Today I am down at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, speaking to a class taught by Jeremy Jackson, along with journalists Ken Weiss from the Los Angeles Times, Rex Dalton from Nature, and Mark Dowie from Mother Jones and many many other outlets.
We’ve all been addressing science communication in its various aspects, and there’s certainly consensus among all four journalists on at least this much–science reporting faces some serious challenges today. I and others spoke about the increasing conglomeration of media, and how that leads to the cutback of substantive coverage in many areas (especially science); the decline of newspapers in the face of challenges posed by the Internet; the continual challenge of finding science popularizers (who is the next Carl Sagan? Nobody, that’s who), and so on.
I argued, as I have many times before with Matt Nisbet, that scientists need to systematically study the media, and how audiences make sense of scientific information conveyed through it, and then devise strategies for communicating in this increasingly baffling Babel. The truth is that there are still incredible science communication opportunities out there–but they’re not what you’d expect. You have to be able to talk about science on the Colbert Report, or through the medium of Hollywood, rather than relying upon traditional science reporting in newspapers (which is clearly dying).
Above all I make the argument that scientists need to be proactive about communication, for very the simple reason that, as Daniel Yankelovich put it (in a different but related context, addressing the dwindling role of science in policy):
These are impressive hurdles, but they can be surmounted if the will to do so is strong enough and if we follow two core principles. The first is that the initiative to bridge the gap must come primarily from the scientists’ side rather than the policymakers’ side, for reasons both of motivation and of substance. Scientists have the stronger motivation to take the initiative, because they know how important their input can be, and they are aware of the dangers posed by their loss of influence.
As for policy, so for media–scientists are going to have to redouble their efforts, or else risk an inevitable loss of influence amid media conglomeration, shrinkage of the science news hole, the continuing transformation of news into entertainment, and much, much else.