Science and the Media

Chapter 1: Science and the Media

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Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser
The Media in Society

Donald Kennedy

Geneva Overholser, Director of the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, and I have been engaged with a fine group of colleagues in thinking about an old and sometimes difficult topic: the relationship between journalists who report science and scientists who do the science on which they report. We are not the first group to have tackled this problem, nor do we seriously expect to have the last word on it. We have had wonderfully thoughtful written analyses by some of those involved in the transaction—not only science journalists like Corey Dean, Boyce Rensberger, and Bob Bazell; but scientists like Tom Lovejoy and Dan Schrag; and public information officers like Earl Holland and Rick Borchelt, who are often found near the center of such exchanges. Our committee has proceeded with some enthusiasm because we think scientific understanding is a precious resource for society and because we believe the interface for scientific communication can be improved.


Why is this issue worth so much attention? A broadly spread citizen understanding of science and technology is a public good, one the United States cannot have too much of. Several arguments support this proposition. First, Americans are a curious people, equipped with a lively sense of wonder. Knowledge about the natural world is a mainstream of the culture—absolutely on a par with the arts and humanities, though unaccountably often given second place on the liberal arts menu. Second, American democracy has to decide, in any given year, on a host of issues that have important scientific and technological content: what to do about climate change, how to organize human or robotic exploration of space, how to develop a sustainable national energy policy, how to treat the health potential offered by embryonic stem cells, and the like. To vote intelligently, citizens will increasingly require a level of scientific literacy. Finally, the United States needs to develop a layer of committed scientists who will lead the march of discovery, providing the basic research findings that will be the seed corn for the next generation of new developments. In making that kind of commitment, young people are often inspired by dramatic research accomplishments—ones that are being made by scientists and interpreted by those who write about the work.


Those are the three legs that support science in our culture, and they all depend on this singularly important relationship between scientists and science journalists. In a number of respects that relationship is in good health: the best reporters have learned a lot of science, and the best scientists have forged productive relationships with journalists. Nevertheless, complaints are heard from both sides—enough to encourage a kind of caricature of misunderstanding. Scientist A complains that the reporter has not taken the trouble to get some background on climate change science and has to be educated from scratch. After a certain amount of that, the reporter writes a story in which A’s view is paired with criticism from a person who denies global warming. “The trouble with these guys,” Scientist A says, “is that they each have a two-card Rolodex with an IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] name on one and Fred Singer’s on the other.” The journalist might point out that had scientists in this area been both more careful and more understandable in describing the underlying issues to journalists, Scientist A would not have had to deliver a cram course to a reporter with a short deadline. As for the two contending views, to ask that journalists count the ayes and nays for every issue may be asking too much—although in the climate change case the scientists’ complaint has some grounding.

A second concern revolves around a disturbing question: is science writing a disappearing culture? Cristine Russell contributed a poignant piece to the journal of the National Association of Science Writers in which she describes the demise of the science page—in its time a very good one—at The Baltimore Sun. The number of sections or departments dedicated to science in major American metropolitan dailies is estimated to have fallen by half over the past ten years as declining newspaper economics have tightened their grip. Even at The New York Times, with its splendid staff of science writers, fans have watched its excellent Tuesday Science section gradually morph from mostly science to mostly health.

At Science we faced some interesting choices because we had some well-trained and careful science writers in our news department, which has sent several of its alumni to The New York Times and National Public Radio, as well as two dozen or so science editors who are all well post-Ph.D. in their disciplinary specialties. Every week the two groups met to decide which among the papers we planned to publish would be covered by the news section and which would instead be covered in a “perspectives” written by a scientist recruited by the editorial staff. Blood was never shed on these occasions, but sometimes problems followed. The purpose of the perspective was to look at the broader field to which the paper contributes; it was written by a scientist who knew the field well and could establish a context for the new findings. If the news section covered the paper, the writer could ask questions that challenged the judgment of an editor. Although this occasionally happened, a clear separation was maintained: editors did not tell writers who the peer reviewers of a paper were, and writers did not ask editors who ought to be contacted or avoided.


In pondering the understandings and failures of understanding that occur when a scientist from, say, the University of the Midwest is talking to journalists from, say, the Capitol Star, our committee has tried to identify some common themes. The scientist thinks that her discovery is important, and with great enthusiasm she describes the problem and her experimental solution of it. The journalist, for whom the science beat constitutes only a small part of his portfolio, has little knowledge of the context for his interviewee’s work and cannot judge its significance. To check things out, he calls the public information officer (PIO) at the scientist’s university to get some background. This particular PIO had prepared a press release based on discussing the work with the investigator and her colleagues and is able to supply the journalist with what he needs. Part of the release does seem clearer to the reporter than the investigator had been. Being on short deadline, he makes use of a paragraph from the release as the lead for his story, but he adds additional material he had absorbed from the researcher’s account. The story appears the next morning with the headline “University of the Midwest Researcher Finds Gene for Muscular Dystrophy.” This story initiates a brisk conversation between the researcher and the journalist. The former points out that the gene relates to a mouse model of muscular dystrophy and that what she had actually found was a site on one chromosome that probably contains the gene. The journalist blames the headline writer, pointing out that the text of the story is far more realistic—save perhaps for some modest overreaching in the part of the press release he had quoted—which naturally he blames on the PIO. No one is left entirely happy with the outcome.

This scenario is not only hypothetical; it is a caricature. But it is a not unrealistic scenario for understanding the roles played by different actors in this complex and challenging relationship.


Public understanding of science is a major social good. Understandable and inspiring writing about science changes lives: consider the number of young men and women whose passion for nature was stirred by Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind or, more recently, by David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo; or consider the Los Angeles children who started thinking about the cosmos because K. C. Cole’s books based on her Los Angeles Times pieces roused their curiosity. Beyond the value inherent in the creation of an inquiring citizenry, another case is to be made for public understanding of science. Important social decisions have to be made wherever science and technology have a powerful impact on prospective public policies. Support for those policies is dependent on voters who can sort out that relationship and evaluate the science. That, in turn, depends heavily on what the scientists say and how carefully they say it and on the journalists who record and interpret the outcome for the public. The relationship between scientists and journalists must be improved—not because it is in trouble but because it is important.

Various forces—some natural, some human—make the junction of science and policy a perilous place in which to move from the one to the other in a seamless, untroubled way. The case of climate change and what to do about it is perhaps the clearest venue where science is interacting with policy formation. The IPCC, a project begun in 1988 as a collaboration between the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, has assembled a large body of the best climate scientists from around the world. Their reports include not only briefings on the status of the science—drawing on atmospheric physics, oceanography, paleoclimatology, and other disciplines —but also sections on adaptation and mitigation strategies from groups including economists and other social scientists. Each IPCC assessment report includes a summary for policy-makers. The summary represents a consensus view of the climate science as developed by government officials and others. As such, the views expressed in the summary are sometimes marginally more cautious than the views of the scientists. The nuances of this process, well understood in the climate-change science community, may be lost in published accounts of IPCC findings.

For example, the general conclusions relate the increase in average global temperature already experienced—about 0.7 degrees Celsius—to the increase in greenhouse gases (especially CO2, which has risen from a preindustrial level of 280 ppm/v to the present 388 ppm/v) that has resulted from human activity. The conclusions are also firm in supporting the use, for projection, of general circulation models that predict a gradual increase in average global temperature of between 2.5 and 7.0 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, as well as a sea-level rise of 20 to 82 cm and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events. A small number of scientists in the field still disagree with the IPCC consensus. Some of these scientists believe that the consensus understates sea-level rise. Others deny its more general conclusions and are joined and sometimes supported by interests that do not wish to see a strong regulatory policy outcome that will have significant economic consequences.

A journalist following this story has to deal with the following circumstances: first, this is a big story—a majority of the American public now overwhelmingly believes that climate change is a major problem and poses a serious threat. Thus, the question of who is right about the science is a big, important question. Second, the journalist will encounter well-credentialed scientists who have deeply held, even passionate views on the subject. Most will be strong advocates for the IPCC consensus and will wonder why a journalist would consider another view. Others, fewer in number, will cite histories of natural fluctuations in world climate or will challenge the utility of the models or point to other work that, in their view, makes the scientific position on global warming “controversial.”

Under those circumstances, many good reporters will consider it fair and reasonable to discuss the matter with several people on each side. In and of itself, this is not a problem. But the IPCC consensus involves hundreds of scientists, and its conclusions all rest on research published in peer-reviewed journals. The historian of science Naomi Oreskes, at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed the consensus on climate change four years ago (the 2008 consensus is far stronger):

In its most recent assessment, IPCC states unequivocally that the consensus of scientific opinion is that Earth’s climate is being affected by human activities: “Human activities . . . are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents . . . that absorb or scatter radiant energy. . . . [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.”1

IPCC is not alone in its conclusions. In recent years, all major scientific bodies in the United States whose members’ expertise bears directly on the matter have issued similar statements. For example the National Academy of Sciences report, Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions, begins: “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise.” The report explicitly asks whether the IPCC assessment is a fair summary of professional scientific thinking, and answers yes: “The IPCC’s conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue.”

The drafting of such reports and statements involves many opportunities for comment, criticism, and revision, and it is not likely that they would diverge greatly from the opinions of the societies’ members. Nevertheless, they might downplay legitimate dissenting opinions. That hypothesis was tested by analyzing 98 abstracts, published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, and listed in the ISI database with the keywords “climate change.”

The 928 papers were divided into six categories: explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, mitigation proposals, methods, paleoclimate analysis, and rejection of the consensus position. Of all the papers, 75% fell into the first three categories, either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus view; 25% dealt with methods of paleoclimate, taking no position on current anthropogenic climate change. Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.

In fact, today only six or so scientists regularly appear in opposition to the consensus, and most of them do not publish original research. If the reporter has a short deadline, she may resort to one or two scientists on each side of an issue. When this happens in the climate change arena, most people in the research community are horrified.

What should the poor reporter do? She should be concerned about two important attributes. The first is the scientists’ qualifications: the kinds of journals they have published in and other credentials, such as invited articles, membership in scientific societies and academies, support from agencies that award grants on the basis of peer review—indeed, information of the kind she might get by taking advantage of the type of sources Oreskes mentions. The second concerns possible financial conflicts of interest. The journalist should ask hard questions about whether the scientist is getting financial support and from whom. In the case of climate science, certain energy companies and foundations, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the George C. Marshall Institute have all supported scientists who actively publish critiques of the IPCC consensus. Support from those sources might raise questions that would not arise from a National Science Foundation grant.

Journalists should also be attuned to evidence of a more organized agenda. Oreskes and Robert Porter have studied the development of a particular strategy on the part of those who dispute the evidence for global warming. Early contacts were made between these individuals and others, including scientists who had challenged the epidemiological consensus on the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. The common theme of both campaigns, which the climate group learned from the tobacco scientists, is that one should “teach the controversy”—that is, present the underlying science as unclear because some scientists have expressed disagreements with the consensus. When the “controversy” is abetted by support from particular industries or foundations, money again enters the picture.

Journalists should not, however, assume guilt by association. A conflict of interest or the prospect of financial gain is a matter quite different from that of scientific competence. Science requires authors to declare all their support, and publishes any information that might suggest to the reader the existence of a potential conflict. But determination of the paper’s scientific merit is conducted independently of the assessment of potential conflicts of interest, and the two should not be confused. Some reporters are apt to make conflict of interest or financial stakes a proxy for serious judgments about competence, and that may mislead the reader. Neil Munro, a Washington investigative reporter who contributes to National Journal, warns reporters to include outside financial sources when writing about academic researchers. For example, in a piece called “Doctor Who?” in Washington Monthly, he compares two biologists who work on stem cells. Dr. David Prentice of Indiana State University believes that all the medical promise of stem cell research can be met with adult stem cells; Dr. Irving Weissman of Stanford University is a partisan for the use of embryonic stem cells. “Part of the explanation, of course, is simply an honest difference of opinion among scientists,” Munro says. But he then goes on to elaborate the financial advantages Prentice might gain from a biotech company he hopes to found, and the fact that Weissman has “made millions” in companies using stem cell technology. Munro points out that neither man has kept his affiliations a secret. Munro’s objection is to the press, which invariably refers to Weissman as “a biologist from Stanford.” (I should disclose here that I am one of those, too.)

Munro’s objection is interesting given that he himself is a reporter. He takes care of a significant difference of opinion by explaining it in terms of financial interest and ignores evidence of a stark difference in competence. Weissman has published numerous articles in top-tier peer-reviewed journals and is widely regarded as an innovative leader in cell biology. He is a member of the National Academy of Science (not merely a chair of one panel, the distinction Munro allows him) and is a recipient of a number of prizes and awards. David Prentice has no peer-reviewed publications. His website refers to a letter in Science that was unreviewed and soon followed by a letter from three distinguished scientists contesting nearly every claim he had made. All of this information was readily available to Munro.

The advice to reporters to disclose financial relationships is good advice. But Munro would have made it better had he included an admonition to follow the credentials as well as the money.


Climate change and the stem cell debate are the current poster children for scientific issues that converge with public policy, which means that they cannot help but be political. In each case, federal action has failed to follow public preference. The result has been a down-migration of jurisdiction—with states passing referenda to support stem cell research, California pushed its own emissions standards by passing AB 32, and mayors are organizing to reduce the carbon footprints of their cities. This is an interesting development that probably ought to get more press than it does.

So should another problem: a growing scientific suspicion about the number of “fixes” now making their appearance in the climate/energy space. Most scientists do not regard biofuels, especially corn-derived ethanol, as workable—either economically or as a means of reducing carbon emissions once all costs are accounted for. An equal skepticism attends the number of “carbon offsets” available to households, industries, or even individuals who have taken on a sense of obligation to reduce their carbon footprints. Some offsets doubtless do achieve a carbon-neutralization effect—but these are rare and do not include random acts of tree planting or the fertilization of bits of ocean with nutrients that might produce blooms of phytoplankton.

Journalists can do much to help create a more balanced and knowledgeable account of science for the public. But to leave the burden on the press would be foolish as well as unfair. Scientists need to do much more of the work themselves: by learning to speak more clearly about what they are doing, by getting out into the real world to talk more directly to the public, and by taking care to be scientifically sound and rigorous as they connect their own work to public policy.

A number of incentives make this difficult to achieve. Scientists training in the iconic Ph.D.-granting departments seldom are urged to work on their communication skills. Too many of their mentors are exclusively interested in their students’ progress toward completion of a dissertation. A joke current in molecular biology is that the professors are determined to create clonal offspring. Graduate students are commonly instructed that instead of undertaking a course involving some kind of outreach they should focus on their theses. I once asked Bob Berdahl, the thoughtful president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), if it might be possible to find out how many science departments in AAU member institutions offered seminars or courses on how to discuss science with the media or the public. He said he would try, but then predicted that the answer would be few or none.

The actual picture is now not quite that bleak. The Pew Foundation has sponsored some efforts of that kind, and the highly successful Aldo Leopold program has been coaching and teaching young scientists at media relations for some years. The best institutional PIOs help their science faculties make press contacts and often work to improve the clarity of communication between scientist and reporter. But discouragingly little is happening at the great research universities, as Berdahl warned. Even worse than for a graduate student to be told “that’s a waste of your time; stick to your thesis” is for his colleagues to warn him about the dangers of being “Saganized”—that is, of becoming popular enough as an explainer of science to risk the contempt of more “serious” researchers, a contempt that owes more than a little to envy.

A final problem that must be addressed is that of resource concentration. The influential national media—heavily concentrated in the Boston-New York-Washington area—pay much more attention to science than do daily newspapers elsewhere, let alone cable television and talk radio. Areas of higher media concentration are, not surprisingly, areas that produce mergers of science and media. For example, that Corey Dean—then of The New York Times—and Dan Schrag of Harvard University were involved in a seminar that accomplished just such a merger is hardly an accident. Nor is it surprising that Andy Revkin, also formerly of the Times, consults regularly at Harvard and Stanford about climate change science. In the long run, the business of relationship-making must be extended to more disparate, less comfortable situations in which we reach the majority of Americans with institutions, people, and technologies we haven’t yet connected. I wish I were a better example of what can be done, but I’m as limited as many of the rest of you. I hope the young scientist in the Leopold program and the young science writer from the San Jose Mercury News will be able to show us the way.


1. Naomi Oreskes, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Science 306 (2004): 1686. See also her outstanding book with Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010).