Scientists and Journalists, Redux

i-c05ef834d997ff9597e9de821948aec1-quill_ink.jpg Well, this has become quite a hot topic, hasn't it? Carl Zimmer thinks I'm too sanguine about this sometimes troubled (although other times quite healthy) relationship between the media and scientists. As he puts it:

"I think, first off, that Chris is a bit off-base. He's not feeling the genuine pain being expressed in the comments to Tara's post. These are people who have had lousy experiences with reporters. You don't have to be a prima donna to come out of the journalistic process feeling queasy."

Sure, that's true. And I want to emphasize: Misquotation is bad bad bad, and that's why I strive to use tape recorders--to avoid it. I will add that unfortunately, there are journalists out there who make us all look bad.

So nothing I have said should be taken to in any way condone misquotation.

Nevertheless, I still think some of the people complaining are being rather shortsighted about the media. They've had bad experiences, anecdotally. But how does that justify generalizing to the point that they're willing to deny a totally different reporter an interview?

Moreover, there seems to be a common confusion about the fact that there are different types of reporters--for example, science reporters and political reporters. When a scientific topic gets politicized, as in global warming or evolution, it's more likely to be covered by the latter, as I have documented in depth with Nisbet for Columbia Journalism Review. And that is really where the problems tend to ensue, which is why I came to the defense of science writers--who, just like our merry band of ScienceBloggers here, tend to be highly specialized science enthusiasts. These people love science and scientists. Just go to one of their conferences for Pete's sake. They are not out looking to burn you. If anything it's the opposite.

The real upshot of all this is that scientists--at least those planning on doing interviews--need to study the media, at least in enough detail to get a sense of some of these basics. And vice-versa: Journalists need to talk to scientists to understand their qualms. But sweeping generalizations and lashings out from either camp won't help things.

In terms of rapproachement: One great seminar in this regard is put on by Bud Ward and Anthony Socci with the help of Rhode Island's Metcalf Institute. This meeting brings scientists and environmental journalists together to talk about their different types of work. I and many, many other environmental journalists, along with a large group of top notch climate scientists, have participated. The seminar series is invite-only, but its reports are available online; again, see here and follow the links.

Required reading for both sides, I should think.

P.S.: More commentary from John Wilkins, Mike the Mad Biologist, and Uncertain Principles.

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Excellent points. And I'm pleased to see there are many others besides me who use tape recorders for interviews whenever possible. Any time I've been misquoted, it was when the reporter WASN'T taping the interview....

The gist of a previous comment was, Why quote people in the first place? Why don't the reporters just go read the literature and do research on the internet? And why not just interview by email?

When I'm writing a story about a piece of research, I want to talk to the person who did the work. For one thing, it saves a lot of time to have it explained directly. But more important is that only by actually talking to the researcher can you get a feel for how exciting and important they think it is, and I want to get that feeling across to the audience. Apart from the issue of timeliness, a story written from second-hand sources would be as dry as a year-old cowpat and about as interesting to read.

Email is wonderful for some things but it distances you from your subject. You can't have a real conversation by email, and you can't communicate that energy that comes across in person. In my experience scientists love talking about their work, and when they do you can see how much they love what they do, and that's important.

Scientists are detail-oriented. Sometimes they get bogged down in details when they should be explaining the big picture (we've all sat through a few seminars like that). I dare suggest some of the 'misquoting' is actually because details and nuances are left out that the scientist thinks are really important, but that don't really matter in the larger context.

On the other side, every reporter has a great story or twelve about an interviewee who said something silly, outrageous, wonderful or otherwise eminently quotable, and then swore up and down that they had said no such thing.

I've done probably at least 500 interviews in the last few years - most of them related to 'current events' (such as drought, a recent extreme, 2005 as Australia's hottest year on record or such like) rather than a specific item of research.

There have been a few disasters over that time. Two of the more memorable were an encounter with an aggressive well-known talk radio host (best described for American readers as our answer to Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly), and one a couple of years back with a TV current affairs show who obviously decided that what I'd said wasn't sensational enough so they edited the word 'not' out of one of my sentences (and for good measure managed the triple crown of getting my name, title and institution wrong).

Because I've done so many interviews, 95%+ of which have gone well, I can put the disasters in perspective (and have a good laugh about them), but if something like that happened to you the first time you had serious involvement with the media I can understand why you'd be reluctant to front up a second time.

By Blair Trewin (not verified) on 20 Jun 2007 #permalink

Thanks, folks. Blair, you totally highlight my point. Scientists who are more familiar with the media quickly get over an instinctual fear of the unknown, I suspect. Crap happens, but not in every interview, and not even most of the time (unless, perhaps, you're in a very politicized area).

Jennifer--I, too, have been misquoted, misrepresented, attacked....repeatedly. Indeed, it's because it has happened so many times that one learns (one *has* to learn) that it isn't necessarily a crisis each and every time. If I went ballistic every time it happened I would be pawing padded walls by now ;>

Andy--yes, some of the quote "misquoting" is likely journalists trying to simplify what scientists are saying in a very complex way. Still, I am quite sure there have been more than a few journalistic drive-bys, so to speak, which does make journalism look bad, and which is why we need to create more rapport between the journalistic and scientific communities. I'll say it again, the Metcalf seminars are the best I've seen towards this end, and I encourage everyone to read their reports.

Scientists are used to communicating with a level of precision and accuracy that is usually unattainable when translated by the press for lay consumption.

That can be bothersome in the extreme.