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Posts Tagged ‘media’

On the media at DPF

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Here we are at the end of the first day of the DPF 2011 conference. Sad to say, there was no fresh science news reported today, but everyone is clearly having a good time seeing old friends, and enjoying what appears to be the lovely city of Providence. (Their state capitol has nothing on Nebraska’s, though.) A few people are even tweeting, although not many. (I’ve been trying to tweet all day; it keeps me from making flippant comments to the person sitting next to me, but I’m not sure I’m adding any real value.)

Today I had the pleasure of moderating a lunchtime discussion panel on “Physics and Modern Media,” which I co-organized with Gordon Watts of the University of Washington. The goal of the conference organizers was to have a discussion of the impact of “new” media such as blogs (like this one!) and social media on how science and communication of science to the public works. We had a really great panel: Adrian Cho, a physics reporter for Science Magazine (who has a PhD in particle physics; we were graduate students together at Cornell); Lisa Van Pay, who works in public affairs at NSF with a lot of focus on social media (and has a PhD in toxicology); Chip Brock of Michigan State, the past chair of the DPF and (I discovered) a rather active user of social media; and Michael Schmitt of Northwestern, who started blogging independently and is now a fellow US LHC blogger for Quantum Diaries.

We came prepared to talk a lot about the changes in science journalism, where there have been some very interesting trends over the past few years. Many traditional media outlets are cutting back on their science reporting, and as a result organizations like NSF and universities (through their public information officers) are picking up the slack of disseminating science news to the general public. That really represents a huge shift in how science news gets to you, and who decides what the news is. Meanwhile, there is the advent of the Internet and blogs; it turns out that there are a lot of people who are willing to write about science without getting paid for it. There are also new routes for two-way interactions through comments posted on blogs, and through social media like Facebook and Twitter. These present potential opportunities for communication, and also challenges.

I was interested in digging into a lot of the journalism issues, but the physicists in the audience took us in a different direction, which was about how we can best make the case for particle physics to the public through the available tools. I’d have to say that there is both good and bad in this. It’s good that we are so enthusiastic about our work that we want to tell the world about it and try to bring them along with us, and that we want to come up with the most clever ways to do so. On the other hand, there is some element of what Adrian referred to as the “if only they knew” syndrome, that if we could just get people’s attention and tell them what it was we did, they would love us and shower us with funding forever. I doubt that the real world works that way, and perhaps it demonstrates too great an inward focus within our community.

Anyhow, everyone thought the forum was a success, if I may say so — the audience was very engaged, and the panelists enjoyed their discussion. My thanks to everyone who participated.

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— 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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–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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Schedule Disappointments

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

As Adam noted yesterday, the date now being cited by the CERN Press Office for the restart of the LHC is early summer.  Unfortunately, there are two reasons why I’m personally not inclined to take this new estimate too seriously.

First, CERN has an increasingly long history of being over-optimistic on LHC start-up times.  At one time it was scheduled to run in 2005. Even into 2007, the official schedule said there would be a low-energy run that year; but in the end, it didn’t start running until almost a year later.  After the accident on September 19, CERN initially announced that the incident would lead to minor delays, then that it would take several months because of the winter shutdown, and now we have the revision that the repairs will push into the summer. Obviously some of these delays were due to unforeseen circumstances, for example the recent accident itself.  But even if all the schedule changes are due to equally-unforeseeable (if less dramatic) issues, the sheer number of revisions seems to suggest that CERN ought to take a step back and consider how it does contingency planning and the certainty with which it expresses its scheduling announcements.

Second, this new announcement is not accompanied by a new detailed schedule.  What would be useful for the experiments is more information about the damage and a full discussion of how the repairs will proceed, along with a range of possible start times depending on how well still-unknown factors turn out; this would let us do better contingency planning for our own maintenance work, not to mention our careers.  It’s very possible that CERN doesn’t yet have all the information about what repairs will be necessary, but then why the new announcement?  What use can it have beyond publicity, and what meaning can anyone possibly extract from it?

I should be clear here what I mean when I talk about “CERN” making announcements.  Obviously I’m not talking about the technicians, engineers, and physicists who work on the LHC; I’m sure they’re doing a great job, and of course they don’t write the press releases or talk to the media.  I’m also not referring to anyone in particular in the CERN Press Office or Management; the Press Office does a lot of good work on outreach, including putting forth an extraordinary effort for First Circulation Day, and the folks who write the press releases aren’t necessarily the ones who decide what they say.  The truth is that I simply don’t know how decisions about these announcements are made, or who makes them.  But somehow the official system for disseminating information is falling short of providing what the physicists working here need or what the public deserves.

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Just wanted to publicly say kudos to NYT senior science editor Dennis Overbye, who has been answering the public’s science questions. He received (at least) 11 questions concerning LHC (probably many more in fact) and I think he sums up the situation rather well, so I invite you to read it yourself. I especially like his last paragraphs, but as I’ve claimed before, it is these people’s job to communicate well, so it isn’t surprising that they are quite good at it.

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