Nature Biotech: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugy of Blogs


I am back from an excellent science journalism conference in Denmark and will have more to say on the meeting which highlighted several issues that speak directly to challenges faced here in the US. But for now, I wanted to return to our Commentary article "Science Communication Re-Considered" published last week at Nature Biotechnology.

Of particular interest to readers, we discuss the rise of science blogging as just one small part of the complex puzzle which is public engagement. There is a lot to like about blogs but there is also a lot to be cautious about. Importantly, despite great optimism heralding scientist-bloggers as being able to replace journalists as dominate news sources, we conclude that bloggers are unlikely to be the answer.

In the article, we note the "good" elements of blogging, with science bloggers providing deeper context for readers, sometimes playing important roles in vetting various science-related claims, and in fostering reader dialogue, conversations that are ideally paired with "real world" events that involve face-to-face interaction. Yet we also note the "bad," or the major downside: simply having strong science content online does not mean that the public will use it. For the most part, science blogs will only ever reach an audience of already engaged, informed, and enthusiastic readers.

There are also "ugly" sides of science blogging. As we note in the Commentary article and I detail in a forthcoming book chapter, several prominent scientist bloggers blend "discussion of science with ideologically driven commentary on politics or religion. These popular blog sites become echo chambers for reinforcing deficit model assumptions about the public, singling out science literacy as the golden key to winning public support and to eroding religious belief." The tendency for some science bloggers to foster like-minded conversations about religion and politics and to attack those who disagree with them is only likely to undermine attempts at wider public engagement.

Below the fold, I have posted a final author draft of the article. Those with university subscriptions are advised to go here for the published HTML or PDF version.

Science Communication Re-Considered
[Author draft of Commentary published at Nature Biotechnology 27, 514 - 518 (2009)]

Tania Bubela , Matthew C. Nisbet , Rick Borchelt , Fern Brunger , Christine Critchley , Edna Einsiedel , Gail Geller , Anil Gupta , Jürgen Hampel , Robyn Hyde-Lay2, , Eric W. Jandciu , S. Ashley Jones , Pam Kolopack , Summer Lane2, Tim Lougheed , Brigitte Nerlich , Ubaka Ogbogu2, Kathleen O'Riordan , Colin Ouellette2, Mike Spear13, Stephen Strauss , Thushaanthini Thavaratnam , Lisa Willemse , Timothy Caulfield

Science communication receives significant attention from policy makers, research institutions, practitioners, and scholars.1, 2 It is a complex and contentious topic that encompasses a spectrum of issues from the factual dissemination of scientific research to new models of public engagement whereby lay persons are encouraged to participate in science debates and policy.

Over the past several decades the complexities of science communication have been magnified by institutional, social, and technological change. Science increasingly is interdisciplinary, bureaucratic, global in scale, problem-based, and dependent on private funding. This latter trend, in particular, raises issues of public trust in science, which studies have shown is diminished by researcher and institutional affiliation with the private sector, especially in the area of biomedicine.3, 4

Technology has also transformed the nature of the media system, creating an abundance of cable television, Internet, and digital resources for the public to inform themselves about science and its social implications. With these new outlets, highly motivated individuals have a greater ability to learn about science and to become involved in collective decision-making.5 Yet media fragmentation also means that if individuals lack an interest in science, they can very easily avoid science media altogether. There is a general concern that reduced quality of reporting by some media sources, primarily television and online, may have negative impacts, such as demands for inappropriately hyped medical services.6, 7

With this convergence of social forces and journalistic challenges in mind, we convened an interdisciplinary workshop on the changing nature of science communication, focusing specifically on biotechnology, biomedicine, and genetics. What follows is a discussion of the questions and issues addressed by experts from the U.S., the U.K, Canada, Germany, and Australia. Our goal is to focus attention on key areas of expert agreement about two aspects of science communication: public engagement and science journalism. These two main themes are inter-related; the dissemination of knowledge is one part of a multifaceted approach towards increasing public involvement in science issues and decision-making. We conclude with specific recommendations for moving forward.

Models and Assumptions That Guide Science Communication

Despite increasing attention to new directions in public engagement, a still dominant assumption among many scientists and policymakers is that when controversies over science occur, ignorance is at the root of public opposition. Concerns are raised about the state of science education and scientific literacy more generally.8, 9 Science communication initiatives are therefore directed at filling in the "deficit" in knowledge, with the hope that if the public only understood the facts of the science, then they would be more likely to see the issues as experts do. The strategy is to inform the public by way of popular science outlets such as television documentaries, science magazines, newspaper science coverage, and more recently, science Web sites and blogs.

Of course, some knowledge about science, especially its role in society, is fundamentally important for a public that bears the risks and benefits of scientific and technological development.10 Yet the narrow emphasis of the deficit approach does not recognize that knowledge is one factor among many influences that are likely to guide how individuals reach judgments, with ideology, social identity, and trust often having stronger impacts.10 The deficit model also overlooks the fact that traditional science media outlets, given an abundance of competing content choices, reach only a relatively small audience of already knowledgeable science enthusiasts. In addition, on certain topics, such as cloning, the public are likely to draw strongly upon the portrayals featured in entertainment film and television, science fiction novels, and other forms of popular culture.11-13

A decade ago, a new "public engagement" or interactive model emerged - one that emphasizes deliberative contexts where a variety of stakeholders can participate in a dialogue so that a plurality of views can inform research priorities and science policy.1 These efforts toward two-way dialogue with lay publics have taken various forms such as deliberative polls, citizen juries, consensus conferences, and cafés scientifique. As a participatory process, each form might place a different weight on "extended peer-review," where the "publics," or groups of individuals who are impacted by the products of science, are invited to become part of a community of evaluators and decision-makers. Initiatives also vary in terms of how participants are asked for feedback, how much their feedback matters, and the timing of consultation.14

Studies find that lay participants not only learn directly about the technical aspects of a subject such as food biotechnology or biomedical research, but they also learn about the social, ethical, and economic implications of the scientific topic. Participants also feel more confident and efficacious about their ability to participate in science decisions, perceive scientists and their organizations as more responsive to their concerns, and say that they are motivated to become active on the issue if provided a future opportunity to do so.15, 16

Advocates for expanding these public engagement initiatives argue that consultation exercises often come too late (usually just as a science product such as nanotechnology is being introduced to the market), that lay input is not given enough weight in decision-making, and that under these conditions the consultation process only serves a public relations function. They argue that engagement needs to move "upstream" to when science or technology is in its formative stage, so that relevant publics can have a more meaningful say in matters of ownership, regulation, uses, benefits, and risks.17-19 Given this, the media could play an important role in informing the public about early-stage science policy debates and avenues for public involvement, potentially raising awareness and participation.20 A genuine role for lay participants' recommendations, however, can only come with the realization that sometimes an engaged public might reach collective decisions that go against the self-interests of scientists. For example, one outcome of a recent consultation forum on nanotechnology was that several lay participants were motivated to form an advocacy group to watchdog research in their community.15

Framing the Message

The deficit model blames failures in science communication on inaccuracies in news coverage and the irrational beliefs of the public, but it ignores a number of realities about audiences and how they use the media to make sense of science. First, individuals are naturally "cognitive misers," if they lack a motivation to pay close attention to science debates, individuals will rely heavily on mental short cuts, values, and emotions to make sense of an issue, often in the absence of knowledge.21, 22 Second, as part of this miserly nature, individuals are drawn to news sources that confirm and reinforce their pre-existing beliefs. This tendency, of course, has been facilitated by the fragmentation of the media and the rise of ideologically slanted news outlets.23 Third, opinion leaders other than scientists, such as religious leaders, non-governmental organizations, and politicians, have been successful in formulating their messages about science in a manner that connects with key stakeholders and publics, but at times might directly contradict scientific consensus or cut against the interests of organized science.24

Under these conditions, depending on how an issue is "framed" in news coverage, audiences will pay more attention to certain dimensions of a science debate over others. Frames are interpretative packages and storylines that help communicate why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible, and what should be done.25 Frames are used by lay publics as "interpretative schema" to make sense of and discuss an issue; by journalists to condense complex events into interesting and appealing news reports; by policy-makers to define policy options and reach decisions; and by scientists to communicate the relevance of their findings. In each of these contexts, frames simplify complex issues by lending greater weight to certain considerations and arguments over others.26 Framing is an unavoidable reality of the science communication process.

There is growing awareness among science organizations that if they want to be more effective at using the media to communicate with a diversity of audiences, they need to switch the frame-or interpretative lens-by which they communicate about a scientific topic such as evolution, stem cell research or nanotechnology.27 Instead of relying on personal experience or anecdotal observation, careful audience research is needed to determine which frames work across intended audiences. Communication is both an art and a science. For example, the National Academies used focus groups and polling to inform the organization and promotion of a recent report on the teaching of evolution. Their research indicated that an effective storyline for translating the relevance of evolutionary science for students was to emphasize the connection to advances in modern medicine. Contrary to their expectations, the research concluded that an alternative frame emphasizing recent court decisions was not nearly as effective a message.28

Yet in turning to audience research, a delicate balance is required on the part of science organizations. Any reframing of an issue needs to remain true to the state of the underlying science. For example, in promoting embryonic stem-cell research around the "hope for cures," some advocates have given the false impression that available therapies are just a few years away, an interpretation that puts public trust at risk. Similarly, some industry advocates have re-framed food biotechnology as a moral quest to improve global food security, but their promise to "put an end to world hunger" dramatically over-simplifies a complex problem.29

The Challenges of Science Journalism

The media not only influence public perceptions, but they also shape and reflect the policy debate.30 Few decisions are made by policymakers and stakeholders without the media in mind. Given this role and influence, there has long been concerns about distortion and hype in news coverage of biomedicine and biotechnology. The orientation towards hype is viewed internationally by many scientists, ethicists, policymakers, and government officials as the primary shortcomings of the media.

In general, there is a stable baseline level of media coverage of biomedicine and biotechnology. Much of this news attention is driven by a small number of prestigious and highly influential scientific journals, with science framed in this coverage in terms of social progress and economic growth.31-33 Numerous studies of media content have shown that coverage in newspapers is surprisingly accurate, making few errors of commission.31, 34 The issue of accuracy in the reporting of a single study, however, overlooks whether or not the coverage contextualizes where the study fits within an emerging body of knowledge, drawing comparisons to other studies or expert views. Thus, as a caveat, accuracy and the dissemination of high quality evidence are not necessarily synonymous.33

On perceptions of coverage, contrary to conventional wisdom, research has consistently shown that most scientists are satisfied with the media coverage of their own research and are more likely to be critical of science coverage generally.35,35 Research similarly suggests that perceptions of bias in coverage of biotechnology will vary depending on a stakeholder's connection and personal commitment to the topic.36

Studies have shown that hype in the media is most likely to originate with researchers using metaphors associated with breakthrough,37 when in reality their research is one more incremental piece of a complex scientific endeavour. Prominent scientists certainly contribute to the creation of overly positive or negative expectations.38 Numerous commentators have remarked on the media, scientists, the public, and other interest groups becoming complicit collaborators in generating a "cycle of hype."39 The cycle is driven by enthusiastic researchers facing pressures from their research institutions, funders, and industry; the desire for institutions and journals to bolster their profiles; a profit-driven media; and the need for journalists to construct a dramatic narrative.39, 40 As one result of these factors, research has shown that positive results are more likely to be published,41 and studies that refute previously published research are less likely to gain attention. For example, the discovery of the "gay gene" was published in Nature and received considerable media attention,42, 43 but a study refuting these findings received limited press coverage.43

A further source of hype may lie in errors of omission - what is left out of media narratives.34, 44 There is a lack of reporting on funding sources for research and potential conflicts of interest, information essential for the lay public to assess the credibility of the research45, 46 and which group of experts to trust. Public opinion surveys indicate a high degree of trust in scientists generally and university scientists specifically, but this trust declines when the public are asked their impression of industry scientists.3 Comfort with a technology increases with public trust in regulatory authorities and government. In fact, unless a science issue is contested by rival cultural authorities, such as religious or political leaders, the public tends to strongly defer to the expertise of university and government scientists.47

Details on methods and study design (especially for clinical trials), risks, and timelines for the delivery of benefits are also underreported. Risks are often underreported because of the difficulties of conveying probabilistic information, which is inadequately understood by most journalists and the general public.31, 34 However, it is not just probabilistic risks that are underreported, but any discussion of social and ethical risks of the research more broadly. Equally concerning is the lack of discussion on realistic timelines for the delivery of benefits arising from what, in most cases, is still early-stage research. Omitting timelines may lead to the impression in the public's mind that significant therapeutic benefits are imminent - the lay public and experts have very different perceptions of timelines. This is particularly dangerous in stem-cell research where people are desperate to gain access to stem-cell therapies or "miracle cures".

The caveat on these previous studies is that the media are not homogeneous, yet the majority of content analyses focus on the print media and primarily just the science beat. This focus ignores the fact that local and national television news broadcasts, and increasingly the Internet, are a main source of public affairs information for the public.48 Studies have also tended to focus narrowly on science journalists, but science debates receive their greatest attention when they shift from coverage by these specialists to become the focus of political journalists, commentators, and pundits. Under these conditions, the image of science morphs from a focus on discoveries packaged as progress, promise, and technical background to a new emphasis on conflict and dramatic claims about risks and ethics.29, 49

This difference in perception and hype derived from errors of omission and framing may already be leading to individual and social harm. The public are accessing commercially available genetic tests marketed directly to the public, which provide health information in the form of probabilistic risk factors 50, 51 and yet to be approved stem-cell therapies in jurisdictions with lower regulatory standards.52 This leads to the issue of the roles and responsibilities of media.

The Roles and Responsibilities of the Media

Many academic articles, editorials and reports look to findings on errors of omission and accuracy to recommend best practices and checklists for journalists.53-55 But do such endeavours confront the realities of science journalism and other news beats? The most important issue is not necessarily content, but how the research is framed. In this regard, understanding the factors that shape the dominant interpretations in news coverage becomes critical.

First, there is often a fundamental disconnect between how scientists and journalists interpret and describe the research process. For example, scientific papers are relentlessly quantitative, while media articles are often based on humanised accounts that connect with lay readers. Scientific articles are aimed at a narrow specialist audience, while media articles are aimed at a broader audience. As a result, journalistic accounts are based on personal anecdotes provided by researchers or individuals who may directly benefit from the research, such as, affected families or individual patients. Without such connections, science stories are less likely to be published in competition with the news of the day.

New media are also fundamentally changing the nature of science communication. The Internet as a major source of biomedical and science information for the public has both positive and negative consequences. Traditional media Web sites allow journalists to connect readers with source information through direct links to research or patient sites and articles. The expanded layout of Web pages may address concerns about errors of omission as more quantitative or probabilistic information may be provided in sidebars or graphics. Special online comment sections allow readers to instantly contest or correct information contained in a story. Scientists and science journalists who double as bloggers provide readers with background and context on specialized areas of research. Science blogs create a dialogue with readers, merging online interaction with real world socializing at cafés scientifique and other informal settings. Science bloggers frequently vet false claims made in the media or in policy debates and increasingly serve as important sources for journalists.

However, much of the information on the Internet comes from sources other than the mainstream media or scientist bloggers, and much of this may be of dubious quality. Corporate information sources generally are little more than direct to consumer advertising for products, services, or both. For example, nutrigenomic testing services offered on the Internet are often tied to the sale of nutriceuticals and other products.56, 57 Only recently have corporations begun to take advantage of the social media properties of the Web, entering into a dialogue with stakeholders and publics via specially created sites that feature blogs, scientist profiles, and discussion sections. Other sites cater to special interest groups, such as creationist or anti-stem cell research Web sites on one hand and atheist or patient advocacy groups on the other, with these sources intended to strategically frame news coverage and/or the policy debate. Science blogs also engage in strategic framing, with some of the most popular science bloggers blending discussion of science with ideologically driven commentary on politics or religion. These popular blog sites become echo chambers for reinforcing deficit model assumptions about the public, singling out science literacy as the golden key to winning public support and to eroding religious belief.

The greatest challenge to science communication online remains simply reaching audiences. The availability of science information from credible sources online does not mean the public will use it. Even more so than in the traditional media world, if the public lack the preference for science content on the Web, they can very easily ignore it. This has implications for greater engagement of the public with science policy debates.

Recommendations and Challenges

The proliferation of information sources combined with increased industrial involvement in scientific research raises the issue of public trust and engagement with science. The primary concerns are the blurring of boundaries between public and private science and the fragmentation of audiences. Science communication, therefore, remains driven by an ever more complex relationship between institutions, stakeholders, the media, and a diversity of publics.

In this context, clarification about the goals and assumptions of science communication are required, recognizing the complexity and variety of issues to be communicated. Current efforts at public education and involvement are presented as democratic reforms and inclusionary, yet in reality, remain based on the deficit model, which research has shown to be insufficient. On this matter then, there needs to be continued investment in public dialogue initiatives, such as deliberative forums and consensus conferences. Yet importantly, the focus of these deliberative exercises should be an honest effort at relationship- and trust-building58 rather than persuasion, with mechanisms for actively incorporating the input of lay participants into decision-making.59

When it comes to effectively working with media organizations to engage key audiences, the importance of framing needs to be recognised, as do the differing assumptions and imperatives of scientists, journalists, and key publics. Public trust and the perception of media portrayals will vary by an individual's social identity and values. Science communication efforts should therefore be supported by careful audience research, such as that done by the National Academies on evolution. This strategy does not mean engaging in false spin or hype, but rather involves drawing upon research to explore alternative storylines, metaphors, and examples that more effectively communicate both the nature and the relevance of a scientific topic such as embryonic stem cell research.

Graduate students, since they are future spokespeople and decision-makers at science institutions, should be taught about the social and political context of science and how to communicate with the media and a diversity of publics. The latter includes an emphasis on the importance of meaningful public dialogue initiatives as well as relationship-building with journalists and editors.60 There is a danger, however, of this type of public engagement emphasis becoming too conflated with marketing and public relations.

The wide-ranging factors contributing to media hype and errors (largely of omission) need to be more explicitly recognized, thus allowing for appropriately informed communication policy on the part of science institutions and media organizations.

To enhance our understanding of science communication in the context of new media, research on science communication should expand its focus to include online and digital media, while recognizing the continued agenda-setting nature of traditional news sources. When producing science content online, given the fragmented nature of Internet audiences, if organizations want to broaden their reach, they need to think of ways to facilitate incidental exposure, gaining the attention of key publics at places on the Web where they are not actively looking for science information. There also will need to be laws protecting consumers from false or hyped claims on Web sites that market health services and products directly to the public.

Much like we have ever-improving measures of public opinion about science and an increasing number of survey data sources and studies to reference, there also needs to be investment in the systematic tracking of news and cultural indicators, including traditional news outlets but also talk radio, late-night satirical programming, religious media, the Web, new documentary genres, and entertainment television and film. Each one of these media zones may constitute a different cultural context by which the public will interpret science.

At journalism schools and news organizations, a new "science policy" beat should be encouraged. This beat will fill in the gaps between the technical backgrounders preferred by science writers and the conflict emphasis of political reporters, providing important background for science policy debates. In this context, discussion of science as a social institution could include funding structures, public-private institutional relationships, and commercialization. An open public discussion of the blurring public/private divide in science could only enhance public trust.

Finally, if there is a major threat to science journalism, it is that science journalists are losing their jobs at for-profit news organizations. Some suggest that scientists-as-bloggers might be able to fill the gap, 61 yet for reasons reviewed earlier, this is unlikely to be an effective solution. New models of foundation, university, or government supported science journalism are needed, with these online digital formats blending professional reporting with user-generated content and discussion.


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