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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

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Science, Media, and Politics (Part II)

— by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head, Strategic Planning & Communications

One thing we have to add to this discussion is how media, news, and analysis enter into the political and policy-making process.  One clear objective of science communications and even any corporate communications activity is to influence decision makers.  But are the traditional streams of media still relevant?

Fortunately, our excellent and thoughtful friends at the National Journal have just publicly released a detailed study of U.S. federal senior executive, Capitol Hill staff, and professional lobbyists that documents how information arrives and is used “inside the Beltway” in Washington, D.C.   The study is entitled “Washington in the Information Age” and is, lightly put, brilliant.

With grateful flattery, I reproduce some of their conclusions here.

1. As the dust settles, traditional platforms (TV, print media, and radio) remain essential components of the media mix.  The report compiles hundreds of interviews and surveys to map out how U.S. political and policy staff receive their news.  Perhaps as a surprise, it is NOT all by Twitter and Facebook. Rather, the new technologies serve as alert mechanisms with trusted, credible analysis still being sought from the traditional sources.

2. Despite the plethora of choices, opinion makers associated with long-established brans carry the most influence online. We all worry that a random citizen in Darkmoor, Pennsylvania, or Blackwater, California, can publish an online blog and start a slanted or even misinforming news source.  It looks like the folks in Washington still rely on verifiable,  credible, long-established names and resources to gather their views.

3. Yet, Washington insiders value a long tail of unique opinion makers.  More than 400 distinct names were cited as credible sources for opinion from among the survey group.  So the Beltway doesn’t follow one columnist or one voice; rather, each person tends to accumulate a set of trusted brands/thought-leaders and then sticks to them over time.  So less fly-by-night than perhaps expected!

4. Washington insiders favour news sources that share political point of view. Perhaps obvious, but results show that Washingtonians cluster around columnists, news sources, and so on that reflect their own ideologies.

5. No longer just for e-mail, mobile devices are a gateway to news and information.  Many Washington insiders now read news and analysis on the small screen and some actually do a good portion of their composition and analysis on the small screen.

6. Mobile devices and new digital communication tools continue to blur the line between the personal the professional. As in, with 24 hour news cycles and multiple streams of referrals and content providers, Washington insiders often mix work and play when communicating digitally.  As anyone who has visited Washington knows, this is supported by the standard screens at a sports bar.  Not only are two or three games showing at the same time, but at least one TV shows CNN and CSPAN.

7. Online video and audio have yet to infringe on the dominance of TV and radio.  Despite the prevalence of online videos and podcasts, few Washington insiders report that they rely on these sources for content.  They are viewed primarily as entertaining.

8. The national obsession with Twitter fades inside the Beltway. Results suggest that Twitter is not a preferred communication tool and the common conception is that 50% of tweets are pointless babble, and the next 30% shameless self-promotion. Beyond that, there is some real content.

9. Social networking sites are popular inside the Beltway. As a tool to track contacts, trade views, and keep up with the vast network of potential wanna-know-yous, social networking tools are growing in use. Perhaps not surprisingly, the growth area for these tools is with Capitol Hill staff who have a tendency to involve more younger people than senior executives or K Street lobbyists.

10. The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Washington’s reliance on proven relationships extends online.  That is, the influencers of the influencers still have specific, personal, trusted connections. Other results of the study show that Washington insiders filter their e-mail by known e-mail addresses, then subject lines, again caring more about WHO than WHAT.

The study is powerful insight into how Washington is adapting to the age of information overload.

When I look at my own day, I can see some parallels to the report’s results.  I spend quality time with print media most often in the form of magazines (monthly more often than weekly) and I rely on news aggregators and other alerts to queue me to new content, but I hunt down my favourite sources to find out “what is really going on.”

Graphic depicting how Washingtonians "flip" between news sources to follow a story.

Please read, compare, and comment!

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2 Responses to “Science, Media, and Politics (Part II)”

  1. Tona Kunz says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. Keep this type of post coming. Always looking for good surveys, studies, etc.. on audience behavior.

    I think journalists might be less intimidated by scientists and scientists less suspect of journalists intelligence if they realized that they often approach things in the same way. Journalism isn’t subjective in the way that art can be. Journalism follows a set of rules backed by metrics.

    Other than solely “keeper of records” type stories that makes up the minority of news coverage, journalists pick their story topics, angles, word choices and layout designs based on science. Albeit, a soft science, but still science. They hypothesis that readers like “A” and then do research through focus groups, eye tracking studies, online click counts, etc… to see if their hypothesis was correct.

    Sometimes a reporter’s question is dumb. But more often, it may seem dumb but is phrased that way to elicit a specific response that metrics have shown hit home with readers. This could be the answer to the reader question: How does this affect me? Or the reporter’s question could strive to find a personal fact about the scientist that has nothing to do with the science but that readers have said make them feel more connected to the scientist and thus more interested in his science. Or the questions that elicit the most cries from scientists that the reporter is clueless are the ones that ask the scientist to say in his own words an answer the reporter already knows because studies have shown readers want to hear those facts from the expert not the reporter.

  2. Isaac says:

    @Tona — Shrewd observation. Yes, I agree. In a way, you’re telling us that scientists should treat the media as a professional craft, not just another emtpy vessel waiting to be filled up with science knowledge. If we interact with journalists as if they are working to tell a story and we have to play our part and take their cues and stage directions, I think the outcome is more powerful–and even enjoyable. Its when I get guarded and I try to “explain” everything to the reporter that its turns into a physics lecture and they edit me out.

    And on the other topic, let’s see. I saw your comment on my BlackBerry in my e-mail, I then spoke with my colleague JKG about it the next day, then sketched some thoughts in a memo to myself, and am now using my laptop and a web connection to post this. I don’t quite make the cut for U.S. congressional staff, I think!

    – Isaac

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