Evolving Thoughts

What happens when you put journalists in contact with scientists? To hear some people tell it, it results in an antimatter-matter explosion that destroys careers and causing black holes of ignorance in the general population, particularly when the density is already great, as in political circles.

Tara, from the scientists’ perspective, gave a list of rules for science journalists. Her commentators broadly agreed, ranging from gentle to vociferous. Chris Mooney leapt to the defence of what is, after all, his profession (and one he’s damned good at if his book is anything to judge by), and Carl Zimmer came in with a balanced response and Kevin Padian’s rules.

Now I, for my sins, have been a public relations guy for an academic institution, as well as for local government, a state government instrumentality, and for a largish university. My first job was in fact as the “copyboy” in the editorial room of a large metropolitan newspaper (*cough*), and to this day the cry “chutoe!” sends shivers up and down my spine, for I was the kid who put the copy in the pneumatic tubes used back in pre-electronic days. I have known several science and other journalists personally and professionally, and I drank beer with Chris when he came to town.

So here are my own views on the relation between science and journalism…

First of all, the single greatest block to good science journalism are editors. These are folk who are “graduand journalists” as it were, and who mostly come via political or economic beats, unless they are special features editors, in which case they represent sports, lifestyle and so on. You could detonate a small nuclear device in the newspaper part of a major city and not hit any journalists who had better than year 10 science, nearly all the time. [Science journalists, being nerds, tend to telecommute.]

I watched the leaders of opinion for Melbourne, a city of (then) two and a half million people, behave worse than kindergarten kids, and with about as much intelligence. Daily. With copious amounts of beer (not that there’s anything wrong with that…).

The education background of journalism tends to be liberal arts, social sciences, or, if they are old enough, Mean Street U. So science is for them basically a mystery. This is not true of most science journalists though – even if they lack a true science education, they are often well informed on issues that interest them, and can properly report them.

Trouble is, and this gets to my next point, they don’t ever only report on their interests. Gael Jennings, who works for the public broadcaster ABC here in Australia (the other ABC), was a postdoctoral student in immunology under Gus Nossal. She now reports on space science, global warming, genomics, and so on. How likely is it that Gael will report these other fields correctly? She has a good basic science knowledge, so she’s going to be better than the ordinary journalist, but basically she’s not much better off.

And this is the crucial problem with the media and science – it’s low bandwidth. What do I mean by that? Well, I mean that they do not have the resources to properly investigate and report on all sciences equally well, and so they develop over time rhetorical tropes that allow them, and their readers/audience to quickly slot ideas into pre-existing pigeonholes. This is, in a sense, what “framing” is about, but it is more specific than that. The media cannot get across concepts that take years to educate undergraduates into in a few minutes. It is low-bandwidth because long messages get lost in the noise. Consider how I might encode something complex, like the Mona Lisa. I might encode every pixel and send a 50Mb file. I might encode a program that can generate the Mona Lisa, but only on a particular machine (say, a Mac) and send a 10Mb file. Or I might send a single bit that the receiver knows means “Mona Lisa painting”, rather like the “one by land, two by sea” convention. The media is much more like the latter case. There are scientific breakthroughs, or old theories proven wrong, or new evidence for old theories, or spectacular achievements technically, and that, I’m afraid, is basically that. Nothing else can get through the bandwidth, because the audience and the senders alike fail to encode anything else.

The media is not an education tool, contrary to the high hopes had back in the 1950s. Sure it can occasionally be used that way, if the audience is receptive, but by and large it isn’t the right tool for the job. The internet seems much better suited for this, I have to say, but even it isn’t the answer. I’m afraid I’m going to say that if you hold to the “deficit model” of science communication, that the “public” simply lack knowledge, then the answer will not be found in the media. If, on the other hand, you think that science is a political process (and it is at least that, since it’s a human activity and all human activities are political), then you may think that the media are in fact the right tool for changing attitudes to science if not imparting knowledge.

I’m skeptical of that approach, because if attitudes can be skewed by rhetorical tools in favour of science, likewise it can be, and as Chris’ own work indicates so clearly, is being, skewed against any science that happens not to suit the purposes of some well funded industry or special interest. If we want people to trust in science as a way to know the world, and therefore to have a critical and informed trust in the results of science, I think we need to start much earlier, as I have argued before. We need to engage children from primary levels up in the activity of science. If they do some science in class, and not merely learn exciting and spectacular facts, then they will be much less likely to swallow the “gee-whiz” reportage of journalists and the media, and the antiscience programs of some media (as Tim Lambert has been documenting for my country’s national paper) and of vested interests (but I repeat myself). And in particular, when they grow up and become, among other things, editors and politicians, they may be more inclined to trust science than PR firms.

I don’t wish to deny that science journalism can be extremely important in the construction of our social attitudes, but by and large I haven’t seen much evidence that it can do this on a grand scale or sway opinion that is being set elsewhere. I sympathise with the scientists, having tried to help the spokesperson for a medical institute deal with the media. I sympathise with the science journalists, having seen their work destroyed from finely crafted discussions down to a 500 word filler in the Saturday edition. Most of all, I sympathise for my society, which has been told for decades that scientists are dangerous and science is just another social construction.

Comments

  1. #1 Matthew
    June 20, 2007

    Another excellent science journalist is Ben Goldacre. Check out his Bad Science blog. Highly entertaining and usually spot on.

  2. #2 Chris Rowan
    June 20, 2007

    Science is of course only one victim of the positive feedback loop of reducing bandwidth which the media and the public seem to be caught in.

  3. #3 apalazzo
    June 20, 2007

    Great post, but is it all that bad? I do believe that the printed media is used to spread scientific knowledge to the populace. Sure it is often superficial and inaccurate, but when I read the NYTimes, I do learn something about the latest developments and the latest ideas.

  4. #4 Melinda Barton
    June 20, 2007

    As a trained journalist, I’d say I was offended if I didn’t know that you were on the right track. The problems however are more complex than you realize. I’m probably going to write a more detailed response on my blog later, but…

    You have to consider that even when we journalists have a strong science background, we are asked to write for an audience that does not. I personally chose to take advanced science courses for honors credit in college despite being a communications major. I even wrote a paper on the role of the Clovis hunters in the megafaunal extinctions of the late Pleistocene, a paper my geology professor found quite impressive. I choose to read science materials written for scientists and non-scientists and to carefully question that information based on scientific criteria. But if I’m writing for a general audience, I have to figure out how to explain complex ideas to people who have a limited science background.

    Only the most skilled writers/editors can create work that is approachable for those with a limited education yet accurate and reliable (on deadline, of course). Unfortunately, only a few really recognize the distortions created by this process and the extent to which they affect not only science journalism but all journalism. This same “dumbing down” process affects our coverage of politics, social issues, economics, etc.

    Finally, it is common in journalism for editors to assign stories with little consideration for the skills, experience and expertise of the journalist being assigned. In journalism school, I was assigned to cover a fashion show, despite my obvious lack of experience. Nerd chic and event-appropriate clothing are about as far as I get with fashion. I refused the assignment and asked to be reassigned to a symposium on prison issues due to my background in and knowledge of politics. I’m guessing I wasn’t that professor’s favorite pupil. I thought this was a problem limited to this professor until I began encountering it in my professional life.

    Most young journalists wouldn’t dream of refusing an assignment or informing their editors that they’re unqualified to cover something he/she wants covered and for good reason. Refusing assignments or declaring one’s incompetence (however limited) can severely hamper a journalist’s career. It’s very to easy to find yourself off the masthead or off the freelancer list if you’re not available to do what they want, when they want it, and how they want it done.

  5. #5 John Wilkins
    June 20, 2007

    Melinda, you are so right, but this only reinforces the bandwidth problem. You can explain these things in detail – in a book, written to hold the interest of the uneducated (in that field). You could do it in the local Times/Herald/Tribune too, if only they’d give you 150pp to do it, and three years to write it.

    The media is best at ephemera, not science education, history or literature. Occasionally, despite itself, it manages to do some or all of these. Rarely. Not enough to be statistically significant.

  6. #6 Bob O'H
    June 20, 2007

    Just to follow up on Matthew’s comment, Ben Goldacre has his own Bad Science blog. He does do a very good job of communicating the science (and even statistics!) to the public. I guess it’s slightly different, because he does it in a weekly column, rather than have to rite about the particular Science or Nature paper that came to the top of the pile this week.

    Bob

  7. #7 Ian H Spedding FCD
    June 21, 2007

    I spent much of my working life at the BBC in their news clippings library. Four months of that was spent on attachment to the Science Unit at Bush House writing science news pieces for the Corporation’s External Services.

    The journalists who staffed it were all science graduates and men for whom I had the most enormous respect. They knew and loved their subject and had the skill to condense complex topics into simple English text that could be translated with relative ease into the tongues of the different Language Services. They also had the freedom to be true to the topic

    Comparing that to the coverage of science in even an alleged middlebrow tabloid like the Daily Mail in the UK is the difference between eating a fine steak and a cheeseburger.

    The problem is, a lot of people like cheeseburgers.

    The simple truth is that if you want people to listen to what you have to say you have to say in a way that they will listen to. Call it “framing” – I prefer ‘tailoring’ – or whatever else you like, it all comes down to the same thing. The audience doesn’t have to listen or read. You have to grab them by the curiosity and make them.

    I can well remember idly tuning into an old black-and-white movie on TV one Saturday morning many years ago. I’d never heard of it before but it grabbed and held my attention by the sheer brilliance of its script. It was Sullivan’s Travels, written and directed by Preston Sturges. That, to me, is what good writing should try to achieve.

    There are tricks of the trade in journalism which can be used to shape raw text into a well-crafted news story or feature article but they are not rocket science. Even biologists should be able to pick them up with a bit of practice.

    Then it’s all down to a Rupert Murdoch wannabe editor.

  8. #8 SkookumPlanet
    June 21, 2007

    Excellent post, John. Thanks.

  9. #9 John Wilkins
    June 21, 2007

    Ian, I can’t deny the validity of the BBC approach. They once paid me 900 to do a bibliography on Darwin. So far as I know it’s still up on their website…

  10. #10 Christine Gorman
    June 21, 2007

    The problem is, a lot of people like cheeseburgers.

    ‘Twas ever thus.

  11. #11 Melinda Barton
    June 21, 2007

    So, I’ve finally posted a more complete answer with some advice for scientists. I had to be briefer than I’d like, but I think I gave at least a glimpse into the complexity of journalism. You’re right, John, I could write a book. Some journalists already have.

  12. #12 SkookumPlanet
    June 22, 2007

    Getting would-be communicators to read such books is part of the obstacle that needs to be overcome.

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