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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

View Blog | Read Bio

Science and the Media: ignore scientists at your peril

Last week, on 30th March, I attended a debate on Science in the Media at City University, London. The invitation to the event came from my inquiry about a Science Journalism MA, and it had an interesting panel of speakers to discuss the recent “Science in the Media: Securing the Future” report.

I have to say that I found the report, though illuminating and fairly accurate, a little optimistic about the state of science journalism and where it is headed. The writers chose not to focus too closely on certain grey areas, and the debate saw these brought to the front of discussion. There is a key concern in the field that mainstream journalism is dying as internet media flourishes, and it is becoming less clear how to make a distinction between what is and isn’t journalism when bloggers and scientists are trying their hand at informing the public directly (and some are doing it very well). The debate focused heavily on this issue, with Ed Yong of “Not exactly rocket science” blogs defending the scientist/citizen journalism and the new way in which journalists can reach their audience with science. He made the point that I feel many journalists miss – people all over the world are reading with fascination about scientific news, with no previous knowledge or interest in science, and they are doing it without being patronised or given showy misleading headlines. The success of his blogs and variety of his audience is proof of this – when done well, this medium is very successful.

However, for every good science blog… In the same way that science news stories are fairly hit and miss, it will be tricky for the public to know whether they have found a reliable source on the internet. Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre and co-writer of the report, felt that a distinction needed to be made between “real” journalism and blogging, or even outreach/press officer activity, which she deemed “somewhat glorified PR”.  Fiona did, however, point out the benefits of outreach over writing for an editor – clear and direct communication. Her concern was that perhaps it should be clearly labeled who writers are working for, as they may be biased, (which journalists should not be). Successful investigative journalism, something all too rare in science, will be in real trouble if the line cannot be drawn.

In my opinion, making this distinction of what actually constitutes journalism can only be addressed if the main problem with science journalism – quality – has immediate action. Whilst Fiona coined the term “Scientists avoid the mass media at their peril”, something I do agree with as this is a window straight to the public, I turn the tables and say, don’t ignore scientists’ criticism. If journalists expect the science community to support investigative journalism, and if the public are to ever see mainstream media with a stronger reputation than their easy-access knowledge of the world-wide-web, then there is only one possible tool at trained journalists’ disposal: Credibility. Trust. Accurate, backed-up and transparently portrayed science. Unfortunately for them, bloggers with various backgrounds and minimal levels of financial reward (usually little to none) are doing this better than the majority of mainstream journalists.

One thing that was pointed out in the report that I was saddened did not get more focus from the panel (despite many questions directing towards it) was the issue of training journalists of a non-science background to think like scientists. There were other scientists in the room during the debate and they all had the same concern – quality of science reporting, which is sometimes done very well but often is done poorly. With around 70 full-time employed science journalists in the UK (and some hundreds of freelance writers), an ever-increasing interest in science news, and no further scope for expanding employment in the field, science journalists are left with less and less time each day to fact-check, and they are rarely required to have training in science. One good thing to come from the report is that a National Coordinator for Science Journalism Training will be appointed (providing the funding is secured) and online training will be available for these journalists.

A respected features editor asked the audience “what is quantum theory?” She had up until then failed to receive appropriate advice in order to edit a (fantastic) science journalist’s story. Natasha Loder of The Economist and chair of the British Science Writers’ Association (apparently of a scientific background herself) gave her an incorrect, unsatisfactory and inappropriate answer (when, in her defense, no-one else would respond). I spoke to the features editor myself afterwards and explained, as a scientist, that this is a far too open question. I gave her some better ideas of quantum theory in general but to adequately understand the article in question she would need to talk to scientists specialising in the research. Forgive me for being a complete scientist about this, but I actually think that every writer and editor who is likely to be responsible for scientific stories should be trained in basic statistics, risk, analysis…learn to interpret data, write (examined?) critical literary reviews etc. I don’t think they should all have had a degree in science but there are certain skills (as apposed to knowledge) that would allow them to criticise a story, understand its implications and ask the right questions in order to portray it correctly. It is important not to be misled and to ensure the public are not misled either, but are encouraged to investigate more for themselves.

What about scientists becoming journalists? The report pointed out that so far British Science Association’s Media Fellowships have been in place only to familiarise scientists with the media so that they can better communicate to them. If funding can be secured, there may be scope for courses to encourage them to consider a career in media. Surprisingly, Natasha lost the respect of many in the room when she pointed out that, far from her scientific background benefiting her, she had to “unlearn” some of her scientific skills in order to become a good journalist, stating “scientists are about facts, whereas journalists are about ideas”. I think many would disagree with this, and yet having seen what goes into some training for scientists talking to the media, I can believe it – we essentially learn damage limitation and the art of being interesting without accidentally being incorrect. So scientists are learning not to trust journalists and journalists are being taught that scientists can’t communicate (Natasha told the room she knew from experience that “most cannot communicate…many are borderline autistic”). I think something more constructive could be done here to ensure that communication between the two is more effective.

I think that it is disgusting that more is not being made of the talent hiding in the science community. Contrary to popular opinion, we are an eclectic mix of people with a variety of character traits with the sole common drive of curiosity. We love to solve problems, to unravel what we don’t understand. We don’t stop until it makes sense. That makes us fantastic critical thinkers, and many of us can pair that with great communication skills and a creative streak. Funnily enough, some of us also have the personality Natasha described was necessary for a career in journalism – an unshakable tenacity, a hardness and determination, the refusal to take no for an answer, “balshiness”. I attended the debate fairly curious, and have left it quite certain – whether or not I can ever be paid for it, and whether or not I will ever be able to call it “journalism”, I am now determined to bring science to the public. I, like many scientists, have the ability to rebuild the trust in science media, to produce truthful and clearly interpreted information, refer to sources and encourage its receivers to follow it further rather than take it on face value. The role of a journalist is to be a “truth teller”, and as long as there exists poor science journalism to destroy its reputation, and as mainstream media is gradually replaced by the internet, I am certain that there will always be scientists out there to do this job extremely well, whether or not they are paid to.

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3 responses to “Science and the Media: ignore scientists at your peril”

  1. Michael says:

    Wow, what a wonderful blog entry – I find this inspiring.

    I spent time with journalists at Northwestern and I found them to be attentive and motivated to write accurately about the LHC Media Event last week. It is also clear that they knew little about the topic, naturally, and they would have used ugly cliches and overblown text without some input from me or some other knowledgeable person. I’m not sure what would have happened if someone from, say, the NYT wanted input from me.

    Thanks for writing your thoughts about this so clearly.

  2. Zoe Louise Matthews says:

    If you want to see the debate I was discussing in full, look here:

    http://www.city.ac.uk/whatson/2010/3-mar/31032010-science-media.html

    Just to show I wasn’t misquoting Natasha, watch from 80 minutes in.

  3. Hi Zoe Louise

    Nice blog entry – drop me a line if you are interested in writing something for us.

    Hamish Johnston
    Editor
    physicsworld.com
    hamish.johnston@iop.org