Science and the Media


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Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser
The Media in Society

How do we enrich Americans’ engagement with science and technology? That is the quest that brought scientists, journalists, and leaders of science institutions together at a series of workshops organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and supported by the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands.

Why did the participants find this topic so compelling? Discomfort with or disinterest in science is widespread enough to seem “normal” in the United States. Since somebody must understand science and technology well enough, why worry that others don’t?

In fact, scientific illiteracy has deep and wide implications for public policy in the United States and around the world. Having a minority in a democracy conversant with science and technology produces a low level of public discussion and makes for impoverished policy-making. On issues of great public import, from energy policy to climate change, from how to teach evolution to how to fight disease, a lack of scientific knowledge undermines progress. When a nation invades another with little clarity about the science and technology underlying the war’s proximate cause, when a population is seized by fears that science has shown to be unreasonable, when children may not learn basic building blocks of knowledge because scientific understanding and moral judgments are conflated—then a widespread understanding of science seems a compelling need. And this is true not just for Americans. With the rest of the world feeling the results of our policy decisions, the responsibilities of this nation’s citizens are ever greater.

So what accounts for the sorry state of Americans’ civic scientific literacy? The educational system, of course. But many other factors contribute. Journalists and their conventions play a powerful role, one made more complex today with growing resource pressures on the media. Scientists and their traditions are also part of the problem—and solution—along with public information officers and public officials. The Academy’s working group on Science, Technology, and the Media wrangled with all these questions, trying to determine which issues seemed most critical—and what eventually might be done to address them.

How science and technology are covered by the media is a central factor in scientific illiteracy. Journalists value timeliness, speed, simplicity, and clarity. Yet stories about science and technology may be long-building, complex, and without dramatic, time-pegged events. The need to grab and hold attention, to write tight stories or produce short segments, can come at the cost of context and nuance. One observer, noting journalism’s preference for attention-grab-bing, conflict-driven events, has joked that reporters two thousand years ago would have covered the heck out of the crucifixion—and missed Christianity.

To make science and technology coverage still more challenging, the journalistic tradition of objectivity has often been distorted into a kind of false balance, giving equal weight to opposing views, no matter how much or little credibility or value they possess. Scientific issues may be closely interwoven with moral or ethical controversy—consider stem-cell research, evolution, even climate change. Yet journalism’s conventions make it ill-suited to aiding the public in disentangling the underlying science from the controversy, sometimes creating in the observer the notion that scientific thinking is divided even when it is not. And it is not always easy for journalists—or the public—to accept the tenet that all scientific knowledge is provisional. As one of the journalists put it: should we have covered Newton or should we have waited for Einstein?

Meanwhile, many in the scientific community are reluctant to speak to the press or to engage with the public. One bad experience with an interviewer may turn a scientist off to journalists for a lifetime. And “popularization” of one’s work in mainstream media, far from winning acclaim for a scientist, is often viewed instead with disdain by colleagues. Our group also noted the glaring lack of training opportunities for scientists and engineers to acquire the skills to make them strong communicators. In fact, courses that might prepare future scientists to present their work to lay audiences are completely absent from most graduate training programs.

On the other side of the spectrum, some scientists who have become adept at dealing with the press and the public either hype or over-simplify their work for an all-too-credulous interviewer. Little wonder, then, that science and medical stories—as one of our participants noted—seem always to fall into one of two categories: either no hope or new hope.

While the group focused much of its attention on science journalists, it recognized that many—perhaps the majority of—big science and technology news stories are covered by reporters who do not specialize in these areas. In fact, coverage of stories that have important science components appears every day, written or produced by journalists who lack any particular training or experience in science. The fact is there are fewer and fewer reporters on the science beat and ever smaller science news holes at the nation’s daily newspapers and broadcast and cable outlets.

Into this mix, add public-relations people with varying degrees of training and government officials with varying degrees of scientific understanding themselves—not to mention the pull of institutional loyalties and varying attitudes toward openness. Meanwhile, traditional news media resources dwindle, and competition for limited government money for scientific research increases, while those determined to “spin” scientific stories grow ever more adept at doing so.

And what of the public? How well prepared are American citizens to engage in science and technology issues? The single largest determinant of a person’s scientific literacy, one of the workshop participants noted, is whether he or she has taken a science course in college. Surveys indicate that Americans have a healthy respect for science. And they evince considerable interest in it. It’s the understanding of science and technology that’s lacking.

A piece of emerging good news is that enormous possibilities are opening now, with new media, for citizens to inform themselves. And the evidence suggests that there is a healthy appetite among news consumers for information about science and technology (and health); these topics are among the ones that people search for most frequently online. But what about their vulnerability to the pressures of narrow interests in the Wild West atmosphere of the Web? And, if understanding and communicating complex science stories is sometimes challenging even for veteran science reporters, what happens in an environment in which the user is king and the audience drives the discussion?

The participants in the workshops resolved to address this complex set of issues in a number of ways. The essays in this volume discuss the roles of scientists, journalists, and public information officers in communicating about science and technology. The authors look at the role the media play in boosting Americans’ scientific literacy and at how the new digital media are changing the coverage (and consumption) of science news. They discuss how inadequate press coverage combined with poor communication by scientists can lead to disastrous public policy decisions.

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The relationship between scientists and science journalists is the subject of the introductory essay by project cochair Donald Kennedy, former Editor-in-Chief of Science and President Emeritus of Stanford University. Starting with the assumption that citizens’ broad understanding of science and technology is “a public good,” Kennedy explores the complaints on both sides of the relationship and discusses ways to improve the clarity of communication.

Actor, writer, and director Alan Alda, who has interviewed dozens of scientists as the host of science-themed programs on public television, admonishes scientists to share their passion for their work with the public. Noting that good communication is fundamental to successful science at multiple levels, he suggests that some of the actor’s techniques are well suited to enhancing scientists’ ability to convey their work to the public.

According to Cristine Russell, Senior Fellow in the Environment and Natural Resources Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and President of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the greatest challenge for the news media is to enhance public understanding of policy options. Russell provides a wide-ranging look at the state of science writing and explores opportunities for the media to provide more balanced coverage to benefit a wider audience.

Most Americans receive foundational instruction about science in school. But if science literacy is crucial to an informed citizenry, then adults need to continue learning about science long after their formal schooling, argues Jon D. Miller, the John A. Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies at Michigan State University. Miller, who has developed a scorecard for measuring a nation’s “civic scientific literacy,” examines the impact of the media on adult scientific literacy in the United States.

An essay coauthored by Rick E. Borchelt, Director of Communications for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research, education, and economics mission area, Lynne T. Friedmann, freelance science writer, and Earle Holland, Assistant Vice President for Research Communications at Ohio State University, addresses a “trust gap” in science as an enterprise, and holds public relations practitioners responsible for a lack of dialogue and transparency. To cultivate trust, the authors argue for a fundamental change in the way information flows —from the current model of “one-way” communication to “two-way symmetric communication” between scientific organizations and their stakeholders.

Robert Bazell, Chief Science and Health Correspondent for NBC News, has spent his journalistic career interacting with public information officers like Borchelt and his coauthors. While agreeing with many of their conclusions, Bazell questions the basic assertion that Americans no longer trust science or the scientific enterprise. He also offers his own pragmatic assessment of the role that institutions play in disseminating science news.

Cornelia Dean, science writer and former Science Editor at The New York Times, discusses the “collective unwillingness and/or inability of scientists” to talk to the public. Dean recalls a time when the disconnect between scientists and the public was not very important. Today, however, it has big implications for the nation’s public life. She offers practical suggestions for bridging the gap between scientists and the public.

In assessing the prospects for science journalism in a digital age, Alfred Hermida, a veteran BBC correspondent and now Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, explores the changing nature of science news. Hermida welcomes the participatory potential of the Internet for science stories but warns that the nonlinear nature of the Web can make it a challenging medium, in which readers may “jump straight into a deep end.”

Although journalists need not be scientists or engineers, they do need to have enough technical understanding to communicate effectively the scientific or technological dimensions of public policy issues that dominate the news. In his essay, William A. Wulf, University Professor and AT&T Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Virginia, cites six “poor, and perhaps even dangerous” examples of media coverage. His intention is not to condemn the media, but rather to invite journalists and the technical community to share a responsibility to inform the public.

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As the world grows more complex, there is an increasing need for citizens to understand the scientific and technological dimensions of daily news events. Journalists play a critical role in helping readers, listeners, and viewers appreciate the science underlying major policy choices. And scientists, in turn, must effectively communicate to the public, especially through the media. We hope that the essays gathered in this volume will generate a broader understanding of the intertwined roles of the media and the scientific and technical community in helping to ensure a well-informed public.

Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser, Cochairs
American Academy working group on Science, Technology, and the Media