t need to go into this level of detail, but preparing some images and longer explanations for the public might also help.
3. If your lab is big enough, consider having a member of the lab specialize in communicating your research to the public. They can create nifty diagrams and non-copyrighted images to illustrate what’s going on, and then you might see them in print.
4. When confronted with a reporter, try to figure out what they are looking for, and answer accordingly. Ask them questions back, get a conversation going, and not only will you be able to see if they grasp the subject, you might go down

5. If there’s a problem with an article, take a moment to call the newspaper to correct the problem. Write letters to the editor if you have to.

6. Encourage the communication abilities of other scientists. I have come across some scientists that are great communicators, but haven’t made an extra effort to do more of it. There’s untapped potential there.
7. Not enough time for media relations? Make time. Make it part of your grant proposal. Get it as part of your job description. If you think its important, make it important.

Suggestions for Journalist Scientists:

1. Blog on!