Friday, April 3, 2009

Science Journalism—On the Decline?

OK, now that March Madness and April Fools are over, we must return to more serious topics….

Nature has a new article on the decline of science journalism and the rising influence of science blogging. The author, Geoff Brumfiel, asks the question, “Can science blogging replace science journalism?”

He reports that journalists, who have in the past relied solely on the public-relations departments of scientific organizations for story ideas, are now turning to blogs for information and topics to write about. At the same time, news outlets are downsizing their science-writing staff, so that science coverage is declining in quality and accuracy.

With this change, the need for fast and accurate science content is being filled mostly by press releases and other sanitized content from public relations departments. Some science editors admit that when they’ve got a deadline and several stories to prepare that they often take the short-cut of relying on the information provided in the press release (although they prefer not to).

So, what’s the problem, you might ask? Well, having just been through the process of dealing with my (unnamed) agency’s communications office, I can attest to the problem of having ill-informed “communications specialists” translating my science for public consumption.

I prepared a press release about research being published in a high-profile journal about a “hot topic” and submitted it for approval to my local public relations office. The local office thought what I had written was great—accurate, written in every-day language, and sufficiently in-depth that the work and its significance could be understood by a 10th grader. They sent it up the line to the next level for approval (regional office of communications). That’s when the nightmare began.

A long series of “rewrites” ensued, each one with increasing numbers of factual errors and subtle misinterpretations of my research. I struggled to correct each version (this often took longer than it did to write the original text). Once each version had been corrected by me, it went to yet another “communications specialist” who had to try their hand at rewriting it. We ultimately went through 14 versions. We are talking here about a piece no longer than 250 words.

By this time, the high-profile paper had been put online; co-authors at another institution had already put out their own press release; the story was being picked up by major news outlets (with no mention of my agency’s or my contribution). Extremely frustrating.

Our press release was finally approved and published, a week after the event. It was greatly watered down and although not exactly inaccurate, was not a good summary of the research. In other words, a day late and a dollar short.

I was quite flabbergasted (and actually fascinated) at how someone could take a perfectly fine science story and mangle it. The experience showed me how dangerous someone with a limited understanding of science, but the authority to write about it, can be. The worst part was how little control or influence I (the scientist responsible for the research) had over this process.

Now, I’ve dealt with science reporters before, who were great—they knew the topic, understood the science basics, asked intelligent questions, even came to hear my presentations at conferences and accurately reported what I said. So, I’m not saying that science cannot be reported well by non-scientists. Good science journalists are incredibly important and much appreciated by me.

But “communications specialists” are not in the same league as good science journalists. My recent experience adds to a growing belief that scientists need to take a more active role in explaining their science to the public, and especially not rely on “communication specialists”. Unfortunately, scientists are slow to catch on to some of this because they are still working with the outdated model of pre-internet (limited ability to reach large numbers of people quickly). In those early days, scientists published their work in specialized journals and that was that. Today, many scientists are still unaware of the blogosphere (or if they are aware, just don’t understand it) and the rapid changes taking place in science communication.

However, science institutions and some scientists are now increasingly seeing the need to communicate science directly to the general public, who are expecting and demanding it. Based on my latest experience, cutting out the “middle man” in the communication chain may improve things.

A few scientists have started their own blogs in which they talk about a range of topics. Some of these, such as Pharyngula, are enormously popular, getting more than a half million page views per week. That’s just mind-boggling, especially when I think about how many people read my scientific papers—a mere handful by comparison.

I’m not sure that blogs are the answer to the “science communication gap”, since bloggers, even science bloggers, are often expressing opinions about science and other topics. Science journalists, on the other hand, are trying to provide a balanced coverage of a science topic. The latter is often put through some type of review, even if only by the editor, and a fact-checking process. Not so with blogs (at least not most blogs). But with personal blogs, you get the uncensored, raw experience as perceived and reported by the scientist. One might think that to be a negative. However, that is what seems to attract readers. Quite a conundrum…

Some major universities (Princeton and Yale) are starting websites aimed at providing scientifically accurate news coverage. They report opinions of scientists and reports from journalists on subjects like climate change. It’ll be interesting to see how these fare compared to the popular science blogs.

Anyway, the Nature website has quite a few articles and other information on the topic of science communication, if you are interested.

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