A Blog Around The Clock

To Educate vs. To Inform

You may be aware of the ongoing discussion about the tense relationship between scientists and science journalists. Here is the quick rundown of posts so far:

Question for the academic types–interview requests
The Mad Biologist and Science Journalists
Science Journalists are NOT the Problem
Just don’t quote me
Science and the Press
Scientists and Journalists, Part Deux
Scientists in the Media
Science/journalists update redux: Mooney chimes in
Science and journalism
Journalists and scientists – an antimatter explosion?
Madam Speaker, I Yield My Remaining Time to the Paleontologist from the Great State of California
Scientists and Journalists, Redux
Scientists and journalists, still going….

Science and Journalism
On dealing with journalists
Scientists and journalists
Scientists and the Media
Education and Media Relations
Lying to Children about Drugs
Press releases and the framing of science journalism]

Very smart stuff in posts and comments, to which it is difficult to add anything very new and creative. But….

Everyone is afraid to use the F word, but the underlying tension is, at its core, the same as in the discussion of Framing Science:

The scientists want to educate.

The journalists want to inform (if not outright entertain, or at least use entertaining hooks in order to inform).

There is a difference between the two goals. The former demands accuracy. The latter demands relevance. As long as both parties are aware of the existence of two disparate goals, there is a possibility of conversation that can lead to an article that satisfies both goals, thus both participants.

Media is not the place for education and scientists need to understand this simple fact. But media is great at attention-getting, so those who are intrigued by a news report can follow up and get educated on top of getting informed.

I was never interviewed about my research. If I was, I suspect I’d have some horror stories to tell because I’d have been tempted to educate instead of inform. All the articles for which I was interviewed (linked below the fold), either by professional journalists or by other bloggers, were about the Conference, the Anthology, or about science blogging in general. I have nothing but positive impressions of the people who conducted the interviews.

‘Can blogs make science cool?’ by Janet Babin, NPR Marketplace, January 19th, 2007

‘Discovery finds its way a click at a time’ by Kristin Collins, Raleigh News & Observer, January 21st, 2007 (reprinted in Charleston (SC) Post and Courier and in the Houston Chronicle on January 22nd, 2007)

‘Science blogger Bora Zivkovic’ by Corie Lok, News @ Nature, January 22nd, 2007

‘Science Bloggers Avoid the Spinach Dip Brush-Off’ by Eva Amsen, Inkling Magazine, January 24th, 2007

‘Interview with Bora Zivkovic of Scienceblogs.com/clock’ by Paul Van Heden, Asheville Community Radio, January 29th, 2007

‘Online, Three Years Are Infinity’ by Klaus Taschwer, Heureka (Austria), March 29th, 2007

‘Scooped by a blog’ by David Secko, The Scientist, Vol. 21, Issue 4, page 21, April 2007

Review of three anthologies of science essays, The Reading Diary of John Dupuis, March 01, 2007

‘Serbian Immigrant Ponders Links Between Politics and Science’ by Nicholas Genes, Medscape, February 1st, 2006.

‘Genetics Interview #13: Bora Zivkovic of A Blog Around The Clock’ by Hsien Hsien Li, Genetics and Health Blog, August 24th, 2006.

Scientists Enter the Blogosphere, by Laura Bonetta, Cell, Volume 129, Issue 3, 4 May 2007, Pages 443-445

Blogger’s Unite by Paul Stevenson, Nature, June 14, 2007


  1. #1 Mark Powell
    June 20, 2007

    Thanks for some sanity in an overly-inflamed debate. As a scientist-turned advocate, I can see unreasonable expectations on both sides. Those of us who want science to inform public policy need to work together, understand each other’s roles, and get over the mistakes that are made by well-intentioned people.

    A good start is to assume the intentions of others are just as good as one’s own.

  2. #2 John Wilkins
    June 20, 2007

    I did too use the F-word, and so did Chris. Of course I washed my mouth out afterwards…

  3. #3 paul
    June 20, 2007

    The scientists want to educate.

    The journalists want to inform (if not outright entertain, or at least use entertaining hooks in order to inform).

    There is a difference between the two goals. The former demands accuracy. The latter demands relevance.

    Oh, bollocks.

    I’m coming late to this, but if that’s an example of a moderate position, we’re all in trouble. After 20-odd years in the science-journalism business, I have to say that some scientists want to educate, for some definition of “educate” that typically has a very condescending flavor to it. Others want to posture or bloviate or increase their chances for grant money or tenure, and still others just want to talk about some cool shit they did.

    Sometimes you’ll get accuracy out of scientists, sometimes you’ll get a picture that very clearly reflects one particular camp. Sometimes you’ll get something so hemmed in by caveats and details that it gives a completely false impression (by turning the reader off) of the work in question.

    And that’s before dealing with the problem that scientists will say completely different things when they think they’re among friends than when they think they’re talking for publication.
    Framing such as “accuracy vs relevance” taints the discussion from the start.

  4. #4 hip hip array
    June 20, 2007

    “Informing” without accuracy? You mean infotainment? Journalists resent the disrespect they receive from scientists, but it shouldn’t be a surprise.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 21, 2007

    It seems like we could say exactly the same thing without any of the F-word talk. Of course, all through that discussion, I bitched at people to look at science journalism, so perhaps I can count this current shindig as a predictive hit.

  6. #6 Harry
    June 21, 2007

    Thank you for putting together the list of all the other blog entries. It’s exciting (and informative) to hear from so many different voices, scientists and journalists alike, but it has been tiresome chasing down all the posts and comments. I am especially thankful for the blogs to which you linked that were not part of Scienceblogs. I wouldn’t have found some of them without you.

    One concern I have for this debate is how quickly both sides (scientists, journalists) assign motives to the other sides. Here at Sb, there are plenty of representatives from each camp to adequately represent their own viewpoint without having someone else speak for them. Things would be a little more civil if people would realize that they are stating their _impression_ of the other side, an impression that is usually based an anecdotal evidence. And most people involved in the discussion would normally disregard anecdotal evidence when used in some other context.

    Heck, what needs to be done is a large scale sampling of science articles. The scientists quoted in each article should be contacted and asked whether they feel they were misquoted or had their statements misconstrued. That way we can more _rationally_ discuss how prevelant the problem is.

    A quick question: with all this talk about how scientists (and their ilk) handle journalists, I was wondering: How are things done between lawyers/judges and legal journalists? How much control do lawyers request (and are afforded) when it comes to quoting them on legal opinions and precedents?

  7. #7 Melinda Barton
    June 21, 2007


    The rules of journalistic practice don’t change with the profession of the interview subject. We generally don’t give subjects the option of previewing articles. There is a fact-checking process at most reputable publications, but this is not a perfect process. Some publications will also verify quotes either by checking a journalist’s recording/notes or calling the subject. In some instances, this isn’t feasible. A politician caught making a racist statement, for instance, will deny the quote whether he made it or not. Some publications produce so many articles in a single day that checking every detail isn’t possible. In these instances, journalistic ethics and first amendment law require a correction. Of course, this is the ideal practice of journalism based on journalistic ethics. Individual journalists, editors, etc. may vary in how they apply our ethical considerations to their work, just as scientist differ on how they carry out their work in light of scientific ethics.

  8. #8 SkookumPlanet
    June 22, 2007

    If we are discussing general interest journalism, the rules are the same for everyone. Growing up among lawyers I was aware from third grade on that the press does a poor job covering the law, especially breaking stories like trial results.

    There is four-fold pressure that creates this.

    1) Competition among media channels, which translates into the need for speed.

    2) General interest media has no economic model to support more than a few specialized reporters. It covers everything and technical subjects can surface at anytime.

    3) Law is like science, even like journalism. But, take the first two. These are highly advanced institutions with diverse, highly specialized sub-categories, and reams of technical knowledge that inform any given news item. San Francisco, for example, has a daily legal newspaper.

    4) General readership won’t sit still for the details. It’s boring and/or overwhelming to them and they’ll simply flip to a different channel. Good writing can succeed here at times, but the audience won’t tolerate much. They see an opaque wall of jargon and background in front of them and look away.

    And, in fact, some thought experiments quickly show the amount of technical background inherent in public issues these days is impossible for citizens to master, even for college graduates. People have lives — 60-hour-a-week jobs, children, joy-filled hobbies, etc.

    Take stem cells. A huge majority of adults never sat in a college-level, intro biology class. Most have likely forgotten much of their high school biology class, and few were “A” students then.

    And finally, grab today’s newspaper, count up the articles, then multiply times 7 — at least two competitive sides and 5 people interviewed. All of them would like review privileges. Every story. It’s physically impossible to do. I’ve covered stories where interviewees have given me books they expected me to be knowledgeable on before I wrote. For minor stories.

    Here’s a simpler, more provocative way to present it. Media isn’t in the teaching business. Even if was, it would fail. It’s communicators’ job to push their message to the public. Each media channel has it’s own profile of strengths and weakness, primarily technology-derived. You don’t bring visual aids to a radio broadcast. An immense competition in these channels make them very noisy, so only the best-designed signals reach their destination.

    Media will cover science and law stories whether scientists and lawyers talk to it, or they don’t.

    Almost forgot. I’m an ex-journalist.
    Welcome to the Bay Area

    I just realized Courtnix’s headline here omits something crucial. Both what’s omitted and its omission are an important key. My edit: To Educate vs. To Inform vs. To Entertain

  9. #9 coturnix
    June 22, 2007

    Yup, I alluded to it briefly above, but decided to leave the entertainment story aside for the purposes of this post. So, SP, are you in Bay Area? Scroll down and leave a comment in the “Bay Area Bloggers?” post if you want to meet up in person in July.

  10. #10 Harry
    June 22, 2007

    Thank you for the clarification on how journalists deal with lawyers and scientists. Even if your practices are not ideal, at least they are consistent across fields. But I would still like to know though how lawyers deal with journalists. For the journalists out there, do most lawyers have a few strategies they use when speaking with the media, and could scientists learn anything from them?

    I openly claim ignorance, but interest, in the area. I am an engineering PhD student (I do research on fuel cells). The only journalism experience I have was a three month internship with a local newspaper after high school. And at that point, the most controversial subject I ever had to cover was a lady whose house was infested with bats….

  11. #11 Melinda Barton
    June 23, 2007


    Lawyers are a special case, but it all depends on why they’re talking to us. I say they’re a special case because lawyers (trial lawyers especially) are accustomed to getting their points across to a general audience, so they’re a bit better at giving us what we need than someone who’s used to communicating with a specialized audience (like most scientists). Many times, lawyers really want to talk to us, because they’re trying to shape the public image of their client and even to “taint” the jury pool a bit. In these cases, we have to be very skeptical about what they say and our language reflects that. The word “alleged” is very popular in stories dealing with lawyers. Notice that you don’t see much use of “alleged” when dealing with scientists. We also often comment on why the lawyers speak to the press in our stories, which is not as common when we talk about scientists. However, when we’re using legal experts (usually professors), we get some of the same problems we have with scientists, including trying to simplify what they say for a general audience.

    This isn’t because we’re biased for or against lawyers or scientists, but because we have to take motive into account and consider the likelihood that a source will blatantly lie to our faces. We also have to consider how to effectively communicate complex topics to a general audience.

    I gave some advice on my blog about what scientists should do when dealing with the media, but I think that advice would apply to anyone dealing with the media. I think the only thing scientists could learn from lawyers is realizing how much their presentation of a subject shapes media coverage and how to communicate effectively to an audience with a limited background in particular subjects. I’d advise any scientist who deals frequently with the press to pick up a book on communication or simply read Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell gives a few simple rules that go a long way towards simplifying and clarifying communication.

  12. #12 SkookumPlanet
    June 23, 2007

    A forward to connect to Melinda’s comment.

    Would I be in the ballpark if I inferred your interest in lawyers’ tactics is about getting accurate facts into print? I’ll briefly assume so.

    As far as I know, lawyers don’t use legal levers to pry facts into media. Hardly anyone seriously sues media so implicit threats to do so carry little weight, I suspect. The first amendment makes such legal action very hard to accomplish, so the burden of proof, and costs, are even more burdensome to the plaintiff than normal. That’s the way we all want it. Read up a bit on SLAPP lawsuits if you’re not familiar with them.

    Melinda has much more journalism knowledge than I, and I’ll second her comment above and add something about trial attorneys — jury consultants, marketing consultants, and branding consultants. Frank Luntz has declared his next move is to bring his “Death Tax” approach into the courtroom. There’s no way to stop such evolution in the courts. Way too much money, often industries, are at stake.

    This is potentially one more playing field scientists could find themselves disadvantaged on. The key to all of this is message control, not legal or even [much] error control. Message control is far more important.

    Per my childhood mentioned above, I was discussing the art and practice of jury selection at the dinner table by mid-grade school. That’s the 1950s. They’ve been at this a long time.

    The best examples, I’ve argued extensively at scienceblogs, the most skillful users of all media channels currently is the far right [with a caveat they are a user/extension of corporate America’s aptitudes.]

    This doesn’t directly relate to scientists’ interface with journalism and interviews. But it’s the idea that’s important. There are two chokepoints in our mass-communication system — the media conduit itself and then the audience’s mental landscape which, in essence, pre-conditions how they accept incoming data. It’s not simply “know your audience”. It’s also “know your channel”.

    Conduits are maxed-out with messages from big money players whose existence is dependent on this, so they are extremely competitive and so very noisy. The U.S. communication environment is also undergoing rapid change, including the introduction of entirely new conduits. Last year at Intersection I wrote:

    “There are media screens in elevators! Screens on contact lenses? Don’t bet against it — screens on flexible, clear plastic exist in labs right now.”

    That’s already outdated. A month ago in the SF Chronicle I saw a techno-news brief announcing two specialized products on the market with full color displays on, essentially, plastic films. There was a photo.

    Once a message 1) passes through a conduit, 2) attracts audience attention, and 3) holds it long enough to deliver itself, then it’s arrived at chokepoint two, another extremely crowded, noisy, competitive arena. The audience’s mind.

    The U.S. media environment has become a zero sum game. It’s critical that messages be adapted to both channels and the public’s mindset. There’s an ultra-premium on skillful message construction and delivery. I don’t have instructional resources, but at least a start on that should be on the web.

    I’ll suggest a general start with George Lakoff and Frank Luntz. Especially see Luntz for the importance of repetitive, simple messages. And of course, we’re posting on a blog with exhaustive material on Lakoff and likely Luntz also.

    I don’t want to overwhelm you but simply want to underscore the importance and complexity involved.

    You are asking the primary question, “How do I learn some of this?” Scientists, and science, need to get to that question. Their intellects can easily master the details once they ask, go to the appropriate sources, and accept what’s been under development for half a century. It’s critical, so I encourage you to keep at it long-term.

    One could do worse than to study America’s corporate structure. It invests substantial resources into media training for the people who interface with media. And even more on crafting messages. My impression is science doesn’t fully understand this yet. So, that’s another angle for you. There are sub-{sub?]-professionals that do such training for a living. I’m all but certain there’s much on “Conducting Interviews: For the Interviewee”, or say “The Interviewee-Controlled Interview”. I don’t know where it is, unfortunately. If you broaden your search beyond guides for technical people [as Melinda did], informational help should be relatively easy to locate.

  13. #13 Alvaro
    June 24, 2007

    I am not sure about the “educate” vs. “inform” dichotomy. Maybe they are simply different degrees of the same concept (vs. entertainment, which is qualitatively different).

    Over at Tara’s blog, Greg writes a great comment including “And speaking of arrogance, you’re being asked to explain something in plain language, not to “dumb it down.” As I’ve told my students, if your audience doesn’t understand you, it is probably your fault not theirs.”

    As a frequent bridge between scientists and mainstream society, we often perceive the need for a “bridge language” that both parties feel comfortable with: focus only on key insights and 101 concepts, elaborate on implications from a “how would I explain this to my mother” point of view, and avoid technical jargon.

    In a more scientific framework: learning happens along a Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky,
    http://www.igs.net/~cmorris/zpd.html) We must engage people where they are today, and help them refine their understanding a bit. Same tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. We are talking about a continued process, with many actors involved, in a complex ecosystem. There is no “right” or “wrong”, simply “bridge languages” that work and some that don’t to add value to the whole ecosystem.

    In short: the scientific method and whole infrastructure and peer-revieved process are great for building new knowledge from a societal point of view. They are not the best language to communicate/ educate/ inform the public about that knowledge: educators, journalists and exceptional scientists such as, I’d say, EO Wilson, play this role better. We need both.

  14. #14 SkookumPlanet
    June 25, 2007

    Exactly. I just made the same point, a bit more categorically, at Chad’s Education and Media Relations post.

  15. #15 Alvaro
    June 25, 2007

    SkookumPlanet: hmmm, please don’t misquote me, OK? 🙂

  16. #16 Matthew C. Nisbet
    June 30, 2007

    I’m arriving late to this but have a post up pointing to several scholarly studies on the topic:


  17. #17 Inoculated Mind
    June 30, 2007

    I also wrote a post on Monday about it:

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