Backstage w/ Holland and Zimmer on Darwinius exaggeratus

As I wrote last week, there was a lot to like about the "going broad" communication strategy of the Darwinius masillae fossil discovery published at PLoS One.

Yet, as I also noted the major caveat was that this strategy of reaching a broader and more diverse audience for science might be better applied to a scientific subject or body of research. When applied to a single study, there was a far greater likelihood of engaging in unmerited hype with the risk of diminishing public trust or at least numbing the audience to claims of "startling new discoveries."

So it is important to distinguish the merits of the "going broad" strategy from how it was applied in the Darwinius masillae case. As I commented in an interview with The Scientist, activating the various channels and audiences was the right strategy but the language and metaphor used strayed into the realm of hype.

Distinguishing the channels activated from the language used is important. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with using a multi-media strategy in science communication that reaches a more diverse audience, as long as accuracy is maintained. In fact, when you consider that 2 million people tuned in to watch the History Channel's two hour Memorial Day film about a fossil, there's evidence for the potential of the "going broad" strategy. [As I note in a paper under review, the History Channel reaches a much broader and more diverse audience than traditional science programming such as PBS NOVA.]

Yet despite the success in gaining the attention of wider audiences, there was also another troubling aspect of the Darwinius masillae roll out and media strategy. As I referenced at The Scientist, one of the interesting things about this case was that we were able to eavesdrop in and read via blogs almost in real time how scientists from various fields were interpreting and critiquing the find, an experience very different from the pre-blog era.

But we were also able to witness the backstage discussion among journalists and science information officers covering the case. With this backstage pass into the workings of science communication, we learn of some of the serious faults of the media relations strategy for Darwinius masillae. As science journalist Carl Zimmer and veteran research communications expert Earle Holland describe, there were damaging strong armed tactics used by the organizations promoting the fossil find.

Most notably, journalists were not allowed advanced copies of the study so that they could include context and critiques from third party experts. Not only did this limit the quality of same day reporting of the story at news organizations across the globe, but it also fueled bitterness and distrust between journalists and the sponsoring organizations and scientists.

As science communication expert Rick Borchelt writes in an excellent recent chapter, this media relations mismanagement violates a golden rule of science communication: it trades the one time hit of publicity for the more important development of trust and relationships with reporters and the public. His "managing the trust portfolio" chapter is well worth reading in light of last week's Darwinius masillae case.

So in sum, the "going broad" strategy is an important and necessary innovation in science communication. We are ethically bound to think carefully about how to go beyond the very small audience that follows traditional science coverage and think systematically about how to reach a wider, more diverse audience via multiple media platforms. But in engaging with these new media platforms and audiences, we are also ethically bound to avoid hype and maintain accuracy and context. We also have to think carefully about managing trust and relationships with reporters and the public.


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