Alan Boyle, Science Editor for MSNBC.com, was kind enough to answer questions about science in the mainstream media after the fallout of the coverage of the Chilean earthquake.
Alan Boyle, science editor for MSNBC.com
Alan has been with MSNBC.com since 1996, covering science and technology. He has his own blog on space called the Cosmic Log. He’s also won quite the array of awards including from the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Space Frontier Foundation, the Pirelli Relativity Challenge and the CMU Cybersecurity Journalism Awards program. He’s also a big fan of Pluto.
I want to thank Alan for taking the time to answer the questions!
Q&A – Alan Boyle, MSNBC.com
Alan: Thanks so much for your questions.
- I was just wondering how many emails you received about that headline (after the Chilean earthquake)?
Alan: Randall, I’m not sure I received any e-mails about the “Out of Control?” headline, except for the e-mails back and forth with my editor. As you may know, we weren’t satisfied with that initial headline and settled on a different one after a couple of hours (“Big quake question: Are they getting worse?”).
The “Out of Control?” angle stayed alive a while longer in references from the site cover, and I did use that angle as well in a question board (our unscientific version of a vox-populi vote). You may also recall that the story was picked up from one of our content partners, LiveScience – and when I went back to look at the LiveScience site version of the story, it also carried the “Out of Control?” headline. So now I’m thinking they came up with the headline first and we just adapted it.
1) How much interest would there be in a Documentary Series about Geology? Something a little deeper than just Yellowstone, St Helens and the San Andreas over and over. For instance, the 26 “supervolcanoes” in Colorado?
Alan: I think that would be a good angle for future coverage. The routine that I’ve fallen into is not really conducive to doing long-form documentaries, but I could see doing the occasional item on “past and future eruptions” … particularly with the (ahem) St. Helens anniversary coming up. I’ve been programmed to look for news hooks or anniversary hooks for stories, so I hope you don’t mind if I try to capitalize on one of those better-known volcanoes or faults.
2) Does your network train your broadcasters at all in Disaster Presentation? It seems like every news channel has the same problem, after the first reports are given, confusion, stammering, repeating. Isn’t there a canned set of questions and graphics to show for such repeatable events as quakes, crashes, and balloon joy rides?
Alan: I can only speak to how we do things on the Web site, and I can’t say there’s a formal procedure for disaster coverage. We do have a lot of people here with experience covering various types of disasters, and there is a to-do list that the journalists tend to follow (reports of damage, possible causes, disaster response, timeline, scientific background, etc.). For example, we have some standard explainers for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as well as illustrated galleries for past disasters.
We do have a detailed disaster plan for space shuttle accidents, but natural disasters may be variable enough that we don’t have canned sets of questions. Of course, TV is quite different from the Web, but there are some old hands on the NBC side who have covered quite a few disasters and know what to do.
-Alan, I feel as though there is not much science in the media unless it is pertaining to something like an earthquake or volcanic eruption. I wish there was more but it seems that whenever it gets out there is a lot of debate. For example, climate change. Do networks purposely put out stories that are going to cause a debate?
- When it comes to science I personally know that there are many big confusing words that some people may not understand. I think that if networks took some more time to broadcast about science and explain these terms more people would be able to understand what is going on. Any thoughts on that?
Alan: On the Web site we put out a goodly amount of science and space coverage as part of the Tech/Science section. I’d say we have seven to 17 stories a day, including daily original reports from yours truly. (Today it was eight, yesterday it was 17.)
Other folks cover climate change and health/medical issues for the Web site, so I’m not often involved in those issues. Including those stories would certainly double the 7-to-17 count mentioned above. (Today the count was 16 additional stories.) You can easily find those stories by going to environment.msnbc.com or health.msnbc.com.
It’s certainly true that conflict and debate generally raise the news interest in a particular story, so it may be that news media focus more on the debates relating to science as opposed to explaining settled science.
I think the Web is well-suited to science coverage in part because we have the ability to link out to other resources. For example, in a story about the fabrication of an invisibility cloak, I didn’t need to explain the process of direct laser writing in detail because I could refer readers to a Web page elsewhere. I do agree that it can be difficult to find opportunities to explain basic concepts or wide-ranging topics in science. Nevertheless, we are able to do that every once in a while.
I was just wondering what types of pressures you feel in editing for a source that so many look to in order to form their opinions on current events, especially in the area of the sciences and technology, and how you deal with them?
Alan: The pressure usually has to do with time: There’s not a lot of time available to put out a report with the depth and breadth that I’d like, especially when I feel an obligation to offer something at least semi-original every weekday. I just have to prioritize and decide what we can do without, and even when I do that the workdays are always longer than I would like. There’s not usually much time or opportunity for second-guessing … but if it turns out that there are problems with what we’ve put out, I do try to set things right.
My name is Amy and i’m a college student taking a course on how to write popular science articles. I am just curious about who are the main readers of popular science articles? Are the readers a certain age, gender, or profession? Do popular science writers target a specific reader?
Alan: The easiest thing is to visualize your reader as someone like yourself … or, um, myself. Someone who’s interested in and intrigued by the quirks, discoveries and deep themes associated with science. Someone who would like to hear about innovations that could affect society in the years or generations ahead. We used to think of these people as more educated or more connected than the average computer user. Fourteen years ago, when MSNBC started operation, demographics might have suggested the readers of science/tech stories would be more likely male than female. I think those demographics have changed quite a bit since then, however. Currently, the demographic skews older for science news than for tech news.
I am also a college student taking a course on popular science writing and I often find it hard to incorporate everything I read in original research articles because there is a lot of jargon that the popular media probably would not appreciate. What I have learned is that whatever the students find interesting the popular media will also find interesting but I often feel that I am not giving all the necessary information for the subject. Is there any reading strategies that you would suggest for these research articles?
Alan: Usually I start by reading the abstract at the beginning of the article as well the conclusions at the end. Then I look at how past work in the specific field has been covered, to get a sense of the context for the research. Then I delve into the methods described in the middle of the research report, but I don’t worry too much if I don’t totally get the description of the methods. Then I contact the researcher(s) and check my understanding of the methods.
Robert Krulwich, one of the best science journalists in broadcast media, once told me that he basically argues with researchers until they’re able to settle on “a metaphor they can live with.” Here’s a link to the posting where Krulwich discusses his approach:
I hope that’s helpful.
Is the media aware of the role of cognitive biases in altering perceptions of the world? If so, what role can media play in educating its audience about the effects of, say, the recency bias, in altering perceptions of unrelated events. From that perspective, stringing the Haiti and Chilean earthquakes together into a headline about nature out of control is understandable. It’s not science, but it is human nature. If not, how can ‘the media’ be ‘learned’ about such things?
Alan: Yes, the stories you reference with regard to the Haiti and Chile earthquakes (and later stories about the Haiti/Chile/Taiwan/Turkey earthquakes, or the Chile aftershocks) are actually attempts to explain the broader sweep of seismic activity, framed in a way that mirrors how people generally perceive temporally proximate events.
Here’s another example of the genre:
Similarly, there are the occasional stories about global climate change vs. regional weather patterns:
For a couple of years we had a columnist at MSNBC, David Ropeik, who went on to bigger and better things as a risk consultant. Risk perception happens to be his specialty, and he’s just written a book titled “How Risky Is It, Really?” I’m just starting to delve into the book but I might have more to say (and write) about risk perception after I’m done.
How can scientists, the media, and communities act together to create societies and towns that are consciously prepared to mitigate and deal with natural hazards? What are the most effective strategies for promoting risk-awareness and communicating safe evacuation plans to the public?
Alan: We do have “standing stories” that address disaster preparedness. For example, this is the extensive story we keep around to fill people in on earthquake preparedness:
… And here’s an interactive on what to do during the aftermath of a hurricane:
But I think we could do more in terms of drawing these types of resources together into a “Need to Know” guide that’s easily accessible at all times … rather than trotting out the advice after the earthquake, or hurricane, or whatever. Theoretically, it’s good to be prepared in advance of a disaster, rather than afterwards (even if the disaster happens to occur somewhere else). Realistically, however, some people (and journalists) don’t devote enough attention to these preparedness / mitigation issues until disaster strikes.
We in the media should be developing really good resources in collaboration with scientists and emergency workers, and then we should find ways to make those resources easy to get to at all times. I’m betting we’ll have something like this front and center when the hurricane season starts.
- Do journalists (both reporters and editors) realize how distressed science-literate readers are by the frequent mistakes, sensationalism, misrepresentation, and more subtly, inappropriate emphasis we so frequently encounter when reading MSM science reporting?
- Are those of you in the MSM even aware of the magnitude of your credibility gap in the science community, and if so, do you have any plans or ideas for improving your reporting and delivery in the future?
Alan: I think journalists do realize that they’re not perfect, although I’m not sure we’re keyed into how frequently problems crop up. I have to smile at the reference to the “MSM” … for one thing, I still think of our Web site as a long way out from the mainstream. But since we’ve been in business now for 14 years, and are finally making a profit, I guess we have become part of the media mainstream.
For another thing, using the acronym implies that there’s some distance between journalists and the public, as if I was part of the CIA or the NWO (New World Order). Actually, I’m just a guy, trying to provide a fair and factual picture of the world and the wider cosmos. Obviously I can’t know as much about seismology as a seismologist (just as an example), so I do depend on seismologists to set me straight if I stray.
I think professional scientists have to keep in mind that we’re writing primarily for folks who are not professional scientists … folks who may not fully understand all the ins and outs of a technical field. Thus, we have to put things in terms that regular folks can understand. That usually involves simplifying a concept without distorting the facts. Sometimes we have to gloss over some of the finer points that scientists may feel are important to their more nuanced understanding of a particular phenomenon. And sometimes we have to ask questions or address issues that some scientists feel are not worthy of being asked or addressed.
The only way we can improve our reporting and delivery is by talking with each other, and staying engaged with the public. Although I’m paid by MSNBC, my first obligation is not to serve the MSM, or scientists, or sources, but to serve the public. And that includes you or anybody else reading these words. I’m very glad to hear from you if there’s ever anything about our science coverage that needs to be fixed or addressed. You can write me at alan-dot-boyle-at-msnbc-dot-com.
Rick Sanchez’s behavior while interviewing Dr. Kurt Frankel on CNN was bizarre. He was extremely aggressive and “shouty.” Is there a decent explanation for this behavior, or is the consensus that he expressing some sort of pent-up frustration at the fact he didn’t understand what was going on? (…or for that matter, what a “meter” is, or where Hawaii is located…)
Alan: I didn’t see what Sanchez was doing at the time. I’ve only seen clips of his faux pas as captured on YouTube, etc. It looks as if he was experiencing the stress of doing a live show during a catastrophic event, and maybe he was a little out of his depth. I’d hate to be in his shoes – or the shoes of the folks who were with him on the set.
What is the relationship between science journalism in the mainstream media and science bloggers (like myself)? Do you feel it is antagonistic right now? How do you think the two groups might come together?
Alan: Actually, I’d say the relationship between bloggers and journalists is really good. The line between those groups is getting fuzzier as time goes on. For example, journalists tend to see me as a blogger, and bloggers see me as a journalist. So I don’t at all feel as if the relationship is antagonistic. Many of my most valued colleagues are bloggers and tweeters, and would not be considered “journalists” in the traditional circa-1995 sense.
If people feel respected, they tend to provide respect as well. But if people don’t get that respect, that’s when resentment can build up. So, mutual respect is the key to bringing bloggers, journalists, scientists, readers and commenters together. (By the way, a Pew Research Center study indicated last year that scientists were seen as having a significantly more positive impact on society than journalists, 70 percent vs. 38 percent. I discuss that study here: http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2009/07/09/1991160.aspx)
Is there a struggle at times with the need to entertain and the need to inform that exists in the mainstream media?
Alan: I think there is a tension between the need to inform and educate and the need to entertain. That’s particularly true for the kinds of things I tend to write about, which have to do with technical subjects (from nanotechnology to cosmology) … subjects that do not have an immediate impact on personal health, wealth or well-being. The stories that I write generally have to convey a sense of wonder, discovery, mystery … and touch upon the cosmic themes that humans have wondered about since the first days when they sat around the fire and looked up at the stars. So I do have to get people’s attention first, and then give them something that nourishes the brain.
Do you think that the general public is science-phobic or antiscience based on your experience at MSNBC or is there still excitement about science (other than disasters and debate)?
Alan: My impression is that the general public is excited to hear about exciting discoveries, and powerfully drawn to news about actual or potential catastrophes … but they’re not much interested in the nuts and bolts of the scientific process. The traffic that we get on stories about science almost always pales in comparison with the traffic for stories about celebrities, for instance.
If you could change one thing about how science is treated in the mainstream media today, what would it be? Do you think it could happen in the next 5 years? 10 years? Ever?
Alan: If I could change one thing about science reporting, I guess it would be to create a ways to tie in the discoveries and challenges of the day to in-depth resources that would help people understand those developments in vivid ways. In a recent item I referred to a video documentary that attempts to do that for quantum mechanics. It’s called “The Quantum Tamers”:
I could envision doing similar videos or interactives for energy policy, climate change, genetic research and other key scientific issues for society. But it takes a lot of time, money, expertise and focus to do that … so I guess that’s what I’d wish for. Will the next five or 10 years bring more time, money, expertise and focus for science communication? Here’s the answer:
What are your favorite subjects to cover in science? Anything recently get your attention?
Alan: My favorite subjects all have to do with outer space: space exploration, commercial spaceflight, planetary science and astrobiology. I’m intrigued by the current debate over the goals and future course of America’s space effort. I’m fascinated by the idea of finding evidence for life (ancient or extant) on Mars, or Enceladus, or Europa. And of course I’m closely following the search for new worlds in our solar system and beyond. I recently wrote a book titled “The Case for Pluto,” which is about that dwarf planet’s ups and downs as well as the wider planet quest … so that subject has a special place in my heart. I’m generally on the side of the underdog – particularly if that underdog has a Disney character named after it.
I was traveling in the Midwest last week to promote the book, and that’s why it’s taken a little longer than I expected to get back to you with these answers. But I thank you for the opportunity to chat … and look forward to continuing the conversation.
What do you think is the most important science story you’ve covered in your career?
Alan: That’s a surprisingly hard question for me to answer, because you could take that several ways. When it comes to the sorts of things that Eruptions readers are most interested in, I guess that would be the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. It had a huge impact on the region at the time – and served as something of a seismic wakeup call for Americans, even though it didn’t have the devastating impact other eruptions have had elsewhere in the world. That seems so long ago now, and my role at that time was really to edit and help direct coverage (as an assistant city editor) rather than to write about it myself.
When it comes to issues with important scientific and technological angles, the big story would be the search for cleaner and more abundant energy sources as the fossil-fuel era enters a late phase. I do feel as if the energy terrain will change dramatically in the next 20 years, and we’ll eventually look upon petroleum the same way we look upon whale oil now. But right now I’m covering that wave of change around the edges, and not devoting as much energy (heh, heh) to the subject as it deserves. This is a story that’s being covered as well by other folks at MSNBC … folks who are on the environment and energy teams in the newsroom.
If I had to pick a scientific issue where my coverage played an important role, I might go with the controversy over the Large Hadron Collider’s safety. I wrote stories that tried to explain what people were worried about when it came to crazy stuff like runaway black holes or strangelets, as well as what the experts and the courts said about it. In the past couple of years, I’ve spoken to particle physicists as well as the general public about this issue – and I hope the things that I’ve said and written have helped people understand this weird issue as well as particle physics in general.
When it comes to developments in science and technology that will be important for decades or centuries to come, I’m drawn to the discussions over humanity’s long-term future in space, which takes in the push toward commercialization and the development of a frontier mentality toward space travel. I’m very interested in tracing NASA’s changing role in a new era of space science and exploration, as well as the growing role of new players in the cosmic field. It may sound a bit woo-woo to earth scientists (or should I say down-to-earth scientists?) … but I do think that in the long term, we have to find a way to get off this rock.