Our analysis shows that interactions between scientists and journalists are more frequent and smooth than previously thought. This five-country survey also suggests that the scientists most involved in these interactions tend to be scientifically productive, have leadership roles, and--although they consider concerns as well as perceived benefits--that they perceive the interactions to have more positive than negative outcomes. Despite minor variations in the assessment of media contacts across the five countries, the basic patterns are surprisingly similar. The functional necessity of public science communication may be a global phenomenon in democratic knowledge societies.
The Tracker welcomes the general tenor of the study but has quibbles with the generally rosy release. First of all, are the numbers all that flattering to the press? If only about 60 percent of researchers are satisfied with their experience with the press (in two areas, epidemiology and stem cell research), that means 40 percent or so are neutral or unhappy - and that's per encounter. It doesn't take a very high ratio of getting burned to drive a general hostility to the press. Few science stories, by proportion, are investigative pieces whose writers expect their subjects to be upset. Mostly, they are efforts to present work at face value and to explain what happened clearly. Mostly, on this beat, one hopes one's sources are content, happy even. Mostly, too, that's how it turns out.
Second and more important, if there is a sea change away from distrust or hostility to the press, perhaps it's not so much underway now as all done. Subjectively, it seems things changed in the 80s or 90s, maybe earlier. If scientists are now more willing to talk one could argue that is because deans, research division heads, and other bosses have been telling them for some time that it's good for getting grants or for business. That is, they need us more. They may not like us more.
This definitely is good news, but (with the Tracker) I wonder if it is fair to say a "sea change" is under way. In my job as a university PIO, I still run into researchers who are either uninterested or unwilling to work with the press. And there are plenty of instances where the researchers are unhappy with stories about their work, although this happens most frequently when dealing with local reporters who do not specialize in science or technology. The study seems to bear this out, noting that 90 percent of respondents identified the "risk of incorrect quotation" and the "unpredictability of journalists" as important disincentives.
The survey also investigated scientists' reasons for wanting to engage in media outreach. The top reason was to increase the public's appreciation of science, which was linked in their minds to a better-educated general public. All good things, of course, but this just leads to more questions about the concept of "science literacy," "the deficit model," "public engagement," "public understanding of science," etc. Surely these topics will be explored in future posts, so I won't go there now.
I wonder if another reason for a growing willingness to engage in media outreach is the emphasis placed on communication by funding agencies, especially NSF. That would seem like a good incentive if there ever were one.
Very interesting. I was enthused enough to sign up for Knight Science so I could comment. Thanks for all your work digging up the good stuff.
1. It looks like they only surveyed epidemiologists and stem-cell researchers. What about astronomers, neuroscientists, climatologists, linguists and — the real kicker — evolutionary biologists?
2. Anecdotally, a great deal of bad science reporting involves articles which aren't tied to specific peer-reviewed papers and which might have been written without even talking to a scientist.