Ira Flatow Makes Science User-Friendly

Through a popular nationally syndicated science talk program, Science Friday, host Ira Flatow spreads science news to a broad audience.  The podcasts of Science Friday have been downloaded more than 1.4 million times making it the third most downloaded show in American public radio.

Flatow was on hand at Duke University on Monday to keynote the Center for Science Education’s Showcase, an event of the North Carolina Science Festival.

His talk, “Science And The Media:  Talking Science In A Science Challenged World,” focused on the challenges of bringing science information to the public.  Despite the challenges, Flatow has an optimistic view that the public is interested in science and will seek out the information.  One challenge mentioned is that the gatekeepers of mainstream media shy away from science coverage.

“Science news works in the middle of all the other news that’s happening and we fight for space,” Flatow said.  “The scene has shifted, there’s so much junk going on.”

Flatow explained that the problem is not just on cable news, but is also a problem with mainstream media.  This is how NBC achor Brian Williams explained the estimate of the U.S. population turning 300 million:
The next night, Williams said, “There is, as expected, news tonight about that American milestone that we were just at the cusp of when last we spoke last night. This morning, at 7:46 a.m., and again don’t ask us how anyone figures this out….
This signals another trend in the media business, Flatow said, that the media is getting rid of science reporters.  He pointed to the CNN and Boston Globe layoffs.

“Science sections are becoming as extinct as dinosaurs,” he said.  “Because the money is not being invested in keeping the sections around.  The first thing a paper kills when it’s going under is usually the science section.”

One of the biggest problems science journalists face, Flatow said, is that the public doesn’t understand basic science concepts.  Science literacy is a much-debated topic.  U.K. researcher and blogger Alice Bell provided an overview of this topic on her blog through the looking glass.

Another challenge Flatow mentioned is that science journalists “face a population that doesn’t want to believe in science.”  The Journal of Risk Research recently released a study that found people chose what science to believe and not believe based on their own value judgments.

Flatow mentioned Barack Obama’s inaugural address where the President states that he’s going to restore science to its rightful place.  Flatow agrees with the President that science is just as important as athletics and should be regarded as such.

Scientists and engineers also need to be a part of the equation.  Flatow believes that there should be a communication requirement for science students.  “I talk to science students all the time and when you ask them what they do they can’t utter a clear phrase to tell us what they’re working on.”

People who are good at communicating science:

The visual elements of science make it cool and Flatow showed a few videos of scientists explaining science.  Many of the videos were taken from his website that is seeking out cool science videos that clearly demonstrate scientific experiments or concepts.

Ending on an optimistic note, Flatow noted that the access of the Internet helps removes the gatekeepers of mainstream media, “science is coming back into the minds of people,” Flatow said.  “We may be entering another golden age of science.”

ScienceOnline 2010

There has been so much written about ScienceOnline 2010 that for me to try to encapsulate in yet another blog post seems pointless. ScienceOnline 2010 was an “unconference” of folks dedicated to communicating science and science issues through the internet.  It was held at Sigma Xi headquarters in the Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

The best way for me to post about this conference is to point you to the vast amount of posts.  Perhaps you will discover a new blog to follow.

ScienceOnline 2010 Blog and Media Coverage: http://www.scienceonline2010.com/index.php/wiki/BlogMedia_Coverage/

I’m going to single out A Blog Around the Clock’s post Journalism at ScienceOnline 2010: http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2010/01/journalism_at_scienceonline201.php. He offers a fantastic reading list regarding science journalism.

People I met at the World Conference of Science Journalists

I wondered what I was going to do with the stack of business cards I gathered from the World Conference of Science Journalists in London. Then a friend of mine, Coturnix from A Blog Around the Clock gave me the idea of interviewing partcipants. So kicking starting off, what I hope will be a series of posts, is Deborah Blum, a fellow WFSJ blog member, and one heck of a writer. I’m a huge fan of her book Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. Science is not nearly as interesting as the people behind it (or writing about it). I give you Deborah Blum.

Please tell us a little about yourself. What is your background?

I’m a freelance science writer and a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m also a past-president of the National Association of Science Writers (US) and a board member of the World Federation of Science Journalists. I’ve written five books, the latest, The Poisoner’s Handbook, will be out in February. Whew! I’m the daughter of a biologist and grew up with science. I’ve just always liked telling stories about science, trying to get people to see what a fascinating and human enterprise it is.

Why did you decide to attend the WCSJ?

I moderated a panel and I needed to attend as a board member. But more than that, I’ve learned to really love the connection with science journalists around the world. It’s made me really think about how stories are told – or need to be told – from many different perspectives.

What was the most interesting aspect of the conference?

I went to some great sessions on investigative reporting and on the changing role of the media. But what made them exceptional was the different contexts from different cultures.

What did you learn?

It made me think about what a western perspective I have. I’ve been trying since to read and listen to science reporting outside my normal culture zone.

What types of science media do you read/watch/listen? What would you recommend?

I’m a reader. So I read a lot of news websites so that I can get different approaches to the same information. I find that different sources are good on different stories.

Where do you go from here?

I’m program chair of the next World Conference of Science Journalists. It’ll be in Cairo in June 2011. I hope you’ll be there!

The promise of entrepreneurial journalism

Philadelphia Magazine recently named Jim MacMillan Philly’s best “Nuevo Journalist”. In other circles he is known as Philly’s best unemployed journalist. MacMillan, a veteran of the Philadelphia Daily News and a Pulitzer Prize winning AP photographer, has recently finished a model that he hesitatingly calls “entrepreneurial journalism”.

Entrepreneurial journalism differs from freelance journalism in that it is a self-funded, self-publishing model. MacMillan recently wrote on his blog: “Launching careers in the new media landscape may be brutally difficult, just as they were for my friends and I, who developed our own freelance careers by working up to 80 hours per week, often for 30 or 40 days straight in the 1980s. If you couldn’t cut it then, you might not make it now.”

After taking a buyout from the Daily News late last year, MacMillan took it upon himself to dismiss claims that you can’t do journalism all by yourself. Before taking a position teaching convergence journalism (multimedia, multiplatform journalism side-by-side with journalism fundamentals) in Missouri, there were two questions MacMillan asked himself when he initially took on his experiment. First, there was the issue of the audience. He just left an organization with a circulation of 100,000. Currently, he has 52,000 followers on Twitter.

“In terms of number of followers, I’ve done some work to cultivate them from groups where I can form good relationships,” he said during a conversation we had a few months ago.

Second, there was the issue of salary. MacMillan cites the book What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis, a online media advocate, as inspiration.

“Dollar for dollar you make very little off your blog, but you can use it for leverage for other better paying opportunities,” MacMillan said. “Can you pay your bills by being an entrepreneurial journalist? You can, but maybe not directly.”

Jarvis was quoted in a Philadelphia Weekly article about MacMillan called “Can Jim MacMillan’s iPhone Save Journalism?” as saying, “what he did isn’t extreme at all but will be the norm as most of us will have the tools to share news as we witness it—even live. The tools will be simpler and everyone in newsrooms should be learning from them and using them.”

Throughout his experiment MacMillan has found that the importance of a good story reigned supreme regardless of the media or journalistic model.

“If we could not write, tell, or spin a good story, most of us would be out of jobs,” Macmillan said. “But in new media, the methods by which we spin that story have altered.”

Even the idea that you should write short for electronic media has turned into a 140 character and link post (ideally it should be less than 140 characters to allow for the ReTweet).

Electronic media is also a very visible media, of course. The use of graphics and video has become increasingly cheap and easy in the past decade. The creation of the Flip video recorder has turned many of us into fledgling authors.

As the media continues to reinvent itself, regardless of how you choose to tell the story, it’s the story that inevitably is the most important element; I doubt that will change.

Questioning the Methods; Questioning the Results

The headlines tend to be sexy, eye-catching, definitive, and nearly always misleading. Some statisticians claim that observational studies are unreliable and not supported by replicable data.

A year ago, a study published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B surveyed 740 pregnant women on what they ate before and during pregnancy. Of those who consumed the most calories, 56 percent gave birth to boys. Of those who consumed the least calories, 45 percent gave birth to boys. Breakfast cereal was found to be linked to baby boys out of the 132 foods included in the survey.

Conclusion: Women who eat cereal have boys?

A statistician in North Carolina reanalyzed the data and countered the studies findings as pure chance. The researchers are standing behind their findings.

Melinda Beck of The Wall Street Journal wrote:

Behind the cereal squabble lies a deep divide between statisticians and epidemiologists about the nature of chance in observational studies in which researchers track peoples’ habits and look for associations with their health but don’t intervene at all.

Stan Young of the National Institutes of Statistical Sciences has provided a set of questions to assist in finding out whether claims from observational (medical) studies are true.

1. Is the trial a randomized clinical trial? (In general, reliable.)

  • Non-FDA – 80% likely OK. (Ask if the trial is replicated; Ask how many questions are in the primary analysis. Are claims made for secondary analysis?
  • FDA approved – over 95% OK for primary claim (Data is checked. Analysis is checked. Analysis is pre-data collection approved.)
2. Is the trial an observational study? In general, very unreliable. Of claims tested, over 90% of the claims fail to replicate.
  • Is the data publicly available?
  • Is the analysis code available?
  • How many questions are at issue?
  • Has the data set been independently re-analyzed?
  • Have the claims been independently replicated?
  • What was the cost of the study and who funded the study?
  • If there is a proposed biological mechanism, is there independent experimental evidence to support it? Was the mechanism proposed after-the-fact?
  • Is “cause and effect” being claimed?
  • What is their opinion: if someone replicated the study, how confident are they that they would find a very similar result?

Young offered Effect of Selenium and Vitamin E on Risk of Prostate Cancer and Other Cancers. JAMA. 2009;301 (1) “as a study that attempted to replicate claims coming from observational studies.”

MP3 download of Young talking about misuse of statistics in epidemiological studies: http://www.ibiblio.org/wcom/podcast/mp3/mp3s/RIV08202008.mp3.

Have PIOs Killed the Science Beat?

There’s been a lot written about the decline of science journalism. In trying to find some concrete numbers to illustrate exactly how bad the decline has been, I came across a study that looked at U.S. newspapers with a weekly science section. From 1989 to 2005, the number dropped from 95 to 34. No doubt in 2009 that number is lower.

North Carolina ranks third in the United States in the biotechnology industry. In the Research Triangle Park-area where there are 119 research and development organizations and three major research institutions, there is no longer a full-time science journalist working in the media.

The institutions in the area have begun pushing their own news, becoming media outlets themselves. New media technologies have democratized the process of pushing news to a wide audience, especially a local audience that has a stake in what the institution is doing, the research it’s conducting, and the economic impact it is going to have on an area.

By utilizing cheap and effective new technologies to market, promote, and inform audiences without having to buy ads or pitch local science reporters, has this resulted in killing off the science beat?

I posed this question to a couple of colleagues. Both are former science journalists and now work in media offices at research institutes.

What I learned is that this is a serious chicken or egg issue at work, as my one colleague stated. Science beats are certainly not the only beat being cut from newspaper staff and science PIOs (Public Information Officers) are not the only communicators publishing their own news.

My other colleague said that he has seen his job shift from pitching stories to reporters to not having reporters to whom to pitch. And while he would rather have his news written by professional journalists, his responsibility is to promote the research at his university by whatever means necessary.

While many PIOs (most are former journalists) do a fine job of writing and telling stories, their job is to promote their institutions and their institution’s faculty in a positive light. This does not always provide the news filter that journalists can provide.

But, as for killing off the science beat, don’t blame the PIO.

The Problem with Science Writers

The problem with science writers is that they are losing their jobs, according to Chris Mooney, a freelance writer, author, and blogger, at Beyond Belief 3 held at The Salk Institute. Mooney cites in 2005 that only 7 percent of the members in the National Association of Science Writers is made up of full-time science journalists at media outlets.

Mooney also referred to a 2008 Pew study that found if you watch five hours of cable news, one minute will be devoted to science and technology.


Mooney begins talking about the media around 12:20 into the video.


E-volution of science journalism

At a recent Science Communicators of North Carolina meeting, journalist Cathy Clabby spoke on the status and future of science journalism. Clabby, now an editor with the American Scientist, was the last full-time science journalist in the Triangle-area of North Carolina before becoming a Knight Science Journalism Fellow in 2007.

Clabby is interested in new opportunities available for science journalism on the web. “I find myself looking up a little and not just seeing what we’re losing but I’m seeing more of what we’re gaining,” she said.

A sampler of sites provided a good example of where science journalism is heading. While the names are familiar, the formats have evolved for electronic media and are focused more on breaking news.

One of the newer elements of science journalism is the blog. Most of the traditional media and newspapers have incorporated blogs. One aspect that impresses Clabby is the diversity of subject matter and voices. Some blogs that were highlighted were:

On a local level, Clabby highlighted the Durham Museum of Life + Science that has created its own media outlet to take advantage of the wealth of resources in the region.

Other institutions, such as Duke University, are experimenting with new media to highlight their research to a larger audience.

The philanthropic sector is also encouraging new media. The Knight Foundation offers its News Challenge to support and fund new ideas in media.

How do you think reporting for new media changes the way science journalists do their job?