Science and the Media

Chapter 6: Response to Borchelt, Friedmann, and Holland on Managing the Trust Portfolio: Science Public Relations and Social Responsibility

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Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser
The Media in Society

Robert Bazell

Rick Borchelt, Lynne Friedmann, and Earle Holland raise many important and provocative issues about the role public information specialists play in communicating issues concerning science to the public. I agree with many of their conclusions, but I have trouble with some of their initial assumptions.

They posit that science writing and broadcast reporting have changed dramatically. They write, “The reverent praise-singers who dominated science writing fifty years ago have been replaced by two generations of increasingly wary journalists who substitute news judgment and enterprise reporting for . . . adulatory stories.”

If only news judgment and enterprise reporting, two of the sturdiest pillars of good journalism, were more common, science reporting would be far better for it. Instead, even the most cursory look at the coverage today by almost any news organization reveals mostly stories regurgitated from journals or institutional press releases and often hyped as breakthroughs. The biggest chunk of the reporting pie goes to medicine and biomedical stories. But that is hardly surprising. Newspapers, TV news shows, and other outlets want to attract the maximum audience. People care most about what affects them.

The “praise-singers” to whom Borchelt, Friedmann, and Holland refer from the previous generation included large numbers of journalists identified as science specialists who covered the manned space program—big news in those days. NASA’s public relations machine stands as the paragon of the “science” public relations industry that is at the heart of Borchelt, Friedmann, and Holland’s paper. For most space reporters, if NASA did not spoon-feed them the story, there was no story.

Borchelt, Friedmann, and Holland decry, as many do, the alleged and growing “mistrust in scientists and/or the scientific enterprise.” In my view, this mistrust does not exist. If Americans do not like science, they certainly support it. Funding, adjusted for inflation, has gone up 1,000 percent since the end of World War II, a time during which the U.S. population doubled. Of course, science faces competing demands on the federal budget—Medicare, Social Security, and the Iraq War are but a few of the current competitors. So we pass through times of relative scarcity of public funding of science research. But the slope of the curve of America’s financial support for science has only increased, and I see no reason to think it will not continue to do so.

Borchelt, Friedmann, and Holland cite concern about the profits from technology transfer arrangements as one reason why the public mistrusts science. Except for the occasional book or magazine article, this is not an issue about which the public hears much. University administrators certainly lust after the money. But few—especially outside the Boston and San Francisco Bay areas—ever make much money from technology transfer. Arguments about commercialization of the academy are heard mostly inside its administration buildings. The effect on public support for science is negligible.

Are we missing good science stories in newspapers and on TV? Indeed we are. But to discuss that gap without considering the tectonic changes that are threatening to obliterate newspapers, TV news, and other “old media” is impossible. If scientists think times are financially tough, they should spend some time in a newsroom.

But my own experiences and those of colleagues suggest that even in the current environment, editors and producers still have a huge appetite for informative, interesting articles on science. Stories like those about the death of eighteen-year-old Jesse Gelsinger in a gene therapy experiment at the University of Pennsylvania (the University and chief researcher were raking in big profits from the experiment) occasionally make headlines. But such incidents are, thankfully, rare. The public holds science in high regard and wants to hear more about it.

Which brings us back to the major topic of Borchelt, Friedmann, and Holland’s paper: the public information office, or public relations specialist, or whatever terms emerge from the worlds of advertising and “crisis management.” Science takes place in universities, hospitals, government labs, independent nonprofit labs, and private companies. These institutions variously compete for esteem, profit, private money, public money, students, patients, or all of the above. The public information officer’s job is to interact with the press and the public to make his or her institution achieve it goals as well as possible. To see this person’s function in any other light is just silly. As with any profession, the individual can carry out the task with varying degrees of integrity.

In my thirty-seven years as a reporter, I have dealt with many public information officers. They differ little from journalists or members of most professions. Some are dreadfully bad—laziness being the biggest offense—and others are fantastic. The good ones manage to assist both reporters and their employers while playing a major role in the public dissemination of science.

What makes for a good public information officer? The best will assist reporters who call with questions and help them obtain answers that confirm, refute, or enhance without trying to block access or put a false spin on the response.

Furthermore, in dealing with research, a good public information officer (PIO) will make an effort to understand what the scientists who work in his or her institution are doing. The PIO should not reflexively send press releases about the latest appointment to an assistant deanship: that makes reporters stop paying attention in a hurry. When an important piece of research is complete, the PIO should put out a press release to everyone and make certain that reporters who will do the best job know about it. In the meantime, the PIO should initiate ongoing dialogues with reporters that can lead to important feature stories on research that is interesting even if it has not just been published. That is what I believe Borchelt, Friedmann, and Holland mean about “managing the trust portfolio.” And they are right: it can work very well.