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Scientific Literacy and the Press

American Academy of Arts and Sciences Publishes “Science and the Media”

10/15/2010

Press Release

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Scientists and the journalists who cover their research approach their roles from very different perspective, yet they depend on each other to keep the public informed about scientific issues. Science and the Media, a new volume from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, examines this dynamic though a series of essays by scientists, journalists and public relations specialists.

At a time when the general public relies on the media for information about the scientific or technological components of pressing challenges such as climate change, energy, national security, and health care, the reporter covering the science beat is an endangered species at many traditional news outlets.

The Academy convened experts to examine the sometimes conflicting cultures of journalists, who value timeliness, speed, simplicity and clarity; and scientists, who grapple with and embrace nuance and evolving states of knowledge. The study was led by Donald Kennedy, President Emeritus of Stanford University and former Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine, and Geneva Overholser, Director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism.

The authors in Science and the Media find:
  • The journalistic tradition of presenting opposing sides of an issue in order to ensure unbiased reporting may actually cloud scientific issues when views that fall outside the mainstream are given equal weight with consensus scientific thinking.

  • Adults over age 35 never learned about the relatively new areas of science like stem cells, nanotechnology and global warming in school and thus depend on the media for information about such topics.

  • Some scientists may shun the media limelight for fear that colleagues trivialize work that is highlighted in the popular press.

  • Online sources of science information have pros and cons: some may lack rigorous fact checking and be unreliable, yet feedback on blogs allows responsible science journalists to gauge readers’ understanding of issues.

  • General education requirements unique to the American higher education system usually require that students study science. As a result, only Sweden has a higher rate of scientific literacy than the United States.
The essayists point to the need for scientists, journalists and public relations specialists to become partners in promoting scientific literacy. Contributors to the volume include:
  • Donald Kennedy, President Emeritus, Stanford University; former Commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; former Editor-in-Chief, Science

  • Geneva Overholser, Director, University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism; former Editor, Des Moines Register

  • Alan Alda, actor, writer, director; host, “The Human Spark” on PBS

  • Robert Bazell, Chief Science and Health Correspondent, NBC News

  • Rick E. Borchelt, Director of Communications, Research, Education and Economics Mission Area, U.S. Department of Agriculture

  • Cornelia Dean, former Science Editor, The New York Times

  • Alfred Hermida, Professor of Journalism, University of British Columbia; former News Editor, BBC News

  • Jon D. Miller, Professor of Integrative Studies, Michigan State University
  • Cristine Russell, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School; President, Council for the Advancement of Science Writing

  • William A. Wulf, Professor of Computer Science and University Professor, University of Virginia; President Emeritus, National Academy of Engineering
A copy of the volume may be downloaded free of charge at https://www.amacad.org/content/publications/publication.aspx?d=334.

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Marking its 230th year as an independent policy research center, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems. Current Academy research focuses on science and technology policy; global security; social policy; the humanities and culture; and education. With headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Academy’s work is advanced by its 4,600 elected members, who are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business and public affairs from around the world. (www.amacad.org)

 

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