The inflationary news universe

This February’s AAAS conference in Chicago once again brought together a varied selection of scientists and scientific topics. It was my third AAAS in a row and it was the third time that I have found it very useful to interview scientists, talk to them informally and hear about new research directions in various lectures.

But it was also the third time that I have heard some colleagues complaining: “there is no hard news”…And you could hear them thinking: “why do I travel to a conference if I can receive all the science news on my computer at home?”

I find it worrisome that the notion of ‘news’ – even a very narrow notion of news – for some science journalists has become a dogma that completely determines their way of working.

Why is it worrisome?

First of all, it’s not just a publication in one of the science journals that makes news. Why wait till a journal sends a press release announcing that there is news? And is it really news? With the ever growing amount of scientific papers per year, the news inflation is also growing. The discovery of the first exoplanet is thrilling, the next one just exciting, but the discovery of lifeless exoplanet number 314 is rather boring.

We should also make our own news, as I have argued in my previous contribution to this blog. For making our own news and finding fresh angles to ongoing research, a conference like the AAAS provides an excellent opportunity.

The second reason to worry about the news dogma, is that we work for people who are interested in much more than just news. Most of all, they need scientific context and background to form opinions about the ever more complex world. What does it mean in my practical life that scientists can unravel my genome? What does a brain scan tell about who I am? How does a climate model work? How reliable are mathematical models of the economy?

We are living in an inflationary news universe. Our modern information world provides an overload of so called news, and a lack of context. Most people get totally confused if they first read in a one hundred word article that green tea is healthy for them and half a year later in another one hundred word article that it is not proven that green tea is good for them. This news swing can continue for years, ultimately leading to people turning their back to science news all together. Too much published science news is trash news.

Luckily, people continue to be intrigued by scientific questions of everyday life: Why do humans sleep eight hours and elephants only 3,5 hours? Or why do women cry more than men? And of course every new generation wonders about philosophical questions such as what is time, what is life, or what is consciousness? There is always ongoing research that provides a hook for covering such timeless or ordinary life questions in a fresh way.

The third and most important reason that the news dogma is worrisome, is that the notion of ‘news’ in science journalism plays a different role than in ‘ordinary’ journalism. Science always acts on large timescales – mostly years and sometimes even decades – and every day life mostly does not. Therefore reporting about trends is at least as important in science journalism as reporting about so called news. If a scientific discovery is announced today, you can be sure that it has been preceded by years of work. But if today a plane crashes…of course, that would be news of today. No way that we could have reported about it yesterday.

Science journalism should not be guided by the narrow notion of news that ordinary journalism seems to demand from us. Let’s give people the scientific context that they need to know and enjoy to know, instead of boring and meaningless ‘news’ about the still-not-one-hundred-percent-proven-healthiness-of-green-tea.

(By the way, news or no news, I love fresh green tea.)

Biased for Science

President Obama was characteristically adroit with language when he declared on March 9th that he would “restore science to its rightful place.” The decision was to undo some of the restrictions on federal funding to stem cell research imposed by Obama’s predecessor in 2001. To that, half a dozen editorials responded with praise — as did, of course, most in the science community.

That was not how I received the news. The celebratory mood eluded me. Which is pretty strange coming from someone who makes a living by writing about science and its products. I thought I would always be cheering anything that raises awareness, discussion, or even questions about science, for that is how public demand for science (and thus science writers) increases.

In other words, despite my intuitive bias for science (common among the science writing class) I thought science in this particular debate was only part of the story.

In Obama’s stem cell research announcement the core of the matter was not science, but rather science policy. After all, both those for and against human embryonic stem cell research recognize the potential of such research. The disagreements are not over science, rather over moral, value, and even practical questions.

For instance, there is disagreement over the moral status of the embryo. Then there is the question of whether curing intractable illnesses could justify utilizing embryos. Also, in terms of practicality, how about the “less morally problematic alternatives,” such as blood cord and adult stem cell lines?

Thus a statement like Obama’s “we [will] make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology” is misleading — as many conservative commentators have pointed out.

The risk is that we science writers — given our instinctive bias for science — may step into the trap. The scientific debate over stem cell research (were there one) would take place on the pages of Scienceand Nature. The debate about funding research and the like, by contrast, is a reflection of a society’s moral norms, mode of government, and practical considerations. We therefore will be better served if we don’t hasten to frame this as a debate of a “war” between good (science-lovers) and evil (science-haters) — never mind Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science.

True, it’s always the right thing to “restore” anything to its “rightful place.” But in certain complicated issues such as stem cell research, the rightful place of an enterprise is not something divinely or historically determined, but rather a translation of a society’s collective decision at a point in time. To frame the stem cell research issue otherwise would probably be unwise (of journalists) or disingenuous (of politicians).

Why you should attend the World Conference of Science Journalists 2009

Still haven’t registered for the World Conference of Science Journalists 2009? Co-director Julie Clayton tells the Science Journalism blog why you should join her and many other science journalists this summer in London.

What is the World Conference of Science Journalists all about?

Who is behind the World Conference of Science Journalists?

What’s on the programme?

Is it three days of just listening to talks?

Who can apply and how do I register?

I’m a freelancer. What’s in it for me?

I’m convinced, I’ll be there! One last time for those who are not completely sure yet. Why should they be there?

How to best report on global warming

Global warming is one of today’s most important scientific issues. Of course there are still those who think it doesn’t exist, or that there are too many uncertainties around the subject. But if you are a concerned science journalist: what’s the best way to report about it? The March issue of the scientific journal Science Communication offers some clues. The editors of the journal’s special issue about global warming claim it is high time for science communicators to take their responsibility and try and make a contribution to solving the problems around climate change through their work. The journal contains four papers about issues concerning communicating global warming.

Stop trying to promote attitudinal change, say David Ockwell from the University of Sussex and two of his UK colleagues. Though it may seem logical to try and convince people that they should, for instance, take the car less often, research shows that this approach has little effect. In the UK, many people are already aware that behavioral changes like these have a positive effect on global warming. But they don’t make them. According to the researchers, this is because of socio-psychological reasons. People think others will probably not make these changes. And if others don’t, why should they? As long as it’s not the social norm to stop taking the car, nothing will change. Also, even if the social norm would change, there’s always the risk of the “free rider” effect. There will always be people that figure: “If so many others make an effort, it doesn’t matter much if I don’t” . But what if many people think this way?

So, according to Ockwell, the only way to make a real change is to force people to behave differently. Governmental regulations are a useful tool for this. But not many politicians are willing to propose or adopt regulations leading to low-carbon footprint lifestyles, because on the short term it will most likely decrease their popularity. Ockwell and his colleagues think the solution for this problem is twofold. First, science communicators should try and make people get used to the idea that forced regulation is the only way to bring about greener lifestyles. Second, they should encourage grass-root action in the form of the public asking the government for regulatory measures. This way top-down action can be achieved through a bottom-up approach.

Matthew Nisbet from the American University and John Kotcher from the National Academies come up with another approach. They say that opinion leaders are often overlooked when it comes to catalyzing action concerning climate change. Convince key individuals amongst communities and social groups that greener lifestyles and energy conservation are necessary. They are the persons most likely to succeed in getting the message across to the general public. This is of course what’s behind the famous Al Gore-effect. But the opinion leader doesn’t have to be a famous politician, or tv-star, or someone like that. It can also be, for instance, a local church leader.

And please: don’t scare the public too much. Focusing on the threats of climate change might just work counterproductive, according to Saffron O”Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole from the UK-based University of East Anglia. Previous research has indicated that continuous exposure to fearful images can lead to desensitizing and decreased concern. Continuous exposure to fearful images can also lead to feeling a lack of control, which in turn may lead to uncertainty and skepticism, an externalization of responsibility and blame or stating other issues as more immediate and pressing, and fatalism. O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole add the findings of two qualitative studies to these existing findings. They exposed 110 participants in total to a diverse range of images concerning global warming and asked what feelings these illustrations evoked. It turned out that the pictures that made climate change seem most important (e.g. starving children, a dried lake with dead fish) were also the pictures that made the participants feel most unable to do something about climate change. So, the researchers conclude: shocking imagery may very well act as an initial hook to get people’s attention and concern. But they are also most likely to distance or disengage people from climate change in the long run. So, to keep people engaged, it is better to use illustrations that give people the feeling there is something they can do. For instance locally relevant climate change imagery.

Finally, LeeAnn Kahlor and Sonny Rosenthal from the University of Texas in the US wanted to know which factors best predict the knowledge a person has about global warming. They held an online survey amongst a national sample of 805 participants. It turned out that the number of media sources used, the effort put into information seeking and the level of education were most positively correlated with one’s knowledge of global warming. Though these results are not very surprising, some other results are. Usually, people will seek out more information about a subject if they feel it has some kind of personal relevance for them. But in this survey, there was no correlation between perceived personal relevance and the level of knowledge about global warming. The researchers think this may indicate that most of the information about climate change people in the US encounter doesn’t frame the information as personally relevant. Another surprising result of the research is that, contrary to expectations, there turns out to be a negative relationship between newspaper usage and the level of knowledge about global warming. The researcher think this may either be because of a lack of expertise from or lack of coverage by newspaper reporters. So, here lies a big challenge for science journalism for US newspapers.

The abstracts of the papers mentioned above are available at The full text versions are not freely available, but may be accessed through university or library networks.

New Media and Science Journalism

Of all the terms coined by journalists, New Media has to be the worst. The problem with the naming is that what was new 10 years ago is not new today. And it won’t be new in a couple of years.

That makes it one of the trickiest terms to identify. We often hear about new media and old media etc. But the question is, what IS new media? Is it internet websites? Or is it blogs? Or maybe it refers to social networks such as Facebook and MySpace.

The truth of the matter is, the perception of new media becomes an individual effort. For someone who has worked for the past 30 years in newspapers, internet may be the new type of media. But for someone, like myself, who started work ON the internet, blogs and microblogs may be the new thing.

Regardless of the definition, new media is here to stay. And in these turbulent times for science journalism around the world, it may very well be a savior.

The first use of new media is as a source of information. The internet has quickly become the richest – and fastest – source of news. Science journalists can quickly find stories at their fingertips. Sometimes they can even get them as they are happening.

And as the economic crisis deepens, the importance of the internet as a communication tool rises. It may not be as feasible as it was before to travel around the world to collect stories.

But the internet can be a rich medium to facilitate such discussions. Social networks can be used to reach experts or laypersons in almost every country in the world. I remember one story I was working on concerning Libya and I primarily used Facebook to reach Libyans to hear their stories. This gave the story its edge, because other reporters failed to reach people on the street in Libya.

Virtual worlds – such as Second Life – are also a rich area for human interaction. Their virtual nature makes them second only to real life contact. Such tools can help give a human angle to a story when it becomes tricky to do this face-to-face.

The second application of new media is to spread your own work. Using services such as Twitter, you can tell tens of thousands of people about your newest piece. And the nature of social networks is built on the idea of communities. This means that these people will most probably be interested in the same topics as you, making it even more effective since it’s directed correctly.

Finally, there is the potential of the internet as a networking tool. Networks such as the “Research and Media Network,” have become a powerful resource and reference. This is especially valuable for science communicators from the developing world. Since they usually have much lower financial resources, such networks become invaluable for them. For example, when working on a story of an international nature, they can seek help from other journalists from their respective countries.

They also become important tools for all of us to learn from each other, thus we all collectively become better.

Whether we accept and adopt New Media or not, it is here to stay. And whether we can make sense of the term or not, it is also here to stay. So what it will come down to is: how can we, as science journalists, make the best of this new era of media?

So what is next?

A few days ago, talking with a Microsoft officer, he said somewhat surprised that small companies are coping better with the present crisis than middle sized ones. Why? “Small companies live always in such uncertainty, and are always ready to change in a minute, that for them this crisis is hard but not unusual”, he said.

Science journalists, or at least many of the ones I’ve known, may at some times build relations and connections, but in a day to day basis they act as lone wolves. It’s understandable: hunting spaces are scarce and competition is hard; collaboration seems a recipe for disaster, a threat. So in a way I imagine each science journalist, each lone wolf, as a micro-business, a minority of one (remember George Orwell).

If we applied the words of the Microsoft officer to these micro entrepreneurs, we might say this: “Science journalists live always in such uncertainty, and are always ready to change in a minute, that for them this crisis is hard but not unusual”. Does this ring a bell? I think it does, at least as far as Mexico is concerned. Sure, data show more physical spaces for science stories; yes, public awareness is growing; yes, politicians now have a space in their minds for science, at least at the verbal level.

But uncertainty is there. The sword of Damocles. CNN threw out its science team, and in Mexico the Reforma newspaper cancelled its weekly science page, promising there will still be science stories on its pages (I wonder where: the paper also eliminated its books supplement, and the cultural space is now tucked in the back pages of the entertainment section). I can see the future, and it does not have more science journalist jobs: it has less research, more wired news, less analysis, more punch lines; less education, more fun. Oh yeah.

But getting back to the science journalism crisis, I think it’s crucial to keep our cool.

  • It’s a crisis for print journalism in the broadest sense: just yesterday we read about the demise of another important daily in the US, the Rocky Mountain News.
  • This crisis, as has been mentioned elsewhere, is not due to a lack of profitability at the individual level: it’s due to the fact that many media are public now and investors demand more and more returns in ever shorter terms (and of course we can see the results of this in the US-led financial mayhem).
  • All printed media must reinvent themselves to take into account, at heart, that complex variable called the Internet.

A couple of hours ago, while I drove back home after dropping off my kid at school, I heard on the radio some loud anchor telling the audience that because of atmospheric pressure, today the sun’s rays would be particularly dangerous. He wisely advised to wear long sleeves and to avoid going outdoors. Whew!

Why can this happen? Why has some ignoramus the right to spew his badly chewed notions about science publicly? Why don’t we have more smart voices on radio, good science journalism on the air waves? There may be many reasons, of course, and for the time being I’ll just mention a couple of them: first, media niches are occupied by those who fight for them; if we science journalists want to avoid such ignorance to mine the educational process, we have to fight for those spaces. And we have to do it not in our terms, but in the terms of the media owners. I vividly remember the selling motto of an entrepreneur: “In this world you don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate”.

Second, journalism in general is having a crisis because, listening to the interests of hurried investors, of political lobbies, of commercial areas or of any other pressure group, it has slowly left out its responsibilities and has served its audiences more and more noisy crap. Exceptions noted, of course.

A most worrying trend in the upcoming scenario is that, for many reasons, cuts have nothing to do with merits. The survivors are there not because they’re the best, but because they are quicker, smarter, more flexible or sometimes more willing to do anything to be kept inside.

Some years back, Pete Hamill wrote in his formidable News is a Verb that the only recipe that might bring journalism back from its ashes would be to fight hard and fast to recover relevance and pertinence. A newspaper that’s deaf and dumb to its own public, that ignores its public’s interest, will hardly survive.

In this context, I’d say this is the time to abandon our sad and dark crevices, our hard-earned little niches, to seek intelligent ways to collaborate and evolve. Africa and Asia are perhaps starting to see the benefits of collective work in our field. But it’s time to build church (so to speak) at a global scale; it will surely be useful to share our experiences, to learn survival skills by being flexible and reinventing ourselves not each day, but each moment. And the more we can enjoy the process, the better.