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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Is Science Journalism an Oxymoron, Vanishing Art, or…

–by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning and Communications

I spent last night at the Vancouver Aquarium with some of my most talented colleagues and a few fish. We were attending the launch of the Vancouver branch office of the Science Media Centre of Canada. The event featured a panel discussion led by Canadian science icon Jay Ingram and a short reception in a darkened exhibit area surrounding by smiling sea animals. It was fantastic—and it prompted some existential conversations over bite-sized appies and the drive home.

The most important feature of the evening was that it was a PERFECT Vancouver evening. Literally. 65 degF, clear sky, amazing sunset. Oh, and then we went inside for the event.

A tough day in Vancouver.

Jay Ingram is a celebrity of Canadian science and communications. Most recently, he hosted and produced Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet¸ perhaps the most-watched and most-loved science show on Canadian television. For years, Jay would find something new in science, make it simple and inspiring, and work to share it with the public each day of the week. That’s commitment.

The panel included Lisa Johnson (CBC news reporter), Jennifer Gardy (BC CDC scientist and communicator), Candis Callison (UBC professor of journalism), and Marcello Pavan (a graduate of Quantum Diaries and TRIUMF’s outreach coordinator). Jay did something very clever and actually interviewed each of them separately on the stage for 3-4 minutes before starting the panel discussion. This provided an intimate conversation for the audience to get to know each panelist instead of the usual “prepared remarks going down along the table.”

Lisa talked about the timeline of a story. She might find out at 10am what she has to research, interview, shoot, edit, and air by 6pm that same day. That means a 30 minute delay in reaching someone credible could be a deal breaker. Jennifer talked about how important it is to give the journalist freedom to choose the angle of the story that works for them; she also said that the highest honour a journalist can pay a scientist is a chance to review the final copy of the story for any errors. Candis spoke about the skyrocketing role of new media and the challenges of communicating science as it evolves and changes at the forefronts. Marcello talked about the challenge of talking to people who have already made up their mind; he said his #1 piece of advice to journalists interviewing scientists is to give up that science is hard and that it’s too technical to make sense. As a scientist, its hard to do an interview with someone who has already decided you speak gibberish and cannot be understood!

The Q&A discussion with the audience covered some tough topics.

When science or science results are unpopular, surprising, or complex, who is responsible for championing the cause and getting them out there? Everyone has heard examples and allegations about governments around the world muzzling scientists for sharing research results that undermine policy positions or policy decisions. Are scientists themselves accountable for fighting the machine and having their truths known? What role should the media play? What about when scientists don’t know what the truth is, such as in the first few days of the Fukushima disaster where misinformation was 10 times more available than facts and yet everybody wanted a rock-solid assessment.

In the age of internet democracy, everyone and anyone can be a credible expert. It used to be that the newspaper was credible and if you saw it there, there were good odds it was true and verifiable. Nowadays, anyone can write a blog, run an online newspaper, or make a viral YouTube video that claims to be the truth. In some cases, crowd-sourced journalism can allow the public instant and immediate access to ground truth. In other cases, it means that a credible analysis can be excoriated by an anonymous user with only an e-mail address.

How can an organization like SMCC have an impact in this environment? The goal of SMCC is to raise the level of public discourse in Canada by helping journalists access evidence-based research. With this intention, the organization was formed to act as a bridge and a reliable clearinghouse and resource for scientists and the media alike. There was a lot of discussion about how to ensure that the organization could remain independent while also acting like a partner in the crucial moments when science hits the headlines. Likewise, instead of “science” sections in the newspapers, there is now science in almost every front-page story. SMCC will be helping the non-science reporters get the information they need so that the front-page headlines are accurate, timely, and useful to the public.

A fascinating evening and hats off to Jay Ingram and the panelists! Well done, and let’s do it again soon.

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  • Tona Kunz

    I don’t believe journalists go into an interview believing science is overly hard and can’t be made to make sense. If this were true, they wouldn’t bother interviewing the scientist and would avoid printing science stories at all or simply print press releases verbatim.

    I do think journalists go into an interview with the goal of getting the scientist to explain the science in the terms and at the education level that is required for all stories in their publication, typically high school level or younger. This is exactly the job they are supposed to do.

    If the scientists feels the interview is difficult, that is generally because the scientist is not speaking at the level of the general public but also failing to realize that. Repeated questions by the reporter to the scientist on the same subject or requests to rephrase statements are hints that the explanation is still too complex or includes too much jargon.

    It is in the best interest of scientist to not view these interviews as difficult but as the reporter doing them a service. If the reporter fails to push, or in the minds of some scientists “badger” the scientist, for the correct phrasing, then the reporter will either not include the scientist in the story, making the interview a waste of time, or, worse, take on the task themselves of paraphrasing what the scientist said in simpler terms and risk being inaccurate.

  • Isaac

    @Tona — I both agree and disagree with you. I have certainly had the experience that reporters will open the conversation with a scientist by saying that it must be too hard to explain, that they never did well in physics, and so on. Perhps my comment was too narrow; journalists are not unique in this regard. Walk down the street and many citizens will tell you that physics & math are hard and only understood by a few. This cultulral misconception is something we must all tackle. I totally agree that effective and experience journalists come into a story looking to learn something new and looking to share the with their audience. Scientists who are uppity, dismissive, tiresome, and so on, are removed from our list of potential media contacts. This is the promise of SMCC — to have a national network of WILLING and ABLE scientists that can comment upon request on real headline and real issues.

    Thank you four your excellent and incisive commentary. Much appreciated!

    –@Isaac

  • Paul

    The goal of SMCC is to raise the level of public discourse in Canada by helping journalists access evidence-based research.

    Noble idea, but a little updated. Science journalists are already doing this. While if non-science journalists frequently don’t, it’s not because they need “help”, but because they’re not interested, or because they don’t have the time to go beyond the simplistic interview.

  • http://coraifeartaigh.wordpress.com Cormac

    I think the question ‘is science journalism an oxymoron?’ is a very good one, it’s a pity it was not addressed in the post. I have reservations about journalists with no scientific training attempting to summarize a scientific result for the public. They often get it wrong – and never seem to care much, in my experience. (The statement ‘only 12 people understand relativity’ by the NYT is a spectacular example of the damage that can be done).
    Another approach might be to include science writing and science communication as part of the basic training for any scientist. Not all scientists will make good writers of course, but surely enough of them..I ould like to see this approach discussed much more…

  • Isaac

    @Paul — An intersting counterpoint. See my response to @Cormac.

    @Cormac — I have an hourglass egg timer next to my desk that sets my timing for a blog post. I admit I didn’t get to all the good stuff before I ended the post. As you point out, the title is provocaative. I would differ with you and @Paul and argue that “science journalism” is actually, in these modern times, a redundant term. Almost all journalism requires science these days, just like it requires knowledge of e-commerce and the english language. The real question in my mind is the “Science” section of the newspaper actually outdated? Is science still something that occurs only on Fridays in a lunch hour on NPR and the rest of the world can continue on its own merry way? We no longer see specialist science writers, PERHAPS, because they are no longer needed. When’s the last time you saw a regular column reporting on the best BBSs to dial into? Passe! // However, I wholeheartedly agree that it is the responsibility for science communication that goes with the privilege of being a scientist. If I want people to know about my science, I cannot complain unless I traini myself and work with colleagues to share effectively and powerfully about it. — @Isaac

  • Paul

    The real question in my mind is the “Science” section of the newspaper actually outdated? Is science still something that occurs only on Fridays in a lunch hour on NPR and the rest of the world can continue on its own merry way? We no longer see specialist science writers, PERHAPS, because they are no longer needed.

    Unfortunately, the main reason why we no longer see much science sections, is because the editors feel those sections can be cut without losing neither readers neither publicity. And unfortunately, the events don’t disprove that theory. That’s the reality of journalism, not only in science: less people, less time, but a pressure to produce more.

  • http://www.fnal.gov Fermilab

    @Issac:
    “This is the promise of SMCC — to have a national network of WILLING and ABLE scientists that can comment upon request on real headline and real issues.”

    I think this is a wonderful idea. It will help encourage journalists that do not typically cover science to include a science in their stories. A large fear by that group of journalists is that they will have to interview several scientists before finding one whose comments work for their story.

  • Jennifer@TRIUMF

    This was just posted on Discover Magazine – A well thought out commentary written by a blogger who has been taken in the morphing and evolving world of science journalism. I like his point – as news evolves to include all different mediums, so does science journalism. It means, as communicators, we have endless freedom right now to explore how to communicate science. And not only that, but this change is including the voices of the scientists themselves. It’s absolutely exciting!

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2011/06/28/am-i-a-science-journalist/

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