Interview w/ The Scientist on Ida's Media Strategy

I did an interview this morning with Elie Dolgin of The Scientist magazine discussing the "going broad" media strategy surrounding Darwinius masillae aka Ida the fossil. The magazine has the Q&A interview up on their site. The user registration is free and well worth the 2 seconds in order to access the wealth of content at the magazine's Web site.

Below are my comments. As I've noted, this week's events will serve as a long standing case study for science communication scholars and professionals to analyze and debate.

The Scientist: How unusual is this amount of media attention for a single study?

Matthew Nisbet: This single study may have gotten more attention across multiple media platforms than any study in recent history. You may have to go back to the announcement that Raelians had cloned a human child, or the cold fusion announcement back in the early 1990s [to find a comparable media response]. Those are in part unfair comparisons because neither one of those studies was peer reviewed. The big difference this time is that this study is peer reviewed in a major journal.

TS: Have the authors of this study crossed the line into overselling and hype?

MN: It's a difficult balance in order to generate wider attention. You have to use language and metaphors that are non-traditional in how science is communicated. On the other hand, whether it's a fossil find or a pharmaceutical drug, you don't want to use metaphors that oversell the impact or promise of the discovery. The risk with that is that you undermine credibility and trust with the public.

TS: The paper's publication was accompanied with spots on morning talkshows, a book, TV tie-ins, and so on. Isn't that all a bit much?

MN: There's an important distinction between the channel and the language and the metaphor. There's nothing wrong with communicating about the find across these various channels. In fact, scientists have to go beyond their traditional mechanisms for communicating if they're going to reach beyond a narrow slice of the public. But where you need to be careful is in how you choose to define a particular study. I think where [the authors] might have gone wrong was not in the use of the channels but actually in the choice of language.

TS: In addition to toning down the rhetoric, how can scientists use these same tactics more responsibly?

MN: This type of "going broad" strategy might be more appropriately applied to a scientific subject generally or to a body of research rather than a single study. No single study is the "slam dunk" or the so-called "missing link," as this particular study has been defined. The strategy is tremendously innovative, though, and it has introduced science concepts to audiences that wouldn't otherwise pay attention to them. This can now be a platform for learning how to engage wider audiences to start following scientific subjects more closely.

TS: How are scientists themselves responding to this announcement?

MN: Apart from how the media is discussing the story, there's a really interesting conversation online among scientists about just how significant of a finding this is. Before, when a study like this came out, our only access to what might be on the minds of the scientists was to follow their limited statements in the New York Times or read the news at a place like The Scientist. But now, with the blogosphere, within hours [of publication] we can actually eavesdrop on what different scientists think about the study and how they're beginning to make sense of it. Also, there's a breakdown in the hierarchy within science. Now, you have non-symmetrical interactions between graduate students and senior scientists. It's something that's completely different in the world of science.

TS: What can we learn from this episode?

MN: The take-home lesson is that this is a really innovative model for going broad and reaching audiences, and it's a model that there's a lot to learn from in terms of effectiveness and strategy. But the danger is that in activating those broader channels that you don't go beyond what can accurately and honestly be said about the significance of the paper for the promise of the underlying science. There's a lot to like about the strategy and the planning and the wider attention that this study has gotten, but there's a lot to debate about the language and metaphor that's been used to convey the significance of the study.

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Matt: You write that "this is a really innovative model for going broad and reaching audiences, and it's a model that there's a lot to learn from in terms of effectiveness and strategy." Respectfully, I think this is flat-out wrong! What can be learned from this is an effective way of circumventing the normal checks that good science writers bring to this process. From Carl Zimmer's blog, and a conversation I had with John Noble Wilford, it's clear that those orchestrating the press conference/book/TV show were manipulating the event to their own advantage, in spite of the damage it might do to the science. Yes, it netted more than 700 stories hyping the finding but the restrictions on access to the information facilitated a less-than-accurate representation of what importance the find actually was. This kind of "press agentry" does nothing positive for science -- any interest that might be garnered by the flood of coverage is rapidly lost when readers find that they were misled in the beginning. That doesn't help either science or journalism, in my opinion.

I think once again we are in full agreement. Zimmer's blog post adds further insight as to the double whammy of the Ida release: Not only was the language over the top, but by breaking common norms with reporters, they burned bridges.

At one level "Going broad" and activating lots of different non-traditional media channels and audiences is the right strategy, but we need to distinguish this successful strategy from the other elements of the roll out.

As I note in the interview, you have to be careful with language and metaphor and not oversell the significance of a single study. And as you point out, you have to handle your relationship with reporters wisely, as Zimmer's blog post underscores.

On this, I really like Rick Borchelt's "managing the trust portfolio" advice. The Ida team's current success at scoring 700 media hits is not worth the long term damage to their relationship with and trust among science reporters.

Matt: I agree that we're in basic agreement on this and that the "going broad" approach is fine and successful if the goal is simply to garner attention. But I argue that the goal of science writers, and those of us interested in science communication, should be first and foremost to provide accurate, truthful information unencumbered by special interests. Science journalists doing stories on new discoveries should be very aware of where the line is that they shouldn't cross for fear of overextending the content. General assignment journalists have no real regard for these cautions since their only intent is to do a readable story that garners interest. Unfortunately, an inaccurate story can be just as interesting as an accurate one, and usually moreso. Where I tend to disagree is with the emphasis you're placing on metaphor -- I think the presence or absence of fact in the story is much more important. Like you, I'm pretty dogmatically supportive of Rick's "trust portfolio" theory but in cases like this, it really doesn't apply. The parties involved clearly only wanted to garner maximum exposure for the short-run -- they had no interest in strengthening long-term relationships or they would have facilitated advance access to the information. On the contrary, it was to their advantage to keep the science writers in the dark til the last minute and let the less knowledgeable general assignment guys just suck up whatever was doled out at the news conference. Lastly, the quotes that were reported coming from one of the researchers that scientists ought to hype their findings since rock bands and athletes do it to raise their visibility is just insane. Anyone looking to build trust among the public for their research wouldn't suggest that model to emulate. I made that comment on our blog ( today.

"This type of "going broad" strategy might be more appropriately applied to a scientific subject generally or to a body of research rather than a single study. No single study is the "slam dunk" or the so-called "missing link," as this particular study has been defined."

I think this is the main problem with this strategy. They are using so much hyperbole to make the finding sound more interesting, but it is already amazing enough on its own (without the whole 'missing link' hype) to be accessible to a wide audience. I applaud the effort to try to generate wider attention, but I don't think it was handled properly.

"TS: Have the authors of this study crossed the line into overselling and hype?"

I think so.