Monday, January 3, 2011

The 90 Second Science Report

Could you explain your research in 90 seconds or less?  Ten years ago, the American Institute of Physics created Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science (DBIS) as a way to provide lay audiences with accurate and reliable science information.  One of the talks I heard at the AGU meeting a couple of weeks ago was given by Emilie Lorditch entitled "Everything I Need to Know about Science Communication, I Learned from Local Television News".  Lorditch is a media specialist.

She described the process whereby DBIS distributes twelve 90-second news segments to local TV stations in the US and abroad each month.  They cover a range of topics from astronomy to zoology. Story ideas go through a rigorous background research and peer review (by scientists and media).  They identify research breakthroughs in different scientific fields and put together these short news reports, which are then distributed.  National and international news programs pick them up and use them in their broadcasts.

I think that the approach used by DBIS is a very effective one.  Instead of waiting for the media to do a hasty report (usually with errors) on a science finding, they prepare careful stories that are checked beforehand by scientists.  By limiting these reports to 90 seconds, they not only provide news segments that can be aired immediately, but also focus on the most important message.  The network of news stations that subscribe to their newsfeed totals 60 stations, representing a potential audience of 70 million.

Lorditch had a couple of insights to share.  One was that real people make the story.  The scientists are center stage in the news segment--sending the message that real people are behind the science.  The other point she made was that visuals and animations were important in getting the science message across.  People reported that what they remembered about a news story was often an animation or demonstration explaining some aspect of the science.  In other words, the talking heads approach is not the most effective in getting a science message across.  Yet, that is often what you see--a scientist being interviewed about some discovery or asked to comment about an environmental disaster.

Even a simple slide show inserted into a story does a great job of providing lasting images and also illustrates the main message of the story.  See this site for an example (involving computer-generated snow crystals).  One of my favorites is a story about phantom traffic jams (when traffic back-ups occur for no apparent reason)--something I often encounter in my own commuting.   See below for the 40 second animation showing the scientists' model in action (of how traffic jams occur).

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