Mike the Mad Biologist

Scientists and Journalists, Part Deux

Having been encouraged by ScienceBlogling John Wilkins, I’m going to follow up on my post about science journalism, and, no doubt, get myself into further trouble. First, though, I want to clarify some points.

Without going into specific detail, I work for a non-profit organization that deals with infectious disease. My primary job–and the one that pays my bills and keeps the lights on–is to conduct and develop research projects. However, I’m also the primary person who deals with questions about the ‘science’ of our issue (we also have clinical and economic experts). An average day is one or two media-related requests (and that doesn’t multiple back-and-forths). At that level it’s not exciting, it’s, at best, a mild distraction. There really isn’t a PR person for my area: most of what I do in terms of public outreach is to distill a very complex issue to something different groups can understand, from the ‘lay’ public, to congressional staffers, to policy committees, and to reporters. Not to mention the most important group: funders.

So the idea that I’m not communicating with the public or answering requests is ludicrous–I am. To the point where it could interfere, were I not careful, with what keeps me employed. Nonetheless, I still try to answer all of the requests (and even politely–usually). While I’m clarifying things, let me add one thing about contacting scientists at meetings. Now that I’m no longer in academia, meetings are vital. Not only do I talk to potential funders, but they are essential for maintaining contact with colleagues and for keeping abreast of other areas of science that I don’t directly deal with in my day to day work. As far as I’m concerned, I’m out of the office, which means I don’t have to be accessible to media requests because I’m accessible when I’m in the office, not to mention vacation (really). The ASM meeting I attended, scheduled activities started at 8am and ended at 7pm, and every lunch was a working/professional lunch. Talking with reporters, when I’m not sure of the outcome, is really far down the list of priorities. So onto the followup.

Jennifer Ouellette
writes:

In short, the scientific community in general needs to be a bit more sophisticated about its attitude towards journalism — starting with gaining a clearer idea of how journalism actually works, and what its primarily objectives are (hint: they are not the same objectives as science). It is not, and never shall be, just like publishing in scientific journals.

I’ll put my own spin on that:

Science journalists are not my professional colleagues. I do not give them a preliminary assumption of collegiality and fairness, any more than I would political reporters*.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean that I’ll cross a busy street to punch a science reporter in the head, but I’ve had too much experience to a priori think that when some stranger calls me, that he’s trying to do me a favor due to some lofty ideal. Do I think there are good science reporters? Of course, I do. But that judgment of ‘good’ was earned by convincing me that they won’t screw me (more about that in a bit). It was not bestowed a priori. I also think there are good political reporters, but there are a lot of hacks out there too.

Some journalists do try to convey the science accurately and reliably. But others either don’t care, or even worse, approach me with a preconceived storyline into which they are trying to ‘plug’ my quotes. At best, that’s a waste of time that breaks of the ‘chunks’ of time I need to be able to my job without interruptions. At worst, it can damage my organization’s (and my own) credibility.

That’s why what ScienceBlogling Chris Mooney wrote shocked and disturbed me:

I also second Jennifer Ouellette that sometimes scientists get too miffed about being misquoted. Don’t get me wrong: Misquoting sucks. Good journalists, and I hope I’m one, use tape recorders whenever possible to try to avoid this. Nevertheless, and although there are certainly major exceptions, when misquotation occurs the consequences are rarely very large. Most of the time it’s just “fish and chips,” as Andrew Sullivan puts it: By the time you get the paper and read the misquote, it’s being used to wrap somebody’s lunch. The more you’re in journalism, the more you realize that life just goes on, and it is the rare case indeed in which a misquotation seriously impacts someone’s career. And more generally, the idea that all journalists should be punished for one journalist’s error…well, that’s just unfair.

A lot of what I do isn’t communicating ‘basic’ science, but applying basic science to public policy. And misquotes can be damaging, particularly when you have to talk to policy makers about a similar subject (or if those who oppose your position are particularly eager to find any mistake you’ve made). If I have to spend the first five minutes of a conversation defending myself, it makes it very difficult to accomplish any of my public policy goals. That does have serious ramifications. And I’ve seen other organizations in my area tarred as ‘extremist’ or ‘unscientific’ and they consequently lose access. So it does matter. “Oops” doesn’t cut it. If that’s the standard, then journalists shouldn’t be upset with a stringent dose of caveat emptor.

Since this is running long, I’ll make one final comment about how scientists should use the media (and the word use is intentional). Looking back on the evolution/creationist ‘controversy’, I think the reporting started to change when scientists went after reporters who did crappy reporting (there was a whole Kenneth Chang dogpile, for example). And it wasn’t nice either. I’m not saying we cursed out their mothers, but we criticized them. It had an impact. I think one problem scientists have is that we give our shit away, so we often get walked on. To make a political comparison, the Republicans (if not Bush) are still not suffering consequences in terms of reporting (e.g., Fred Thompson smells ‘manly.’ I’m not kidding. What do Democrats smell like? A used tampon?), in large part because they have systematically and methodically whipped the political reporters. I’m not advocating such an adversarial relationship with science journalists, but as, Oulette notes, we don’t necessarily have the same agenda, and we need to realize that.

Mr. Quid, meet Dr. Quo.

Related posts: Tara, part I & II; John Wilkins; Carl Zimmer; The Post-Normal Times; Jennifer Oulette; Astroprof.

*Whom I regularly trash here.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 20, 2007

    Your “Carl Zimmer” link actually points to John Wilkins’ piece.

  2. #2 Barry
    June 21, 2007

    “I’m not advocating such an adversarial relationship with science journalists, but as, Oulette notes, we don’t necessarily have the same agenda, and we need to realize that.”

    Why not? At least with some – those who equate creationism with science, for example.

  3. #3 Edward
    June 21, 2007

    If jounalists wonder why they are held in comtempt by large portions of the public, they need look no further than the above quote. People want correct reporting of the facts, and frequent misquotes reduce the public’s trust of the media. Yes, journalists have deadlines, but if I know your publication doesn’t care enough to correct itself when it gets the facts wrong, why should I bother reading/watching it?

    As a scientist, it may take me 15 minutes to talk to a reporter, but if I’m misquoted, in the best case it will take me many hours to correct the quote with my fellow scientists. They do care what is said about their field in the press long after “it’s being used to wrap somebody’s lunch.” In the worst case, a grant doesn’t get funded or tenure is denied.