I Friday I read a post of David Bradley at Sciscoop Science on six reasons why scientist should talk to reporters, which was based on an article in this week’s The Scientist magazine by Edyta Zielinska (registration required).
The main reasons why scientist should talk to reporters:
- It’s your duty
- It raises your profile with journal editors and funders
- Your bosses will love it
- You may pick up grant-writing tips
- It gets the public excited about science
- It’s better you than someone else
But the most strong part of the Zielinska article are the practical tips, which fall into 3 categories:
- the medium matters (i.e. tv versus print)
- getting the most out of a press call (KISS, significance metaphors)
Common press pitfalls, and how to avoid them (avoid oversimplification, errors, jargon, misquotes, sensational stories)
The article is concluded by a useful glossary. Read more: Why Trust A Reporter? – The Scientist
Alan Dangour has experienced what may happen when you report scientific evidence which is then covered by the news.
He and his group published systematic reviews that found no evidence of any important differences in the nutritional composition of foodstuffs grown using conventional and organic farming methods. There was also no evidence of nutrition-related health benefits from consuming organically produced foods.
The press quickly picked up on the story. The Times ran a front-page headline: “Organic food ‘has no extra health benefits’ ”, the Daily Express added “Official” while, in a wonderfully nuanced piece, the Daily Mail ran: “A cancerous conspiracy to poison your faith in organic food”.
Initially it was “tremendously exciting and flattering, but their findings were contrary to beliefs held by many and soon the hate-mails started flooding in. That’s why he concludes: “Come on scientists, stand up and fight!” when not the scientific evidence is called into question, but also your scientific skills, and personal and professional integrity. Quite appropriately a Lancet editorial put it like this: “Eat the emotion but question the evidence”.
Journalists can also be target of hate mail or aggressive comments. In the whole XMRV-CFS torrent, patients seem to almost “adore” positive journalists (i.e. Amy Dockser Marcus of the WSJ Health Blog), while harassing those who are a bit more critical, like @elmarveerman of Noorderlicht author of “tiring viruses“). It has caused another journalist (who wrote about the same topic) to stop because people hurled curses at her. A good discussion is fine, but unfounded criticism is not, she reasoned.
Last week, 2 other articles emphasized the need for science journalism to change.
One article by Matthew Nisbet at Big Think elaborated on an idea on what Alice Bell calls “upstream science journalism.” Her blog post is based on her talk at Science Online London as part of a plenary panel with David Dobbs, Martin Robbins and Ed Yong on “Rebooting” (aka the future of) science journalism (video -of bad quality- included).
Upstream, we have the early stages of communication about some area of science: meetings, literature reviews or general lab gossip. Gradually these ideas are worked through, and the communicative output flows downstream towards the peer-reviewed and published journal article and perhaps, via a press release and maybe even a press conference, some mass media reporting.
This still is pretty vague to me. I think less pushed press releases copied by each and every news source and more background stories, giving insight in how science comes about and what it represents would be welcomed. As long as it isn’t too much like glorification of certain personalities. (More) gossip is also not what we’re waiting for.
Her examples and the interesting discussion that follows clarify that she thinks more of blogs and twitter as tools propelling upstream science journalism.
One main objection (or rather limitation) is that: “most science journalists/writers cover whatever they find interesting and what they believe their readers will find interesting (Ian Sample in comments).”
David ropeik (commenting at Big Think) is more sarcastic:
“Wonderful goal, to have journalism serve society in this, or any way, but, forgive me, it’s a naive hope, common among those who observe journalism but haven’t done it.(…..)
Even those of us who feel journalism is a calling and serves an important civic role do not see ourselves principally as teachers or civil servants working in the name of some higher social cause, to educate the public about stuff we thought they should know. We want the lead story. We want our work to get attention. We want to have impact, sure, hopefully positive. But we don’t come into work everyday asking “what should the public know about?”
That’s reality. John Fleck (journalist) agrees that the need to “get a lot of attention” is a driving force in newsroom culture and decision-making, but stresses that the newspapers he worked for have always devoted a portion of their resources to things managers felt were important even if not attention-getting.
So truth in the middle?
Another blogpost -at Jay Rosen: Public Notebook gives advice to journalist “formerly known as the media”. Apart from advice as “you need to be blogging and you need to “get” mobile he want the next generation journalists to understand:
- Replace readers, viewers, listeners and consumers with the term “users.”
- Remember: the users know more than you do.
- There’s been a power shift; the mutualization of journalism is here. We bring important things to the table, and so do the users. Therefore we include them. “Seeing people as a public” means that.
- Describe the world in a way that helps people participate in it. When people participate, they seek out information.
- Anyone can doesn’t mean everyone will. (…) It’s an emerging rule of thumb that suggests that if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will ‘interact’ with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it… So what’s the conclusion? Only that you shouldn’t expect too much online.
- The journalist is just a heightened case of an informed citizen, not a special class.
- Your authority starts with, “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”
- Somehow, you need to listen to demand and give people what they have no way to demand (…) because they don’t know about it yet
- In your bid to be trusted, don’t take the View From Nowhere; instead, tell people where you’re coming from.
- Breathe deeply of what DeTocqueville said: “Newspapers make associations and associations make newspapers.”
I think those are useful and practical tips, some of which fit in with the idea of more upstream journalism.
O.k. that’s enough for now. We have been pretty serious on the topic. But it is a Friday Fun/ Silly Sunday post. So bring in the comics.
These are self-explanatory, aren’t they?
(HT: David Bradley and commenter on Facebook. Can’t find it anymore. Facebook is hard to search)
From SMBC comics: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1623
And this one from PhDComics
From “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
- Going Backstage: Do Science Journalists Need to Focus More Upstream? (bigthink.com)
- Friday Foolery  Twitter Parade (laikaspoetnik.wordpress.com)
- Friday Foolery #31 Waving goodbye… (or not?) (laikaspoetnik.wordpress.com)
- Friday Foolery #28 Radiant Pin-Up Calendar (laikaspoetnik.wordpress.com)
- The blue revolution at BBC Science | Martin Robbins (guardian.co.uk)
- How bad is mainstream science reporting? (ionian-enchantment.blogspot.com)
- In support of a diligent, relentless critique of creationism [Greg Laden’s Blog] (scienceblogs.com)
- Peter Lehner: The Media, Climate Science, and Deniers: Time to Tell a New Story (huffingtonpost.com)
- Essays explore the future of science journalism (reportr.net)
- Science Online: Bloggers, Commenters and the Reputation Game (onemanandhisblog.com)
- Upcoming talks and news (guardian.co.uk)