Science journalists on science journalism

Scientists often blame science journalists for being superficial and being sensationalists. But how do science journalists themselves look at their jobs, and at science journalism in general? Is it true that the main thing they want is to score with their stories? Or do they prefer balanced, in-depth reporting, that can arguably be more boring for the general public? And what’s the judgement of science information officers, who’s job it is to try and make sure information about their university or institution reaches the media as much as possible?

This was the theme of a joint meeting of the Dutch societies for science journalism and science information officers last September. In preparation of this meeting an online survey was held amongst the members of both societies to see where individual members stood within this theme of scoring versus in-depth reporting. The response of the questionnaire was quite high: eighty out of the approximately four hundred members responded, half of them journalists, half public information officers, with an even spread amongst different age groups. The survey consisted of 25 statements; respondents could indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with each of them.

The first somewhat surprising outcome of the survey was that half of the science journalists thought science journalism in The Netherlands is often too superficial. As much as eighty percent said they are often annoyed by the way general journalists report on science. Fellow science journalists also don’t get away that easily: little over half of the journalists claimed they are also often annoyed by the work of their colleagues.

Differently from what you might expect, Dutch science information officers are more positive about science journalism in The Netherlands. They judge the reporting of both general journalists and science journalists more positively. Also, they are friendlier towards their colleagues: while a majority of the science journalists think that science information officers don’t report critical enough on the organisations they work for, and that they too often only pick the easy subjects for their press releases, science information officers themselves tend to disagree with these claims.

Another surprising outcome was that quite a few of the Dutch science journalists admitted that they don’t always practice balanced reporting. Almost a quarter of the respondents who work as journalists said they don’t always report on the different sides of a story, or call other scientists to ask what they think about a certain subject. Eight percent of the journalists always check whether news they report really is newsworthy, with another almost twenty percent responding ‘neutral’ to this question. And even though most science journalists said that they do point out possible flaws in the research they report on to their audience, half the journalists also admitted that they sometimes omit information that could weaken the central message they are communicating.

A possible explanation for the fact that not all science journalists practice balanced reporting is that a lot of the respondents indicate they’re often working under too much time pressure. And it seems this feeling of too much pressure increases with age: this was the only question in the survey where there was a clear distinction in response between different age groups. Of the youngest science journalists (as well as science information officers), little over forty percent indicated that they often can’t do their job as well as they want to because of time pressure. This number increases to more than sixty percent for those older than 45.

The future of Science Journalism

It was one of the big issues at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists: where is science journalism heading? At the first day of the conference, Ben Hammersley of Wired Magazine expressed the controversial opinion that there are simply too many science journalists. According to him, there will be a process of natural selection in the next few years, which only a few of the best science journalists will survive. Other participants were more optimistic, pointing out that even though journalism in general is in crisis, science journalism is still extremely important. Some, like Google News founderKrishna Bharat saw lots of possibilities for science journalism on the internet. Bharat talked about the revenues to be gained by media working together instead of competing, for instance by linking to each other’s stories. More detailed reports on the WCSJ sessions can be found on www.wcsjnews.org (see news -> session reviews).

But the topic ‘the future of science journalism’ wasn’t just a point of debate at the WCSJ conference. Some leading scientific journals also joined in. A month before the conference, the journal Nature Biotechnology reported on a workshop on the future of science communication & journalism, which was attended by leading science communicators from the US, UK, Canada, Germany and Australia. And in the week before to the conference, Nature magazine itself published a special issue which was partially focused on science journalism.

After briefly discussing some of the main problems of science communication and science journalism today, the article in Nature Biotechnology lists eight recommendations. But these are mainly meant for scientist and science communicators. The only two recommendations that concern science journalism are the call for journalism schools to teach students about science policy making, and the call for alternative funding (e.g. by foundations, universities or governments) to ensure quality science journalism in a perishing media environment. The authors also see possibilities for science journalism in the form of web portals offering both professionally produced content and user generated content, thereby stimulating public participation.

The special issue of Nature, dated June 25th, carries an editorial, news feature, three opinion pieces and a Q&A on science journalism. All these can be found via www.tinyurl.com/sciencejournalism. This web page hosts both articles from the special issue and some articles on science journalism from Nature’s archive.

In its editorial on science journalism, Nature calls out for scientist and scientific institutions to help proper science journalism survive. For example through learning how to best talk to journalists; by helping them gain access to information; and by helping them find the right people to comment on the subject they’re reporting on. The news feature ‘Breaking the convention?’, even though it carries the label ‘science journalism’, isn’t truly focused on journalism. It is more about the way scientists open up what happens on meetings and conferences than on the benefits and drawbacks of this newfound openness for science journalists. More interesting things, that do directly concern science journalism, are written in the opinion section.

Here, Toby Murcott, former science correspondent for the BBC, argues that science journalists today can be compared to priests. For the most part they just take information from a source of authority and communicate it to the congregation. To best serve our audiences, we as science journalists should also provide depth, context and criticism. But this isn’t easy when you are working under constant time pressure. Murcott thinks one way in which this priesthood model of science journalism can be toppled without too much effort is to report more on the process through which science is produced and reviewed. Also, Murcott asks for press officers at universities and research journals to help journalists by providing them with more background information and context on new findings they do at the moment.

Probably having witnessed some of the changes himself, Boyce Rensberger, who has been a science reporter for 32 years, writes about the way science journalists changed from cheerleaders to watchdogs during the past century. In the first half of the 20th century science journalists hailed everything scientists did. When in the ‘70’s and ‘80s it became clear that science and technology also sometimes have adverse effects and can be controversial, science reporting became increasingly critical. At the moment, so says Rensberger, we are again facing changes in the role of science journalism. These are mostly due to digitalisation. It is for instance hard for the public to see which of the numerous online sources are reliable and which aren’t. So if science journalists are to regain relevance to society, they should learn how to master new media.

At the WCSJ conference, some criticism could be heard that the focus was too much on science journalism in the Western – and especially Anglo-Saxon – part of the world. But the special issue of Nature also hosts an opinion article by Nadia El-Awady, the newly elected president of the WFSJ, who writes about science journalism in Arabic countries. The Arab world has in the past few decades seen a vast growth in the amount of scientific research being done and also in the interest in science by the audience. Science journalists have gained a fairly stable position in Arab countries. But El-Awady also sees some challenges. Quantity is not necessarily the same as quality. Science journalists are not always able to provide critical coverage of claims made by the institutions that pay them. Also, science journalists in the Arab world often have deep reverence for scientists or are working as a part-time scientist themselves. This can make it hard for them to maintain a critical perspective in their journalistic work. El-Awady argues that we should pay attention to these weaknesses; or the rise of science journalism in the Arab world may be the harbinger of its downfall.

Scientific controversies and the media, part 2

Mass media are often blamed for playing a role in the construction of scientific controversies. For instance, the last couple of years multiple voices have been accusing the media of greatly contributing in creating the controversy around climate change. The May issue of the journal Public Understanding of Science carries two articles on the role of the media in scientific controversies. The second article argues that media controversies can actually sometimes be beneficial for the scientific community.

The article in the May issue of Public Understanding of Science is written by nanotechnologist and science writer Mary Ingram-Waters. She analyses a controversy that arguably found closure due to the media frenzy created around it.

In 1996 sheep Dolly, the first cloned animal, saw the light of day. In the following years scientist tried hard to make the distinction between therapeutic cloning, in which cells or tissue is cloned for therapeutic reasons, and reproductive cloning, which involves the cloning of an entire living creature, indisputable. Most scientist were in favor of the first type of cloning, but were careful towards the other, because of the ethical questions surrounding it. Anti-cloning advocates argued it was all the same, since for the most part it involved the same technology, including the need for stem cells.

The controversy turned into a media frenzy when in the year 2000 different people claimed to be able to clone a human being soon. Amongst them were a few physicians with a more or less respectable reputation and a religious group called the Raëlians. Their leader, a man calling himself Raël, said he was visited by aliens almost thirty years before. These aliens supposedly created the human race by making clones of themselves. They told Raël the (peaceful) future of mankind would lie in cloning a selected group of individuals over and over, thereby making them immortal.

The race was on. Then, after two years of continuous media attention, the Raëlians were the first to announce they had created a human clone: a healthy baby girl called Eve. But they refused to give any proof. They didn’t want to reveal anything about the science they had used, nor did they want to reveal any details about Eve or her whereabouts. From the start, the media reacted skeptically to the claims of this somewhat peculiar religious organization. Scientists immediately jumped to the opportunity to, in the media, explain the difference between good science, with decent regulations, controlled experiments and attention for ethical questions; and bad science, which pays little attention to such issues. In the wake of this, scientist were eager to point out the distinction between human cloning and therapeutic cloning.

They succeeded. All over the world, strict laws were adopted concerning human cloning, settling that ethical controversy for the time being. At the same time, therapeutic cloning became less controversial. So a scientific controversy that gets a lot of media attention can actually be beneficial to the scientific community. But who knows how things could have turned out if it hadn’t been the Raëlians who made the first claim of creating a human clone?

Scientific controversies and the media, part 1

Mass media are often blamed for playing a role in the construction of scientific controversies. For instance, the last couple of years multiple voices have been accusing the media of greatly contributing in creating the controversy around climate change. The May issue of the journal Public Understanding of Science carries two articles on the role of the media in scientific controversies. The first shows that creating such a controversy is not necessarily a simple, linear process in which media misinterpret or bend scientific publications.

One of the biggest scientific controversies of the last few decades is without a doubt the case of ‘water with memory’. In her article, media scholar Dominique Brossard analyses how this controversy was created. To refresh your memory: the case dates back to 1988. Jaqcues Benveniste, a French immunologist with a more than decent reputation, claimed that his laboratory had showed white blood cells still react when a solution that contained antibodies is diluted to such an extent that no antibodies can possibly be present anymore. Thus, the water must have some kind of ’memory’ of the antibodies, to which the cells reacted. This finding could mean that the controversial theory of homeopathy is actually true.

Benvenistes findings were published in the highly esteemed journal Nature. Which has been under fire for it ever since. But Brossard’s analysis shows this is not the full story. Not only did the issue of Nature with Benvenistes paper contain an editorial that showed the editors were critical of the research. Natures editor-in-chief, John Maddox, also admitted in an interview that Nature felt urged to publish the paper because of an article in the French newspaper Le Monde. In France, a buzz had already been created around Benvenistes work. Not just because of presentations on congresses, but also fuelled by Le Monde, the most respected French newspaper which is read by most of the French elite. And since on top of that no-one could discover any flaws in Benvenistes methodology, and five other labs had repeated his experiments with the same outcome, the staff of Nature felt they couldn’t miss out on what was most certainly going to be a big issue in the scientific world.

Numerous important newspapers all over the world, for instance the New York Times, reacted skeptically on both Benvenistes research and Nature for publishing it. But Le Monde hailed it. It even blamed the rising controversy on the fact that Benveniste was not much liked amongst fellow scientists. Nature reacted to the controversy by composing a team which redid Benvenistes experiments in his own laboratory under highly controlled circumstances. In this test, the water memory effect was not found. According to the theory of the scientific method this was enough to prove Benveniste wrong; one black swan is enough to prove not all swans are white.

But Le Monde didn’t agree and published articles to keep the controversy alive. It accused Nature of putting together a flawed research team, since there wasn’t a single immunologist in it, and also put to question the idea that a single negative result is enough to disprove a theory. Le Monde managed to keep the controversy alive for years. Their last article about the case dates from 1997, in which the respected newspaper blamed the scientific community for never giving Benveniste a fair chance. Homeopathic practitioners still refer to the controversy to claim that homeopathy is a scientifically proven remedy.

Why did Le Monde act this way? Brossard thinks it probably has to do with feelings of nationalism, Benveniste being a French scientist. Also, in France homeopathy isn’t as controversial as it is in many other Western countries. Around the time Benvenistes work was published, almost half of the medical consultations in France involved homeopathic practitioners. Was Le Monde wrong? Should the editors at Nature have acted differently? Of course, in being an objective scholar, Brossard doesn’t raise or answer these questions. But they are interesting questions for a science writer to think about.

What this case does show is that mass media can be very influential in creating scientific controversies. And not just in a linear way: they can be in the middle of the controversy, functioning as a catalyst and influencing the scientific community and even top-end scientific journals.

What do they know?

One of the most important things of being a journalist is knowing your audience. Especially so if you are a science reporter. Do the people you’re addressing, for instance, know what chromosomes are? And do you have to explain the theory of the Big Bang, or is this common knowledge? Explain too little, and your audience will not understand what you’re writing or reporting about. Explaining too much also doesn’t work. It may waste valuable writing space or airtime, and people may feel you’re underestimating them and therefore stop reading or listening.

But it isn’t easy to attain knowledge about what your audience knows about science. Fortunately, there has been some research on this subject. The report Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 of the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the United States offers an overview of a number of these studies. The vast, biannual report provides quantitative information about science & engineering in the United States. The report contains a chapter fully focused on public attitudes towards and understanding of science and technology (S&T). In this chapter, the results of multiple nation-wide surveys concerning this topic are combined. Also, these outcomes are compared to the outcomes of similar surveys from all over the world. The surveys were all held amongst representative samples of the general population, with the number of respondents varying from approximately a thousand till thirty thousand.

It turns out that the scientific literacy of the general American audience isn’t all that high. To measure knowledge of S&T, a standardized set of twelve questions has been designed which is used in surveys all over the world. The questions are shaped as statements which can be true or false. The scientific facts and concepts in the questions should theoretically be known by anyone who finished a normal high-school education, since they are taught here. Still, the average American only answered 6,6 out of the twelve questions correctly. This figure hasn’t changed much over the years the surveys are held (the first time was in 1992). The number of correctly answered questions was positively correlated with the level of education and young people answered more questions correctly then older people.

There was also a clear difference in the knowledge of S&T between men and women. Men tend to know more about physics, while women tend to know more about biology and health-related issues. For instance, 61 percent of the men knew electrons are smaller then atoms. Of the women, 52 percent thought it is the other way round. But while 72 percent of the women know it’s the fathers genes that determine if a baby will be a boy or a girl, just slightly over half of the men answered this statement correctly. Perhaps the most remarkable findings are that 68 percent of the American women think lasers work with sound waves in stead of light waves; and that a staggering 73 percent of the women and 60 percent of the men don’t know the universe started with the Big Bang.

Though this last result may be because of cultural or religious reasons. In other countries like Europe, Japan or China, a lot more people answered this question correctly. This also holds true for the statement that the human species developed form earlier species of animals. In a different survey, more Americans answered these questions correctly if the statement began with ‘According to scientific theory,…’.

Looking at the average score in this type of survey, no country or region notably outperforms another. Knowledge of S&T is about the same in the United States as in Europe or Japan. South-Korea also scores well. In Russia, Malaysia and China the knowledge scores are relatively low. In the report, Europe is treated as a single region, composed of 25 EU-members. But there are large differences in S&T knowledge between these 25 countries. Northern European countries score best, with Sweden taking the lead.

The NSF report also contains some potentially interesting findings concerning public attitudes towards S&T. A few examples:

  • All over the world television is considered as there main source of S&T information. In the US, the internet comes second; in other countries, newspapers are usually mentioned as the secondary source. The internet does generally score best when asked what source people turn to when to want to look up information on a scientific subject.
  • 87 % of the Americans support government funding of basic research, and 41 % think the government should spend more money on scientific research.
  • All over the world, space exploration is mentioned as the scientific topic people are least interested in. But at the same time, this is the topic which gets most airtime in the US evening news shows. The report doesn’t go into detail on this apparent contradiction.

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 http://scx.sagepub.com. The full text versions are not freely available, but may be accessed through university or library networks.