Science and the Media

Chapter 3: Covering Controversial Science: Improving Reporting on Science and Public Policy

Back to table of contents
Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser
The Media in Society

Cristine Russell

On a daily basis, news headlines blast warnings and trumpet battles over controversial scientific research and public-policy issues that confront the United States and the rest of the world in the early twenty-first century.1 Global climate change, influenza pandemics, embryonic stem cell research, genetic engineering, diet and obesity, teaching evolution in schools, space exploration, renewable energy technologies, and bioterrorism are just a few of the media subjects that have significant implications for both public policy and personal decision-making.

There is a greater need than ever before for journalists who are skilled in reporting both the underlying complexity of science and technology as well as the legal, ethical, and political ramifications. Unfortunately, jobs for full-time science writers at major print and electronic outlets are declining, while the number of important science and science-policy developments to cover is increasing. The news hole is shrinking, and the stories that do appear may be confusing, misleading, or downright wrong. Many important topics are left unreported in favor of soft “news you can use” consumer health and medical features on everything from fad diets to the latest exercise machines. The Internet offers an unlimited source of real-time information, but, unsorted and unevaluated, it can be bewildering and inaccurate for the unsophisticated user. The rise of partisan blogs on controversial science-policy topics, such as climate change, may mislead or further polarize the American public.

Surveys show that many Americans are “scientifically illiterate” and woefully unprepared to understand basic scientific concepts or the applications of science and technology. Since the general public gets most of its scientific, environmental, and health information from the news media, journalists have an opportunity to help fill the information gap. But leaders in both the scientific and journalistic communities feel that too often reporters and scientists are themselves ill-prepared for communicating about science and public policy in a manner that helps the public better understand pressing issues, from climate change to the pandemic spread of the novel H1N1 influenza virus.

As a result, science and policy issues are frequently presented as a battle between dueling experts at two extremes, an approach that gives a false sense of balance and often overemphasizes minority views. Complicated issues become oversimplified; uncertainty is underemphasized; controversy trumps consensus. “Yo-yo” reporting swings from breakthroughs that over-promise to disasters that disproportionately emphasize the negative. Coverage, particularly by inexperienced reporters, may fall short on science and long on political reporting, promoting conflict and personality over substance. This type of coverage trumpets who is winning or losing the race in an effort to capture public and political support.

The challenge ahead is to boost both spot news and analytical coverage— in old and new media—of the important issues in science and technology, providing insight and context for understanding the status of important debates involving scientific research. In doing so, the news media must help sort out the potential public and personal choices facing both decision-makers and individual citizens.

This paper will examine some of the following questions:

  • What is the supply and demand for specialized science reporters, and what is the pipeline?
  • Is the amount of science coverage declining in the major news media?
  • What types of science and policy stories receive the most coverage?
  • Who is best equipped to cover science and public policy?
  • How responsive is the scientific community to participating in media coverage of controversial science and policy?
  • How does media coverage affect public understanding of current scientific debates?
  • What efforts are needed or are under way to improve media coverage of science and policy?

In this paper, science will be defined broadly: physical and life sciences; social sciences such as psychology; medicine and health; environment and energy; space; engineering and technology. The common denominator is the use of standard research methodology designed to ask questions and derive answers. Science news ranges from basic research to applications of science and technology, as well as society’s responses to scientific developments. Given the breadth of the subject, this paper will focus primarily on the mainstream news media, particularly newspaper coverage of science.


History of Science News Coverage in the United States

The development of science writing as a journalism specialty mirrors the growth of the scientific research enterprise in the United States. Starting as early as 1934, a dozen science writers from major American newspapers banded together to form the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), an organization dedicated to improving the popular reporting of new scientific developments for the general public.2 Since then, science writers have covered “some of the most momentous events in human history. Science reporters were the first to tell the public of the splitting of the uranium atom and of the consequent explosion of the first atomic bomb” as well as the discovery of antibiotic “wonder drugs” that could cure deadly diseases.3

Following World War II, as the federal government began to invest heavily in scientific and medical research, the pace of new developments required science reporters to be prepared to follow everything from physics to polio vaccine development. Science writing took off as a staple of daily news coverage when a large cadre of general-assignment reporters, many with little or no knowledge of science, were “flung into covering science by editors seeking to sate the reader appetite for science news that exploded in the wake of the Soviet Sputnik in the fall of 1957,”4 noted the late Jerry Bishop, a pioneering science reporter for The Wall Street Journal. For much of the 1960s, science reporting was on-the-job training, as the space race received extensive—and usually laudatory—coverage in newspapers and magazines and on television. At the same time, the successful transplant of a heart into a human patient in 1967 and the pioneering use of chemotherapy to treat cancer promoted the ever-growing coverage of medicine.

Early science reporting was often characterized by a “gee whiz” fascination with the new developments in science, medicine, and technology. But in the 1970s, the coverage turned more skeptical as concerns about environmental contamination led to calls for more government regulation, and rapid developments in biomedical research raised new ethical concerns. In the 1980s, new diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, surprised a world that thought deadly infectious diseases were a thing of the past, while the pace of technological developments, such as the computer, quickened.

In the 1990s and early twenty-first century, an international effort to determine the structure of the entire human genome, as well as the cloning of animals such as the sheep Dolly, drew attention to the benefits and risks of genetic technology and the global nature of the scientific enterprise. Along the way, some science reporters were required to cover the whole gamut of science, from basic research to the public-policy implications of the use and potential misuse of science. Others specialized further in sub-beats of science writing, from neurobiology to earth sciences. Print journalists at major newspapers, magazines, and wire services provided the most in-depth coverage, with the electronic media (with the exception of public television and radio) often limited in content and dominated by the need for compelling visuals. In recent years, the rapid growth of the Internet has provided a new venue for public access to both scientific developments and writing about science, as well as opportunities for citizen journalism. The 24-hour electronic news cycle has also put more pressure on all journalistic outlets to release information more quickly than ever before, often with little time for in-depth reporting.

Today, those who cover science and technology range from full-time science reporters to general-assignment reporters who literally catch the story on the run. In addition to news and science sections, science and policy stories increasingly appear in less traditional arenas, including business, education, religion, and political coverage. The biotech, pharmaceutical, and energy industries have become a staple of business news. Debates over the teaching of evolution and intelligent design have dominated some local school board and court coverage, while state and local ballot initiatives force legal and political reporters to cover a variety of scientific, medical, and environmental issues, from stem cells to climate change.

Throughout these stories, there has been a growing emphasis on the intersection between science, policy, and politics. As the introduction to a recent science-writing guide notes, science has become “more a part of daily life. Some of the leading issues in today’s political marketplace—embryonic stem cell research, global warming, health care reform, space exploration, genetic privacy, germ warfare—are informed by scientific ideas.”5

Number of Staff Science Writers and Newspaper Science Sections Declines

It is ironic that as science writing has matured as a profession, both in sophistication and numbers, the traditional media outlets for reaching the general public have shrunk. Cutbacks in the news business, particularly newspapers, have brought a severe decline in the number of jobs for full-time staff science writers as well as a drop in the number of weekly science sections. Those that remain have become increasingly consumer-oriented, specializing more on soft health-and-fitness trends than on research information based on scientific studies. From its humble beginnings seventy-five years ago, the NASW is now the largest membership organization devoted to professional science writers, with about 2,250 members in 2010.6 But only a small number are employed as full-time news media staff, while the ranks of freelance science writers have greatly expanded. An analysis of NASW membership records from 2005 conducted for this paper found that only about 4 percent of members were staff reporters and editors for newspapers; 2 percent for popular magazines; and 1 percent for radio and television. Nine percent worked for specialty magazines or newsletters. About 40 percent of NASW members were freelance writers for a variety of publications. Another 42 percent wrote or edited science information or worked in public affairs for universities, companies, government, and other institutions, or taught and studied science journalism. By far the most dominant specialty among this science-writing group is medicine and health,7 although all branches of science writing are represented.

Newer specialty journalism organizations are also encouraging better coverage of crucial issues, such as the environment and health care. However, many of their members focus primarily on policy and politics, with far less emphasis on the underlying science or research. The Society of Environmental Journalists has grown to about 1,500 members since its founding in 1990.8 The Association of Health Care Journalists, incorporated in 1998, has nearly 1,000 members, about one-third of them from newspapers.9

One traditional measure of the interest in science coverage and the willingness of newspapers to showcase it is the decision to run dedicated print science sections—usually produced on a weekly basis with a range of stories, from short takes to in-depth features. The New York Times’ Tuesday “Science Times” started in 1978; it is still the gold standard of science sections, both in space, content, and the size of its contingent of highly skilled science reporters. Fourteen full-time staff science and medical reporters, seven editors, and a host of outside contributors work on science coverage for the Times’ news pages and Science section.10 The weekly section’s topics range from the arcane—the latest in dinosaur bones and black holes—to the pressing personal and public policy issues of the day. The space devoted to health and fitness has grown significantly, as have online science and medical blogs.

In addition, the paper has other reporters working for the business section on pharmaceuticals, energy and technology, and for a separate cluster created in early 2009 to coordinate environmental coverage across the paper, from local to international stories.11 (Two of the Times’ senior environmental reporters chose to leave their newspaper staff positions in late 2009 as part of a newspaper-wide round of staff cutbacks, and the popular DotEarth blog by veteran environmental journalist Andrew Revkin shifted to the paper’s opinion section after he left the paper.)

While the Times’ Science section has largely held its own, other newspaper science sections have not fared as well over time. Popular in newspapers across the United States in the 1980s (corresponding, in part, to computer ads), weekly science sections reached a peak of ninety-five in 1989 but dropped precipitously thereafter. By 1992, only forty-four papers continued to run weekly science sections, according to surveys done by the now-defunct Scientists’ Institute for Public Information (SIPI).12

Since then, science sections have continued to decline in number and size, particularly among smaller papers. Those that remain have shifted much further toward consumer health and fitness coverage. In 2005, there were at least thirty-four daily newspapers in the United States that ran weekly health and science sections, according to an analysis for this paper using the Editor & Publisher International Yearbook.13 Of them, more than two-thirds focused primarily on health in their titles, up from about 50 percent in 1992. In comparison, the sections that self-identified as “science” dropped from 30 percent in 1992 to 12 percent. The rest—18 percent in 2005 versus 21 percent in 1992—were listed as a combination of “health” and “science.”

Of the forty-four papers with science sections in the 1992 survey, only twenty-four remained in 2005. Ten additional sections started between 1992 and 2005 among the nation’s top fifty papers in terms of circulation, with eight out of ten of them focused exclusively on health. A preliminary update suggests that since 2005 the number of papers known to have science and health sections has dropped slightly, down from thirty-four in 2005 to thirty-one papers in early 2009.14 This includes the loss of the prestigious Health/ Science section in The Boston Globe in March 2009, after a twenty-five-year run, with science, technology, and environment coverage moved to its Monday Business section and health and medicine shifted to the Lifestyle section.15 Hit by the sinking newspaper economy, the Globe nonetheless kept the bulk of its science, environment, and medical team: six full-time science reporters and an additional part-time medical writer for its “White Coat Notes” medical news blog.16

At newspapers around the country, much of the science and health news coverage has also moved into the “lifestyle” sections and out of the news pages. USA Today, the United States’ largest general circulation national newspaper, puts most of its science, health, and environment coverage at the back of its Life section, although it frequently features medicine and health on its front page. The Wall Street Journal regularly puts health, science, and technology coverage in its Personal Journal feature section and has added a regular science column in its news pages that looks broadly at new research and its impact on society.

Some critics, including science reporters, question the need for separate sections, arguing that they have the danger of preaching to the converted by sequestering important science and health coverage in a section that may be read primarily by readers who are already interested in science. Robert Lee Hotz, the Journal’s science columnist and a former president of NASW, worries that science sections are “often divorced from the news. They favor lovely but arcane exploration pieces on the wonders of research that may or may not have any connection to the events of the day. . . . We do ourselves a disservice when we set up picket fences that say ‘keep out, science writer inside.’” Hotz feels that science coverage needs to be pushed to the front of the paper, competing in the news section with other national and international stories, and that science writers themselves need to be stronger advocates for science and technology coverage. “If we put ourselves in competition with the news of the day, science is extremely successful at elbowing its way onto the front page,” he says.17

However, promoting more science and science-policy coverage in the daily news columns and in weekly science sections is certainly not mutually exclusive. In an ideal world, important science news would be covered as it happens in the daily news pages, and science writers would cover spot news and write in-depth analytical pieces that compete for the front page. But science and health sections provide a reliable opportunity for viewing trends in science and science policy in more depth and with more perspective than may be realistically available in the front-section news hole. By hiring specialty health and science writers, the sections also offer a safety net of trained reporters who are well equipped to cover unpredictable spot news, particularly threats such as the disastrous Gulf of Mexico deepwater oil drilling accident, an outbreak of H1N1 influenza, or a bioterrorism incident, when the need arises. Existing sections need to encourage more substantive and timely science policy and issue stories, rather than settling into covering primarily the more comfortable and timeless “gee whiz” science or consumer health stories.

Newsmagazines, struggling to maintain their audiences, have also shifted their emphasis strongly toward consumer health and medicine and “green” stories, with pure science a casualty here as well. In 2005, ten of the fifty News-week covers were on health issues, such as lung cancer, autism, and heart disease, according to a Newsweek cover story on “Diet Hype,” subtitled “How the Media Collides with Science.”18 The story also noted a potential economic connection: pharmaceutical companies spent $1.3 billion in magazine advertising in 2005, with another $2.4 billion on network and cable television.19

Time has taken a strong pro-environment editorial stance and sounded early alarm bells on climate change, championing these causes on its covers and inside its pages. U.S. News and World Report heavily promotes consumer-oriented products, such as its “best hospital” rankings, but has cut back most of its senior science and medical staff, as have its sister magazines.

While print opportunities in both newspapers and newsmagazines are far more limited than in the past, science magazines largely targeted to educated audiences already interested in science still provide high-quality content. The venerable Science News, a nonprofit started in 1922 but revamped in 2008, continues to provide biweekly news and analysis of science and society in print and daily updates online.20 Monthly science magazines like Discover and Scientific American offer in-depth science features and online coverage that can’t be found in mass media publications.

In the electronic media, television network and cable news coverage of science continues to dwindle, with health and environment the mainstays of the limited coverage. CNN caught flak when it fired its entire science, environment, and technology team in late 2008.21 National Public Radio maintains a strong staff doing science and medical coverage, and Public Broadcasting System’s NOVA science series is still going strong.

The Rise of Online Coverage and the “Blogosphere”

The biggest growth industry is online, offering the print and electronic news media opportunities to expand their Web coverage of specialized topics in science and technology, health and medicine, and energy and the environment. Online sites, blogs, and social media tools are becoming the twenty-first-century version of the science section, and in many cases have already replaced or augmented the print version of science and medical sections in newspapers as well as in newsmagazines. In theory, they have the potential to update and personalize science stories that appeal to newer, younger audiences and to give the public a chance to participate in the dialogue. Multimedia video, graphics, and other visuals can also bring the stories to life in a way that words alone cannot.

Unfortunately, given the troubling economic status of mainstream news media, online science-related sites often fall short of their potential, even among the most trusted news brands. Catering to popular interests, they overemphasize consumer interests in health and medicine, depend heavily on the latest wire coverage (where newness is the premium) to replace staff-generated content, go for “gee whiz” science visuals, and fall short in terms of serious analysis of science-policy issues.

With science staff cutbacks at most media institutions and a smaller news hole in print editions, those specialty newspaper and magazine reporters and editors that remain find themselves juggling their limited time. At this point, the Web is winning. Updating blogs, feeding online coverage, and promoting visibility through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter often mean that longer, in-depth reporting projects are put aside (or never attempted in the first place). In addition, these online and social media sites tend to appeal to niche audiences, rather than the broader audiences that mainstream media have traditionally attracted.

The Washington Post’s science coverage, for example, has suffered with the loss of several senior science writers due to staff reductions and buyouts in recent years. Its twenty-five-year-old Health section now includes some environment and science coverage, but it has limited staff to do so. Online, the Post’s current coverage tilts heavily toward health care reform and consumer health, environment, and technology. Of about a hundred blogs listed on the Post’s website,22 two are devoted to health news and health care reform; two to environment, energy, and climate change; and two to consumer technology and policy. None focuses on basic science itself, although there are twenty blogs devoted to sports.

However, award-winning sites like MSNBC’s Cosmic Log,23 written by respected science editor Alan Boyle, show the potential for combining serious reporting and commentary on space, astronomy, and science in a popular way that appeals to a broad mainstream audience.

Another trend is media partnerships with other organizations and outside experts who contribute to science, environment, or medical coverage. Many papers and magazines are “outsourcing” their Web content, buying coverage in areas like the environment and energy from specialty news and feature services and utilizing outside experts to blog or conduct online sessions with readers. The Washington Post’s blog The Planet Panel brings in outside experts to talk about climate change, while The New York Times supplements its staff energy and environment coverage with stories from an independent subscription-based service, Energy and Environment Publishing, LLC.24

However, such partnerships can also raise red flags, as lines blur between independent journalism and sponsored content. U.S. News and World Report, for example, now features science content sponsored and generated by the federal government’s National Science Foundation (NSF)—a decision that calls into question the traditional divide between mainstream journalism outlets and the agencies they cover.25

Major specialty monthly magazines such as Discover, Scientific American, and Wired complement their glossy print editions with lively websites that tend to be newsy, fast-paced sources of science and technology content. Discover has also cultivated a small set of distinctive blogs by ten scientists and science journalists, with its most popular one, “Bad Astronomy,” written by astronomer and author Phil Plait.26 In contrast, ScienceBlogs,27 started by Seed Media Group in 2006 with fifteen blogs, has grown to more than eighty blogs from diverse disciplines, providing “a digital science salon” that its founders say is now “the largest online community dedicated to science.” The site is a rich source of unedited commentary on all things science (often accompanied by unvarnished language that would never pass mainstream media muster). But there is considerable competition in the wild, woolly world of the Web, as the widespread use of search engines like Google leads the public to a vast array of often unreliable, inaccurate sites run by organizations or individuals with a variety of agendas. Particularly troubling is the growth of a highly polarized blogosphere in the most controversial areas of science: from climate change to evolution. This trend led Harvard Kennedy School professor Sheila Jasanoff to team up with science author and Discover blogger Chris Mooney for an April 2010 workshop on “Unruly Democracy: Science Blogs and the Public Sphere.”28 They explored their concern that the unruly nature of science blogs may have severe negative consequences for scientific communication when distorted information masquerades as scientific truth and uncivil, often ugly, exchanges occur.

Perhaps the most dramatic example has been in the arena of climate change. Partisan blogs fuel anti-science sentiment and further undermine public belief in the scientific consensus that the planet is threatened by global climate change resulting from human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. Public confusion is heightened by misleading sites and blogs labeled as science when they are decidedly not. For example, two of the most popular “science” blogs listed by Wikio,29 a site that monitors blog traffic, are Watts Up with That? and Climate Audit. Both are anti-climate science, conservative sites that deny that climate change results from human activity. In contrast, two of the other top-ranked science blogs listed by Wikio,30 Climate Progress and Real-Climate, strongly support both climate change science and a political agenda to curb carbon emissions. Both the pro- and anti-climate science bloggers preach to far different constituencies, but they have something in common: they frequently attack climate coverage by the mainstream media and individual journalists. Once again, it’s easy to make the media a scapegoat.


History of Scientists’ Involvement with News Media

Traditionally, scientists have viewed the media with suspicion and the prospect of being interviewed by a reporter akin to a visit to the dentist. In fact, such interviews often felt like pulling teeth, as reluctant researchers measured their words and feared being misquoted. Part of the tension stemmed from the scientific tradition of presenting research first to colleagues at scientific meetings and later to the scientific world through peer-reviewed journals. Only then was it considered appropriate to talk to the public through news media translators.

Early scientific popularizers like the late astronomer Carl Sagan, whose riveting books and television documentaries brought the “Cosmos” to the average American, were often viewed critically by their peers for talking directly to the public. However, times changed as the struggle for federal research funds became ever more competitive, and public and political criticism of the products of science and technology—from environmental pollution to nuclear power—put many parts of the scientific enterprise on the defensive. Increasingly, academic institutions and scientific organizations hired communications experts to prepare press releases on their scientific work and publicize the findings to a broader audience. Groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the nation’s largest general scientific organization, as well as specialty science organizations, set up elaborate pressrooms and briefings for their annual meetings and publications, with particular attention paid to topical or controversial science that was under public scrutiny.

Through it all, many scientists have felt uncomfortable with press coverage, worrying about being misquoted or having their research taken out of context. Although they place the blame on the media and its shortcomings, a large part of the problem is that many prominent scientists do not see this as part of their job and are not trained to deal with the media. Veteran science reporter Cornelia Dean, a former science editor of The New York Times, notes that scientists complain bitterly about the “poor quality of science journalism” and “what I always say to them is, ‘You’re right. But the only people who can do anything about it are you, the scientists.’ As a group, they are not very good at communicating with the lay public or with reporters.”31

Dean, who designed a Harvard University course for scientists and engineers, feels that scientists’ training should include science writing: “I don’t think people should get a doctorate in science without some exposure to how to tell an ordinary citizen what they’re doing. Scientists have an affirmative obligation to take part in the debate. Their absence is one of the things that has debased the national dialogue.”32

“There is an uneasy tension between reporters and scientists,” admits University of Maryland professor Rita R. Colwell, who headed the NSF for six years. “We have slowly matured from the situation twenty years ago when good scientists simply refused to talk to the press. Frankly, they didn’t know how, and they were afraid of being misquoted and ridiculed by their colleagues. . . . Now there is a realization that we need to step into the public fray if the voice of science is to be heard.” She benefited from media training in her days at the helm of the NSF, including “learning how to answer questions that don’t have answers.” Colwell says scientists “need to respect good science writing. It’s tough to get it right.” She urges her colleagues to “speak as scientists on issues and learn how to work with the press. . . . If we don’t put out the information, we have ourselves to blame.”33

Colwell and other scientists are concerned about declining science coverage for the public. “The quantity of science reporting has decreased alarmingly,” says Colwell. Donald Kennedy, a Stanford University biologist who is the former editor of Science, agrees: “There are huge gaps. . . . So many metropolitan dailies with substantial audiences have lost science pages in the last ten to twenty years.” At the same time, says Kennedy, the scientific community has gradually become “more willing and much better at learning how to talk to the press and describe our results in language people understand.”34

In addition, many scientists are taking their work directly to the public through popular books and blogs that combine their scientific knowledge with engaging writing—the best of both worlds.

Changing Role of Science in the Political and Financial Landscape

The scientific community is only one constituency in the science and public-policy world. However, it has traditionally held a privileged place in American discourse, and research funding has enjoyed bipartisan support in the nation’s capital. But in recent years, science and science policy, as well as research budgets, have come under greater attack from legal, cultural, and religious organizations with powerful political clout, each of which has claimed its own part of the science-policy turf. Scientists and the organizations that represent them have increasingly found themselves in unfamiliar territory: sometimes treated as if they were just another special-interest group in the messy political food fight.

Under the Bush administration, many scientists and journalists felt that science was politicized to a greater extent than ever before. The Republican War on Science, by journalist Chris Mooney, summarized the criticism:

With the ascent of the modern conservative movement and its political domination of the Republican Party, two powerful forces had fused. . . . On issues ranging from the health risks of smoking to global climate change, the GOP had consistently humored private industry’s attempts to undermine science so as to stave off unwelcome government regulation. Meanwhile, on issues ranging from evolution to embryonic stem cell research, the party had also propped up the Christian right’s attacks on science in the service of moral and ideological objectives. In short, the GOP had unleashed a perfect storm of science politicization and abuse, in the process precipitating a full-fledged crisis over the role of scientific information in political decision-making.35

A New Yorker article by science writer Michael Specter reached similar conclusions: “From the start of his first term, George W. Bush seems to have been guided more by faith and ideology than by data in resolving scientific questions,” he noted. “On issues ranging from population control to the state of the environment, and from how science is taught in the classroom to whether Iraq’s research establishment was capable of producing weapons of mass destruction, the Administration has repeatedly turned away from traditional avenues of scientific advice.”36 Critics, including many in the scientific establishment, felt that the Bush administration’s conservative philosophy politicized science to a greater degree than previous administrations: controlling whether research could take place (stopping federal funding of new avenues of embryonic stem cell research), whether scientists could talk about what it means (controlling statements by federal scientists about climate change), and whether regulatory agencies could act (the Food and Drug Administration disregarded scientific advisory committee and staff advice that emergency contraception, “the morning after pill,” should be approved for adult over-the-counter sales before finally granting approval in August 2006).37

The New Yorker’s Specter, author of the 2009 book Denialism, acknowledges, however, that the “problems facing American science have not been created by a single politician or party: they reflect a fissure in society which has grown wider as science has edged closer to the roots of life itself.”38 As a result of a virtual stalemate in Washington over the most contentious scientific issues, many of the battles have gone out to the states and localities. In the face of the Bush administration’s 2001 mandate that banned federal funding of newer stem cell lines created from human embryos, controversial stem cell research became the subject of ballot initiatives in California and other states that were considering funding it themselves.

The 2008 election of Barack Obama as President of the United States brought a new proponent of science and scientific integrity to the White House as well as a sense of optimism that science would be restored to a place of honor at the highest levels of the federal government. Indeed, President Obama’s inaugural promise to “restore science to its rightful place” was followed by the appointment of a number of top scientists to key administration posts and advisory positions—from Harvard Kennedy School’s climate expert John P. Holdren as Science Advisor to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy. The Obama administration poured economic stimulus money into energy R&D, launched initiatives to protect scientific integrity and openness in government, lifted the Bush administration’s ban on federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research, and gave a boost to science and technology education.

However, the bipartisan improvements that many had hoped for in Congress have not materialized: far from it, the nation’s legislators seem to be locked in partisan battles with each other and the Obama White House on issues key to science policy, with energy and climate change legislation foremost among them. Indeed, the fissure in American society over contentious science-related issues continues to widen.

Unfortunately, in many cases, the media have helped light the fire rather than bring light to the controversial science-based issues. National news coverage of congressional and administration actions in the science and technology arena has been conducted by both science and political reporters for the major papers. But in many cases the coverage has fallen once again into predictable political dueling rather than in-depth coverage of the science itself. And as the fights have moved across the country, science-policy coverage has increasingly been carried out by political or general-assignment reporters with little or no knowledge of the underlying science. In the blogosphere, where the gloves are off, opinions too often overpower facts.


The role of the news media in conveying the latest information about science and public policy is crucial, providing Americans with frontline coverage of current controversies facing society. The problem is that the audience is composed of many publics, each bringing a different background and personal agenda that is influenced by cultural and religious beliefs, education, political affiliation, gender, and age, among many factors.

Surveys show that television is still the main source for information about science and technology in its myriad forms. But the use of the Internet is growing rapidly, while print media are losing ground. A 2010 NSF report shows that 40 percent of Americans said they still get their science and technology information from television; 28 percent cited the Internet; newspapers and magazines totaled 22 percent; books 3 percent; and radio 2 percent. The proportion using the Internet has more than tripled since 2001, and the Internet is the main source for learning about specific scientific issues, such as climate change and biotechnology.39 Use of the Internet is higher among younger Americans and increases with education and income. However, it is not an either-or situation: a 2008 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press report noted that audiences are often getting their information from both traditional print and electronic media and the Internet, “blending these sources together rather than choosing between one or another.”40

Public understanding of science is another problem. While many people are supportive of science, they still don’t know much about the basic tenets of science, says Jon D. Miller, a political scientist who has spent three decades conducting survey research for the NSF and many European governments. Miller has found that only about one in five Americans is “scientifically savvy” enough to read the Tuesday New York Times Science section, while the rest “just don’t know” that much about science.41

He considers “civic scientific literacy”—defined as a “level of understanding of scientific terms and constructs sufficient to read a daily newspaper or magazine and to understand the essence of competing arguments on a given dispute or controversy”42 —as crucial to a citizen’s ability to participate in public-policy debates involving science or technology.

In terms of basic scientific knowledge, Miller’s surveys suggest that about half of Americans know that Earth orbits the Sun (and not vice versa); about half know that humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time; less than one-third know that DNA is a basic genetic building block of life (some have guessed it to be the Drug and Narcotics Agency).

Basic knowledge of DNA is important to understanding stories about the human genome, genetic engineering, or the stem cell debate. But Miller’s surveys show that, a year before the 2004 election, 40 percent of those surveyed said they had never heard of stem cell research, despite considerable coverage of it from the time President Bush took office in 2001. On the evolution debate, his research shows considerable polarization, with only 14 percent definitely supporting the concept of evolution, one-third saying evolution is false, and the rest holding more tentative positions in between.

An important component of scientific literacy is formal education through science courses. But the media are an ongoing form of informal education, playing “a critical role as an early warning system” for the general public about news and issues of importance in science and technology, says Miller. For example, after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in January 1986, within three days 97 percent of Americans had seen pictures of the accident on television.

They followed up for more in-depth information by reading newspaper coverage; “today they would go online,” says Miller.43 Other early-warning systems come through “social and interest groups that are able to activate large groups of people” using email messages, mass mailings, or social media tools. “The public doesn’t create issues. Interest groups and political leaders create issues. The public reacts to issues,” says Miller. He notes that the United States is unique among Western industrialized countries in that religious groups have such a strong impact on public opinion and policy.44

American University communications researcher Matthew C. Nisbet agrees.45 He says that Americans’ views on controversial science and policy are often based on what political or religious leaders believe rather than on their own understanding of the issues. “The dominant assumption in science literacy is if only the public knew more, the debates would go away,” says Nisbet. “But most of the public is unlikely to have the motivation or ability to be fully informed about topics like stem cell research, global warming, or intelligent design.”

Instead, he says, they tend to use shortcuts, taking their cues from politicians or other opinion leaders they respect. “They take the information and filter it through underlying values like ideology and religion,” says Nisbet. Ultimately, how the media cover or frame these debates—the slant of the articles and the sources of scientific and political information—helps shape the way both politicians and other leaders, as well as the public, view scientific and technological issues.


Science Writers versus General-Assignment Coverage

Are readers and listeners best served by coverage of science and policy topics by specialized science reporters or by reporters with a general assignment or political background?

I would argue that coverage of recent controversies in science and public policy suggests that reporters with a specialty in science journalism are better equipped than general-assignment reporters to provide context and background on the research itself; science reporters can pick up skills needed to write about the legal, political, and ethical debates surrounding the research. This is true of both breaking news, where there is little time to get up to speed on the science, as well as more in-depth features, which require greater understanding of a given science field.

In a 2005 review of coverage of the debate over teaching evolution and intelligent design in schools, authors Mooney and Nisbet agree. They contend that press coverage is often misleading when science moves into political and legal realms, and “it ceases to be covered by context-oriented science reporters and is instead bounced to political pages, opinion pages and television news.”46 In the process, they argue, the science is distorted, as non-science reporters “deemphasize the strong scientific case in favor of evolution and instead lend credence to the notion that a growing ‘controversy’ exists over evolutionary science.”

After reviewing seventeen months of evolution stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as television news and local papers, Mooney and Nisbet concluded that science writers generally provide an accurate description of the scientific view of evolution, while political, general assignment, and TV reporters provide little “real context” for the basic science and instead bend over backward to give false “balance” to their stories by lending “undue credibility to theological attacks that masquerade as being ‘scientific’ in nature.” Too often, intelligent design is presented as an alternative scientific explanation, rather than as a sophisticated religious argument that cannot be tested through normal scientific channels.

Mooney and Nisbet say that the news media, and the public, will be better served by assigning coverage of complex scientific and political debates to reporters with training and experience in covering science. “The intelligent-design debate is one among a growing number of controversies in which technical complexity, with disputes over ‘facts,’ data and expertise, has altered the political battleground. The traditional generalist correspondent will be hard-pressed to cover these topics in any other format . . . balancing arguments while narrowly focusing on the implications for who’s ahead and who’s behind in the contest to decide policy.”47 Instead, they argue, there should be a “growing demand for journalists with specialized expertise and background.”

“Political writers clearly don’t have the background. They don’t know how to judge the validity” of conflicting scientific and technical information, says author K. C. Cole, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California (USC) and former Los Angeles Times science reporter. Science writers, she says, “have a bullshit detector. You know your field and smell stuff that doesn’t sound right.”48

But science writers themselves need to push for a primary role in the science-policy turf. Science writer Hotz criticizes the tendency of some newspaper science writers to “head for the hills” when breaking news or a science-policy story presents itself, preferring instead to hang out in the ivory tower and do more timeless feature science stories.49

Others caution that science writers need to be careful not to become cheerleaders for science or appear to get too close to their science sources. Nonetheless, some of the most effective science-policy coverage has come from experienced science reporters who have covered their fields “from soup to nuts” and have developed the ability to analyze both complex science and policy with equal competency.

Better Training for Science Writers

Despite the current cutbacks in news-reporting jobs, the pipeline for new science writers is bigger than ever before. There are about fifty American universities that offer science writing programs or courses in science writing, with most of the programs at the graduate level, according to a 2007 online Directory of Science Communication Courses and Programs compiled by a team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Some of the oldest programs, at places like Columbia University and Boston University, started in the 1960s, in part because of the boost for science writing as a result of the space program.

A number of new programs started over the past decade. Most are broadly focused on science, while some specialize in environmental or health journalism, says Wisconsin journalism professor Sharon Dunwoody.50 Many of the newer programs give preference to students with an undergraduate or graduate science background. However, her own research indicates that the primary predictor of effective science reporting is number of years on the job, rather than formal science training.51

Improving specialty journalism, including science and medical reporting, was targeted in an Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, launched in 2005 by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “Reporters need to know even more about complex beats if they are to deliver stories that are both shorter and more interesting. Whether reporting on the economy, medical advances, or the government, reporters need to provide not just facts but context,” said a McKinsey & Company report prepared for the initiative.52

In response to a Carnegie-Knight curriculum enrichment grant, the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism launched a new master of arts specialized journalism program to allow journalists to retool their skills and knowledge, with science and technology as one of the core areas.53 The Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, expanded the curriculum of its two-year master’s degree program to include joint degrees with other disciplines and schools, such as public health. And the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, in Fall 2005, launched a new master of arts program for experienced journalists to gain expertise in specific subject areas, including health and science, “so that they may cover complicated issues in a sophisticated, nuanced manner.”54

On-the-Job Training for Journalists

There is no single route to becoming a science writer. While young science journalists are coming increasingly from specialized science journalism programs (many with formal science training), other science writers have long come from general assignment or other beats. (One trip to an emergency room to cover a local disaster can create an instant medical writer.) In any case, rapid advancements in science require continuous on-the-job training.

NASW, the main professional membership organization, provides a variety of services and publishes a quarterly magazine, ScienceWriters.55 NASW holds its annual journalism workshops in conjunction with the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), a fifty-year-old educational organization started by science journalists to improve the quality of science information reaching the public. CASW’s New Horizons in Science program showcases cutting-edge science by bringing distinguished scientists from a variety of disciplines to a host university for an intensive journalism seminar.56 The Society for Environmental Journalists, Association of Health Care Journalists, and American Medical Writers Association also host annual meetings to update their members. International science writers now gather regularly under the auspices of the World Federation of Science Journalists, an association of more than forty science and technology journalism groups from Africa, the Americas, the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, and the Middle East that was founded in 2002.57 The federation’s meetings are creating new global science writing relationships, including an upcoming 2011 international meeting in Cairo hosted by Arab and American science writers. Universities, scientific organizations, government agencies, and other groups also host seminars and backgrounders for journalists.

Increasingly, mid-career fellowships offer opportunities for science journalists to go back to school, allowing them to delve more deeply into scientific disciplines. The Knight Science Journalism Fellowships, started in 1982 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, give experienced journalists from around the world who cover science, technology, medicine, or the environment a chance to spend an academic year on campus; the MIT program also holds short “boot camps” on topical science issues to help reporters learn about everything from “medical evidence” to nanotechnology.58 Journalism fellowships offered by the MBL (Marine Biological Laboratory) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, allow journalists to experience biomedical and environmental research firsthand by working in the lab and the field, while the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Narragansett, Rhode Island, also sponsors immersion workshops and environmental fellowships. Other programs in biomedicine and health, including at Harvard Medical School and the Centers for Disease Control, provide journalism training as well.

The quality of science journalism for the general public is another issue. While a host of prizes from journalism and scientific organizations have long rewarded the top science writers, there has been less scrutiny of science writing across the spectrum. Now, the Internet has spawned several new sites for evaluating science stories.

In May 2006, the MIT program launched the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, a website for science, medical, and environmental reporters and editors to view major stories from around the world. KSJ Tracker, written primarily by veteran science writer Charles Petit, provides a sampling of recent science news—from research to policy—and, where possible, related press releases and links. Its goal is to improve the quality of science writing by giving science reporters and editors “convenient and timely access to the work of peers across the country” so “they can better evaluate and improve their own performance.”59

Another ambitious foundation-funded website, Health News Review, has evaluated more than a thousand news stories in major U.S. media about medical treatments, tests, and procedures since it began in 2006. Using a standardized five-star grading scale that focuses on accuracy, balance, and completeness (the ABCs), a team of medical, public health, and journalism professionals provides tough—and sometimes unrealistic—critiques of health coverage in leading circulation newspapers, wire services, newsmagazines, and major online health news sites. (It has stopped daily reviews of health news stories by the major television networks because of the consistently poor ratings.)60 Health News Review, overseen by University of Minnesota health journalism professor Gary Schwitzer, is a valuable resource for journalists, the medical community, and consumers who use the Web for health information.

In January 2008, the Columbia Journalism Review, the leading American media monitor, started a new online section, The Observatory, which provides news analysis and commentary on developments and trends in science journalism coverage, from the environment to medicine. “As the twenty-first century unfolds, the need for clear, credible science journalism will only become more crucial. It is among the most important and complicated of all journalistic beats, informing all manner of public, policy, legal doctrine, financial investment, academic research and consumer behavior,” wrote founding editor Curtis Brainard.61

Sigma Xi, the national scientific research society, also has a daily science news website62 that provides summaries and links to science stories from a variety of news organizations.

Training for Nonscience Writers and Editors

Many of the journalists who may be called upon to report about science on an occasional or regular basis are not up to the task. General assignment, education, business, investigative, religion, agriculture, political, or foreign correspondents need to be prepared for the inevitable moment when a challenging science, medical, or environmental story lands on their desks. As journalism programs expand specialty training, it is important to expose all journalism students to techniques for writing about science and policy issues, as well as the technical skills to evaluate numbers, public opinion polls, and surveys that are a regular part of all beats.

Similarly, working reporters and editors on a variety of beats need help doing a better job writing about science and technology controversies that regularly crop up in the news. On-the-job training through professional organizations and workshops offers an opportunity for reporters of all stripes to learn how to improve coverage of pressing science and technology topics— from biodiversity to biotechnology. More outreach work can and should be done in this area, finding novel ways to get professional science-writing training to journalists strapped for time and money. Two new Knight Foundation initiatives in online training, for example, could provide a means of improving coverage of science and technology issues. The News University, launched in 2005 by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, is an innovative way to provide interactive, inexpensive online courses for journalists of all backgrounds and media. For example, a self-directed course on “Covering Climate Change” on the Poynter site is geared toward the non-environment reporter and covers all the basics needed to report on climate change. The Knight Digital Media Center, started in April 2006, provides “training for New Media at all levels— from the traditional journalist making the transition to New Media to the New Media journalist seeking to improve critical thinking and beat reporting skills.” A March 2007 Knight seminar looked at best practices for “covering science in cyberspace.”63 Television and radio reporters also need more opportunities for training in specialty beats like science.

Media outlets should explore ways to better utilize science writers in their coverage of local, national, and international policy issues. More team coverage, such as pairing a science writer with a political reporter, could result in a better product for readers (rather than assigning the science or medical reporter to the proverbial sidebar to a story written by a general assignment or political reporter). Also, given the potential for emergency news coverage in a variety of areas, from an outbreak of H1N1 influenza to a massive deepwater drilling oil spill, teams need to be trained for spot coverage that better utilizes the scientific, medical, environmental, and technical capacity of specialty reporters both in print, on the air, and online. Going behind the news, National Public Radio science journalist Richard Harris, for example, was among the first to challenge official estimates of the amount of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill in Spring 2010. He reported on an exclusive expert analysis suggesting that the amount of oil leaking was far higher than the company originally suggested.

As biotech and pharmaceutical companies fund an increasing array of basic and clinical research and actively court the media, business and technology reporters also need more training. It is now standard to scrutinize potential financial conflicts of interest among university as well as industry researchers, since many academics have become consultants or participants in business-funded research projects. However, business and general-assignment reporters without experience in science coverage are also susceptible to overly promotional coverage of proponents’ claims of new product benefits or, alternatively, overly negative coverage of critics’ claims of side effects and other risks.

Communications Training for Scientists

Scientists need to become better communicators about science and policy, translating technical studies into plain English that both reporters and the public can understand. Trained science writers in the public information offices of universities, government agencies, and the private sector can be invaluable in guiding this process, as long as their goal is brokering the best information possible for journalists and the public (rather than protective actions to keep scientists at arms length, as was the case with some federal government climate change stories during the Bush administration).64

Many of these public information offices, as well as scientific professional organizations, have organized their own training for scientists to better prepare them for the types of questions to expect in press briefings or interviews and have brought in reporters to talk about the process.

In addition, science journalism groups such as the CASW have long offered briefings for scientists at national meetings and at universities about how to improve communication to the public about science. They bring in leading science journalists to explain how the news media does its job and to provide tips for scientists on talking to the press.65 For thirty years, AAAS has offered “mass media” summer fellowships with media outlets nationwide for graduate and postgraduate science and engineering students who are interested in writing about science. (Some, such as NPR correspondent Harris, become science writers; others go into scientific careers better equipped to communicate about science.) The AAAS also has a variety of science and technology policy fellowships to better acquaint scientists with federal policy-making.66

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, whose membership includes many distinguished scientists and journalists, launched a project in 2006 to look at “The Media in Society: How the Media Cover Science and the Economy.”67

One of the most intensive efforts to improve scientists’ ability to communicate to the media, policy-makers, and the public has been the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University; it offers a model for other disciplines. Aimed at mid-career academic environmental scientists who agree to participate in two weeklong seminars, the Leopold program has trained more than 150 Fellows since 1998. One of its founders, distinguished marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator, says the program has empowered previously gun-shy scientists to do a better job communicating with the public. “After training, they have a better understanding of what journalists need, how

much journalists know, and how to talk about science in ways that are useful and understandable,” she said in an earlier interview.68

A more portable version of how and why scientists should talk to the media can be found in recent books from two highly regarded science writers who have operated inside and outside the scientific fence. Veteran science reporter Cornelia Dean makes the case in her compact 2009 book, Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public. Dennis Meredith, in Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work, distills decades of work in science communication at the nation’s leading universities into a practical guide and website for scientists and engineers. He is fond of a succinct Albert Einstein quote that says it all: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”69

Guidelines for Improving Coverage

There is no instruction manual for writing about science. Good science writing combines knowledge of the subject, the skill to translate complexity into language understandable to the layman, and the ability to tell a story that will engage the reader, listener, or viewer. Writing about controversies involving science and public policy requires additional juggling skills, assessing the state of science, the stakeholders in the debate, and the means for managing the problem, now or in the future. Although each story is different, journalists and those they cover should keep the following ten guidelines in mind when communicating about controversial science and policy issues.70

  1. Put new research in context. Is it preliminary or definitive? Are findings statistically significant, or could they have occurred by chance? Does the research confirm or conflict with past research? What additional research needs to be done? How important is the new research to advancing the field or to a given public-policy issue? Who conducted the research, and what is the individual or institutional reputation or track record? Who funded the research? Has it been presented at a scientific meeting or published in a reputable scientific journal? How was the research conducted and over what period of time? Understanding the fine print in terms of who or what was studied and in what manner is crucial in determining the significance and relevance. Laboratory and animal research provides clues for further study but may have limited relevance to humans; smaller studies are less significant than larger ones. Studies that look back in time (retrospective) may be less reliable than prospective studies that follow a population over time. The most valuable medical study is a double-blind, controlled clinical trial in which researchers divide patients into an experimental or treatment group and an untreated control group and compare the outcomes in both groups.
  2. Stop the yo-yo approach to science, environment, medical, and technology coverage (swinging from “breakthrough” to “disaster”). My colleague, the late Washington Post medical writer and columnist Victor Cohn, quipped that there are two kinds of front-page newspaper stories: “new hope and no hope.” Journalists often emphasize the dramatic over the ordinary; pushing to get on page one or the top of the television news can distort a story. But there is plenty of blame to go around. Scientists and physicians are often overly enthusiastic about their work; business interests can over-promote new products; interest groups often grab attention with dire warnings. Experienced science reporters put in the disclaimers, stay away from the word breakthrough (not always easily, since doctors and scientists themselves may throw around the term rather loosely), and let the story sell itself.
  3. Avoid “dueling” experts on science and policy. Traditional journalistic fairness means giving both sides in a controversy a chance to be heard. But it can be confusing—or even misleading—for the public if each side is given equal weight just to make a story appear “balanced.” Too often science-policy stories create drama by citing experts arguing from two extremes without trying to find out whether there is a scientific middle ground. Is there a consensus view among leading researchers or mainstream professional scientific organizations? If not, what is the degree of uncertainty? Try to sort the science from the policy, and find out which hat various experts are wearing. “More than in any other field of reporting, balance in science writing requires something other than just providing an equal number of column inches to quotes from each side. Balance in science writing requires authorial guidance; it requires context, and knowing when certain points of view simply need to be ignored,” notes NASW’s science-writing guide.71 This is where experience counts, says former Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss, now communications director for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “It’s not [a reporter’s] job to find equal numbers of voices on both sides of the issue and give them all equal time,” he says. Instead, journalists need “to talk to people on all sides and hear them out and then do some value-added consideration of who has the stronger case for the question at hand. . . . The reader deserves nothing less.”72
  4. Write about the process of science as well as the end results. Science evolves; it is incremental; it has false starts; it needs to be replicated by others. Unfortunately, we often focus on artificial end points, when studies are reported at meetings or published in journals (and, of course, negative findings are seldom touted in such proceedings). Getting into the lab or out in the field gives the reporter—and the audience—a better understanding of how science is really done. It results in a better enterprise piece that, unlike the stories from prepackaged journal articles, is not being written by every other reporter. The ability to make science come alive for the reader or viewer only comes with time on the road. But even a basic news story can benefit from some explanation of how the research was done. Reporters should try to add information about how an experiment or study was conducted and not just provide the outcome. “I’ve become so aware of how little people understand science, how difficult people find it to think scientifically,” says Weiss.73
  5. Watch out for anecdotes. Stories involving children or celebrities may dramatize or personalize a particular problem, helping draw in the audience, particularly on local television. But they may overshadow the underlying science (or lack thereof). A story needs to distinguish an individual case or set of cases from what is known or not known about a given problem. Victims of cancer, or a cluster of cancer cases, may prematurely point the blame at certain products or polluters, for example. But science reporters need to explain the uncertainties in proving cause-and-effect without extensive research, and even then it may be extremely hard to determine conclusively for chronic diseases like cancer. In the early 1990s, claims by individuals, citizen groups, and politicians on Long Island, New York, that environmental pollution was responsible for an increased rate of breast cancer among women there drew national attention and a clamor for scientific research. But several studies have since found no evidence to support such claims, including a June 2006 New York State Health Department study that found “no local environmental factors that were likely related to the elevated breast cancer rates.”74
  6. Be careful in citing risk statistics. Distinguish between relative risk (a nine times greater risk of stroke) and absolute risk (a one in ten thousand risk of stroke per year among women in a given age group). Too often studies in scientific journals, such as The New England Journal of Medicine, emphasize relative risk and may not provide any information on the appropriate absolute risk numbers. The resulting stories may incorrectly suggest a major hazard, frightening the audience without giving any perspective as to what the baseline risk was in the first place. For example, British medical journals set off a “pill scare” in England in 1996 with preliminary evidence that low-dose birth control pills doubled the risk of blood clots. A follow-up letter to The Lancet pointed out how small the risk was in the first place: it went from a risk of about one case per ten thousand users to two cases per ten thousand users. Going off the pill posed the obvious greater risk of pregnancy.75 It takes extra time and initiative to push for underlying risk numbers. Look also for comparable risks from other activities that may help put the numbers in perspective for the consumers in a helpful way. Try to include information about potential benefits, if there are any; however, potential beneficiaries and at-risk groups may well be different. (The consumers of a product may benefit, but workers in a plant may be at risk.)
  7. Distinguish between the impact on individuals versus the impact on society. Public policy is generally geared toward societal impact, not individual problems or risks. Information in the story should give individuals a sense of who is most at risk and what the consequences of that risk may be. A large individual risk may affect only a small group of people. A small risk for any one individual may still pose a larger societal risk if a significant number of individuals are involved in a shared activity. Does the risk involve voluntary or involuntary exposure (through common sources of air, water, or food)? Much of public outrage, as well as government regulation, focuses on involuntary exposure, even though such risks may be far smaller than voluntary everyday risky behaviors, such as driving, eating poorly, or smoking. (Watch out for parties with economic interests that may try to diminish concern about an involuntary risk, like environmental pollution, by comparing it to remote risks, like the chance of being hit by lightning, and then suggesting that nothing really needs to done. It may be apples and oranges for your audience.)
  8. Provide information on what, if anything, can be done about a given problem by individuals, government, or the private sector, as well as the degree to which the available science supports such action. There is always more research to do; the question for citizens and public policy-makers is when to act on the results of incomplete science, weighing the dangers of premature action and being wrong against the hazards of waiting too long for more answers and causing more harm along the way. It’s really a judgment call, with input from scientific (and often legal) experts and decision-making by policy-makers and politicians. “Most people think science is about facts and are quite frustrated when they find that science is in large part about uncertainty,” says University of Michigan professor Gilbert S. Omenn,76 former president of the AAAS and a former federal government official. Prudent public policy, particularly in the health arena, may require action before there is definitive evidence; “more research is needed” may sometimes be an excuse for avoiding tough policy decisions, particularly those with large economic consequences. Complex science-policy stories often require presenting the array of options—including knowns and unknowns— on both sides of the equation. What is the best available scientific advice, and how long will it take to get better answers? What are the economic and human costs of taking action now versus waiting? Who pays? Who may benefit? Is it prevention or treatment/amelioration? What can individuals do on a voluntary basis to help solve a problem? What can businesses do? What are the options for government agencies charged with deciding whether to take action? In terms of climate change, for example, there is a limited amount that individuals can do to make a big dent in the problem; however, public understanding of this polarized issue is crucial to the policy and political debate about what actions to take in the public and private sector, as well as when, or if, to take them.
  9. 9. Avoid becoming an advocate for any side if you are a news reporter or editor. Leave that to the editorial pages. Present the information fairly, but be skeptical about the sources of information. Look for conflicts; follow the money. And remember, even “good” causes can distort a news or feature story. Advocacy groups push hard for their positions. It is not the traditional journalist’s job to side with one group or point of view; rather, he or she should help the audience figure out who is behind what cause and why. A scientist may be wearing both a research and a policy hat; find out which one and what personal or financial incentives may be involved. Transparency is the best approach. The growing number of reporters who also bring a personal voice by blogging and tweeting for their media outlets may create added tensions, and sometimes confusion, as to what hat the journalist is wearing.
  10. 10. Recognize that there is no single “public.” The audience reads, watches, and listens through multiple lenses of age, gender, ethnicity, education, politics, and religion, to name a few. But we often write as if there were a generic “public.” In writing about science, environment, medicine, and health, consider the diversity of the audience and its reaction to news, particularly to stories in the “no hope, new hope” categories. It helps to break down stories, with details about who is most affected, how, and why, as well as the potential timeline. Some people personalize every story; others turn off if they don’t think it is relevant to them. If science stories are too technical or difficult, those who are less educated may tune out as well. Visualize a grandmother, an eighth-grade son, or a new mother. And, yes, you do need to explain what DNA is.


Media coverage of controversial scientific issues needs to be improved on both the science and policy sides. This paper has provided a wide-ranging look at the state of science writing for the general public, with the following conclusions:

  • There are more potential science and science-policy stories than ever before, as new scientific developments push the ethical, political, and legal envelopes of the past.
  • The news media are shorthanded, with fewer reporting and editing jobs for reporters trained or experienced in covering specialty beats like science. There is also less space and time to tell the story in traditional media outlets; science sections, particularly in smaller newspapers, have been cut back in numbers and scope.
  • The existing coverage is skewed toward one end of the spectrum of science coverage—consumer-driven health and medicine—leaving the audience less informed about many other important developments in science and technology that may affect their lives.
  • Reporters with knowledge of how best to communicate about science and technology, as well as the policy issues that these topics generate, are better equipped to tell the story than general-assignment reporters with no science-writing experience.
  • New initiatives are needed to help improve coverage by all reporters who might cover science and policy issues. These initiatives must include better training about how to cover technical stories, as well as convenient access to resources that may provide accurate information about science and policy issues. Again, the Internet offers the potential for training journalists and providing better and faster information gathering than in the past.
  • Members of the scientific community, particularly those receiving public funding, have an obligation to make communication with the public through the news media a valued part of their jobs. Scientists also need more training about how best to work with the media.
  • There is an opportunity for the news media to use new media to provide better information to a diverse public that is generally not well educated about issues involving science and technology. The media can help bridge this gap, using traditional news outlets as well as nontraditional outlets such as the Internet to provide helpful, accurate, thoughtful, and engaging coverage of science and technology that is accessible to a wide audience.

Ultimately, better, more balanced coverage of science and technology policy will help the public, and their representatives, understand the crucial issues that individuals, local communities, the United States, and countries of the world face in the years to come.


1. This paper was originally prepared during a Spring 2006 fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Additional work has been conducted by the author as a Senior Fellow at the Environment and Natural Resources Program of HKS’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. This updated version was prepared in Spring 2010, with the help of HKS research assistant Matt Homer. Please see for the full 2006 paper on the Shorenstein website.

2. National Association of Science Writers (NASW),

3. Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), “Careers in Science Writing,”

4. The late Jerry Bishop was a former president of CASW,

5. Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson, and Robin Marantz Henig, A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), vii.

6. NASW, Membership numbers accessed April 30, 2010.

7. NASW Membership Directory and Database, July 2005. Membership in NASW is only one measure of the number of full-time science reporters since membership is voluntary and not all staff science reporters choose to join their professional organizations. NASW did not have a breakdown of members’ work affiliation, so the 2005 Membership Directory and Database was reviewed for the 2006 Shorenstein paper.

8. Society of Environmental Journalists,, and email message to author from Executive Director Beth Parke, April 29, 2010.

9. Association of Health Care Journalists,, and email message to author from AHCJ. As of April 30, 2010, AHCJ membership totaled 974, with about one-third from newspapers and about one-fifth each from broadcasting and magazines.

10. Laura Chang (Science Editor, The New York Times), email message to the author, May 4, 2010.

11. Curtis Brainard and Cristine Russell, “The New Energy Beat,” Columbia Journalism Review (September/October 2009): 44.

12. Scientists’ Institute for Public Information, SIPIScope 20 (1) (Fall 1992). In 1992, only forty-four newspaper dailies published weekly science sections, but three of these papers published two different weekly science and health sections. There was, therefore, a total of forty-seven different science sections published in forty-four papers.

13. Editor & Publisher International Yearbook, 85th ed. (New York: VNU Business Media, Inc., 2005). Editor & Publisher includes information on special sections from 2004 submitted by individual newspapers. Our 2006 project survey examined information from the forty-four papers that had science sections in 1992 and found that twenty-four of them still had science sections. In addition, research assistant Maria Alvarado examined entries from the top fifty newspapers in terms of circulation and found another ten new sections, for a total of thirty-four newspapers with special weekly sections involving science, health, or medicine. There may be additional science and/or health sections that were started by smaller newspapers, as the full directory was not reviewed.

14. The science/health section update was based on the 2009 edition of Editor & Publisher International Yearbook (New York: Editor & Publisher, 2009). The yearbook is up-to-date as of September 30, 2008. In addition, in early 2009, the Rocky Mountain News ceased publishing and The Boston Globe discontinued its health/science section.

15. Cristine Russell, “Globe Kills Health/Science Section, Keeps Staff,” Columbia Journalism Review (March 4, 2009),

16. Interview with Gideon Gil (Health and Science Editor, The Boston Globe), April 30, 2010. The Globe currently has five health and science reporters, one editor, and a part-time medical blogger.

17. Robert Lee Hotz, telephone interview by the author, April 17, 2006.

18. Barbara Kantrowitz and Claudia Kalb, “Food News Blues,” Newsweek, March 13, 2006.

19. Ibid.

20. Science News is published by the Society for Science & the Public,

21. Curtis Brainard, “CNN Cuts Entire Science, Tech Team,” December 4, 2008,

22. The Washington Post has a comprehensive list of the paper’s blogs posted at

23. Cosmic Log, started in 2002 by MSNBC Science Editor Alan Boyle, covers “quantum fluctuations in space, science, exploration, and other cosmic fields”;

24. Brainard and Russell, “The New Energy Beat,” 44.

25. U.S. News and World Report,

26. Discover blogs,

27. ScienceBlogs in English can be found at

28. Held at the HKS by the Program on Science, Technology & Society. A video of the workshop can be found at

29. Wikio top-ranked science blogs, as of May 2010 based on links from other blogs; http://

30. Ibid.

31. Cornelia Dean, quoted in Alex Jones, “Covering Science and Technology: An Interview with Cornelia Dean,” The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 8 (2) (Spring 2003): 5.

32. Cornelia Dean, interview by the author, March 21, 2006.

33. Rita R. Colwell (former Director, National Science Foundation, 1998–2004; currently Distinguished University Professor at University of Maryland, College Park, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Chairman, Canon US Life Sciences, Inc.), interview by the author, February 18, 2006.

34. Donald Kennedy (Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University; former Editor-in-Chief, Science; President Emeritus and Bing Professor of Environmental Science and Policy Emeritus, Stanford University), interview by the author, February 18, 2006.

35. Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science (New York: Basic Books, 2005), introduction,

36. Michael Specter, “Political Science: The Bush Administration’s War on the Laboratory,” The New Yorker, March 13, 2006, 62.

37. See, for example, Marc Kaufman, “FDA Official Quits over Delay on Plan B,” The Washington Post, September 1, 2005.

38. Specter, “Political Science,” 68.

39. The National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators report, chap. 7, “Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding,” includes detailed information on information sources, interest, and involvement,

40. Ibid.

41. Jon D. Miller (John A. Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies, Michigan State University; former Director, Center for Biomedical Communications, Northwestern University Medical School), interview by the author and comments from symposium presentations, American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, February 17–19, 2006.

42. Jon D. Miller, “The Measurement of Civic Scientific Literacy,” Public Understanding of Science 7 (1998): 204.

43. Miller, interview by the author.

44. Ibid.

45. Matthew C. Nisbet (Assistant Professor, School of Communication, American University), telephone interview by the author, May 19, 2006.

46. Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet, “Undoing Darwin,” Columbia Journalism Review (September/October 2005).

47. Ibid.

48. K. C. Cole, telephone interview by the author, March 20, 2006.

49. Hotz, interview by the author.

50. Directory of Science Communication Courses and Programs, 2007,; and Sharon Dunwoody (Evjue Bascom Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison), email message to and telephone interview by the author, March 17, 2006.

51.Sharon Dunwoody, “How Valuable is Formal Science Training to Science Journalists?” Comunicacao e Sociedade 6 (2004): 75–78.

52. McKinsey & Company Report, “Improving the Education of Tomorrow’s Journalists,” based on individual interviews with forty leaders in the news industry,

53. Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, Curriculum Enrichment, Also Annenberg Specialized Journalism,

54. Ibid. See also for information on the master of arts in journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

55. ScienceWriters is published four times a year by NASW. Archives are available to members at

56. CASW,, is an independent nonprofit organization devoted to improving science writing and is run by longtime Executive Director Ben Patrusky and Administrator Diane McGurgan. Paul Raeburn is the Program Director for New Horizons in Science. The author is the current President.

57. Cristine Russell, “Science Journalism Goes Global,” Science 324 (June 19, 2009): 1491. The World Federation of Science Journalists,, will hold the 7th World Conference of Science Journalists in Cairo, June 2011.

58. The Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT,, is directed by science journalist and author Phil Hilts.

59. Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT, Knight Science Journalism Tracker, The head tracker is longtime science writer Charles Petit, CASW Vice President and a former NASW president.

60. The publisher of the website Health News Review,, is Gary Schwitzer, a health journalism professor at the University of Minnesota and former CNN medical editor and reporter. It is funded by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making.

61. Columbia Journalism Review, The Observatory, The author is a contributing editor.

62. Sigma Xi, Science in the News, is part of the American Scientist website,

63. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation,, has funded a variety of journalism initiatives. The Knight Digital Media Center,, is a partnership between USC Annenberg School for Communication and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. The Poynter Institute News University is at

64. See coverage by former New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin and Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin for examples of several attempts by Bush administration political appointees to control communications between journalists and scientists in agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“65. Why Scientists Should Talk to the Media,” a video based on an October 2009 Yale University School of Medicine seminar organized by CASW,

66. American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS),

67. American Academy of Arts and Sciences, interviews by the author and information online,

68. Jane Lubchenco (confirmed as Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, March 2009; former Distinguished Professor of Zoology and Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology, Oregon State University; former President, AAAS, and Ecological Society of America), interview by the author, February 19, 2006. The Aldo Leopold Leadership Program,, based at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, is funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

69. Cornelia Dean, Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009); Dennis Meredith, Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010),

70. These guidelines were drawn up by the author, based on personal experience as a science writer for more than thirty years, on research for this paper, and on presentations on science writing.

71. Blum, Knudson, and Henig, A Field Guide for Science Writers, ix.

72. Rick Weiss (former Washington Post Science Reporter), telephone interview by the author, March 27, 2006.

73. Ibid.

74. “State Health Department Releases Final Results of Breast Cancer Investigation in Suffolk County,” New York State Health Department Press Release, June 23, 2006, .

75. Cristine Russell, “Risk Reporting,” in A Field Guide for Science Writers, ed. Blum, Knudson, and Henig, 253.

76. Gilbert S. Omenn (Professor of Internal Medicine, Human Genetics, and Public Health, University of Michigan; Associate Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Associate Director, Office of Management and Budget, Executive Office of the President, during the Carter administration), interview by the author, February 17, 2006.