Thursday, June 21, 2007

Science and Journalism

There's quite the big hullabaloo going on amongst science bloggers as to the usefulness of journalistic types, our ability to convey science accurately, and whether we should all just be given the proverbial finger. Evolving Thoughts and A Blog Around the Clock have posts that come really close to the source of the problem. (A Blog Around the Clock also has a great list of links to other science blogs covering the topic.) As a journalist who writes about science, I'd like to weigh in on this.

First, as Coturnix of ABAC notes, "to educate" and "to inform" are two very different things. In general, we journalists consider it our duty to inform the public not to educate them. What's the difference?

Teachers educate. They mold the knowledge, opinions, and critical thinking skills of their students. They give them guidance not only on what to think but how to think, providing them with the skills to acquire and apply information. With the exception of pundits, columnists and analysts, journalists merely present information, ideally with no hint as to how this information "should" be interpreted.

Unfortunately, our imperfect attempts at "just the facts" objectivity and balance can create a skewed view of the world. They often lead to an episodic form of reporting that strips information away from its context, simplifies complex realities into false dichotomies (giving two sides to stories that might have 5 different sides or even more), and treats vastly unequal propositions as if they were equal (balance is good for covering the subjective realms but often bad for imparting objective fact).

This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that mainstream journalists are expected to write with a relatively uneducated populace in mind, expecting that the average reader will have no more than a high school education. Yet, on the other hand, we sometimes write about topics that can only be fully understood and contextualized by someone with a strong educational background, topics like science. Catch 22? Rock and a hard place? You decide.

Adding an additional level of difficulty, we have the dreaded deadline and all the other practical considerations that affect how we cover a particular story. Depending on the nature of the medium (newspaper, magazine, TV, radio) and the specific outlet, journalists may have as little as a few hours to as much as a year to work on a single story. They may be fully responsible for background research, interviewing and writing or they may work with a team. They may have to fit all of the information they've gathered into 200 words or 1,500 or 5,000 (10 seconds or 10 minutes or two hours in TV and radio).

Next, my scientist friends must consider that not all journalists who write about science are science journalists. The person who calls for an interview may be a general assignment reporter, a reporter who normally focuses on another topic, a reporter who is merely interested in science, a reporter with a science degree, a graduate of an actual science journalism program, etc. (Science journalism programs are relatively new and will hopefully improve science coverage as graduates of these programs go on to be reporters, writers and editors.)

Unfortunately, editors don't or sometimes can't ensure that every reporter has a background in the topics they'll cover or that they themselves are "right" for editing material on particular topics. Unless an outlet is big enough to have "specialists" on staff, any old journalist will have to do for covering whatever comes up. Few reporters will risk their careers by refusing assignments, an act that could get one quickly removed from the staff or freelance pool.

In the complex relationship between journalist and editor, you often have a situation where one knows science and the other doesn't, but the editor will always call the shots. Amongst the editor's many concerns (like length, impact, proximity, organization, etc.), accuracy of content may get lost, especially when the editor is dealing with an unfamiliar topic. Few editors have the option of passing a story on an unfamiliar topic to someone else.

Ultimately, despite our best efforts and sometimes because of them, "the best available version of the truth" is an elusive prey. So, what can scientists do about it if they want to see more and better science coverage? Here's my advice in as brief a format as possible.

*Familiarize yourself with the reporter who'll be interviewing you. Make sure you ask questions about the reporter's background, the publication or outlet, the length of the story, the deadline, etc.
*Tailor your answers accordingly. Cover the major points for a brief story in a local paper. Get more detailed for a longer piece for a major magazine. Provide simple explanations for a mainstream publication or a journalist with a limited science background. Provide more complex explanations for a science publication or a journalist with a science background.
*Provide framing. If it comes between quoting a really good metaphor or analogy that you provided or trying to make one up themselves, most journalists will use yours. This will avoid the "simplification problem" that often leads to inaccurate or inappropriate explanations.
*Provide context. Why is it important? How much weight should this new information have? How does it fit with general knowledge about science or the current theories in the field?
*Provide alternate sources. Is there background information available for the reporter to consider so that they can get a fuller picture of the information you're providing? Is there someone in your field whom you think expresses this much better than you can?
*Where possible, develop a relationship with the science editor (or whichever editor generally gets assigned science stories) at the publications that request interviews with you most frequently.
*Make sure to provide feedback on science coverage without insulting journalists' professional sensibilities. Accusing most mainstream journalists or editors of overt bias will shut them down. Assume that it was unintentional and give them advice that may help them avoid the problem in the future.
*Give us a break once in a while. If you expect perfection from journalists, you'll be disappointed, just as we would be if we expected perfection from scientists.

UPDATE: I just got a chance to skim a few more of the posts on this topic and came across the argument that we should just let the scientists write the articles, working with an editor. With all due respect, most but not all scientists would be completely out of their league preparing an article (or video) on deadline for a mainstream publication with a specific word (or time) limit. Even the best editor has to have a reasonably well-written first draft. At minimum, an editor needs a writer familiar with proper style, organization, sourcing, interviewing techniques, etc.

I've been an editor and I can't imagine what it would be like having to educate someone in the requirements of journalism and the art of communication while also trying to get a finished product ready for publication on deadline. To be honest, I really wouldn't have time to hide the bodies of the pseudo-journalists who would die slow and painful deaths if they turned in some of the stuff I've seen from "amateurs" and actually expected me to publish it.

I have to admit that this is one of my pet peeves. The "anyone can do it" attitude many people have towards journalism and writing in particular is offensive to say the least. If anyone could do it, I could have skipped the six years of college and grad school and all the courses in media law, media history, communications theory, news reporting, newspaper writing, magazine writing, feature writing, cultural reporting, editing, etc. (not to mention the years of experience and decade or so of honing my craft).

If you think anyone could do it, I advise you to spend more time in the blogosphere reading the drivel turned out by most self-styled citizen journalists. Or try understanding most of the material written by scientists or historians or lawyers or accountants or economists. (I personally love science and read many science publications and blogs, but I'm also fully aware that I understand much of what I read because I have a strong science background not because the material is written in an approachable style.)


Blogger Jennifer said...

A big standing ovation for this post, especially the addendum on the notion that "anyone can do it." That's also one of my pet peeves. But then, scientists are notorious for their arrogance. :)

1:21 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Thanks so much. I'm reading a book now called "The Unnatural Nature of Science" and it has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that scientists should stick to what they do best and leave the writing to us. Once I'm finished the last couple of chapters, I'll probably review it here.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Bryan said...

As a marine scientist and freelance writer, I'll add that many (most) scientists don't want to write about what they do for the general public. Many love the research itself - the dissemination of it not so much.

And they know, having tried to explain their research to friends and relatives, that anyone can NOT do it and make it seem interesting and relevant.

What we need are more qualified science journalists, and more scientifically literate journalists and readers in general.

Pie in the sky? Or better than chocolate?

7:00 PM  
Anonymous shoa said...

While certainly it is true that there are a number of scientist who are not suited to be writing as journalists, but to be honest, there are a lot of journalists who are not so good either. You have to remember though, scientists make their living by writing. Moreover, many scientists have played both roles (researcher and journalist) quite well. To say that scientists could only ever be "amateur" journalist and never compare to "professionals" is absurd. You make a broad, sweeping generalization, with little substance.

4:07 AM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Since I've never seen it before, I'll assume this is a new comment.

Note that I said "most but not all scientists" couldn't be journalists. I'm well aware that there are a few who would do well.

In addition, writing research papers is NOTHING like journalism. I've done both, so I give you my personal guarantee on that.

9:07 PM  

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