From The Editor’s Desk: Stop Being Such a Journalist

From the Editor’s Desk is a new weekly series with posts occurring regularly on Monday. Kevin and I will trade the hot seat every other week. Each post will provide commentary on a wide variety of issues, offer solutions, and hopefully generate dialogue.


Only 28 percent of the United States adult population is scientifically literate, i.e. can follow complex scientific issues and offer opinion on them.  The situation is equally dire throughout the European Union, where the rate is nearly half that of the U.S.  To rectify this problem, we have created initiatives to increase science education from kindergarten to the undergraduate.  And often, much too often, we find ourselves defending science education.

We have also targeted scientists themselves and their ineffectiveness at communicating science to the public.  Books like Unscientific America speak heavily to scientists’ failures in this realm.  The stinging critique of Randy Olson tells us how we should stop being “so cerebral, so literal, so bad at telling stories and unlikeable”, in other words, to “stop being such a scientist.” To change this course, training in outreach, communication, and media relations are common features of the new scientific landscape (examples can be found here, here, here).  The philosophy that scientists are often ill-equipped and inexperienced communicators is not just held by non-scientists. Scientists too have adopted this line of thinking and subsequent remedies and advice often come from within professional scientific organizations and publications. Alan Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science, in 2007 wrote “If science is going to fully serve its societal mission in the future, we need to both encourage and equip the next generation of scientists to effectively engage with the broader society in which we work and live.”

Many scientists, myself included, are left licking our wounds as the public rails against us.  To my growing list of daily activities, teaching, mentoring, administrating, university service, grant writing, and if I manage to squeeze it in, research, I must now add public outreach.  Curiously, I was only trained how to do research, the one thing I find less and less time to do.

However, I don’t disagree (see here last line of this article) with the idea of a better scientist communicators.  We need to be more effective and decidedly more passionate in discussing science.  And we need to do it more often.  As a first step we all need to read Carl Zimmer’s Index of Banned Words.

But this is only part of the greater issue addressing scientific literacy.  Egregious failings of the press in relaying science to the masses are too common.  If you are unconvinced of this spend some time reading through the archives of Ed Yong’s other blog.  Most scientists, including myself, have war stories in our dealings with the press. Often it’s not just an issue of poor science communication but more fundamentally bad journalism.  This is detrimental to science literacy, yet we focus more regularly on the failings of scientists as communicators, not on those whose profession is communication.  Indeed, there are few avenues in which journalists can acquire these skills.  We are in desperate need for professional programs and courses in science writing like that at the University of California, Santa Cruz and only a handful of other universities in the US. Communicating science to the public, regardless of medium, requires a unique skill set—one that both journalists and scientists need.

Not all my, or my colleagues’, interactions with the press are negative.  My interactions with several science writers and journalists were engaging and the piece ultimately produced was impeccable.  I would go so far to say these collaborations were actually enjoyable. In the spirit of several articles, blog posts, books, and training courses providing advice to scientists, I would like to offer the science journalist/writer a few observations on my less enjoyable interactions with the press.

  • While I enjoy explaining difficult concepts and providing analogies that make them more accessible, don’t expect me to explain junior-high level science to you. It’s called research and the last time I checked it was part of journalism.(And in case you didn’t know, Wikipedia is not an accurate source of scientific information.)
  • Please read the article or press release/materials BEFORE you interview me.I realize you are fishing for a quote, but do not ask me questions that are easily answered from the press release.  However, if you need clarification I am more than happy to help.
  • Please realize my time is valuable.  Today I need to teach, mentor, attend meetings, perform university service, administer, write a grant and hopefully if I can squeeze it some research.  I also know you are busy.  That is why I am so concerned with the prior points.  Let us not waste our collective time.
  • Don’t print what I said if you didn’t get what I said. I probably won’t get upset if subtle nuances of my research are not accurately conveyed to the public, but missing the bigger points is cause for concern.  Don’t hesitate to ask me to look over the piece for accuracy.  I realize it may seem a bit contentious but trust me I have no interest in editorializing.
  • Please, take pride in your work.  You should want to accurately report on science.
  • Allow me to at least have the opportunity to see how I am being quoted.  If I am misquoted or quoted out of context, I would like the chance for it to be corrected.  I don’t want to look like a dumbass or tool to my colleagues.
  • Please, check your agenda at the door.  Be open to framing research from a variety angles.  Whatever you do, don’t make the research about something it’s not just because that’s your favorite subject.  Don’t make my work on snails about sharks.
  • Stop treating the public like mindless drones who are only interested in the cute and cuddly or the ferocious and man-eating.  Just because you are not creative enough to figure out the hook on the research doesn’t mean the public will not be interested.  Lot’s of really great and interesting research exists outside the realm of dinosaurs, climate change, sex, sharks, chocolate, or cataclysmic events.
  • Please, please ask me why this research is cool.  I don’t spend 80 hours a week on research that I am not totally passionate about.  No scientist thinks they do boring research…and they don’t.  If you ask me why I am so energetic about this work, you’ll be able to convey this passion along to the public.
  • Please don’t create controversy, especially when none exists.  Don’t ask me to criticize someone else’s work publically.  We have established mechanisms for commenting on each other’s work.  To do this in a popular media, outside the established mechanism, makes me look like a douche to my colleagues.  I am not in the habit of burning bridges with people I may eventually want to collaborate with.  Realize as well that disagreement on scientific issues is often not personal and doesn’t mean I don’t want to share pints with the same colleague at conference.  Don’t ruin that for me.
  • Don’t assume I cannot communicate effectively to the public or don’t want to.  The web is full of resplendent examples of scientist communicators.  No better example of this is in the blogosphere.
  • You can treat me like I am normal person…because I am.
  • You have asked us to be humble and admit that we as scientists are not always the most effective in communication.  We ask you to be humble and realize that sometimes you aren’t either.
  • Please stop working against me and work with me.

Undoubtedly, some of you will find these comments harsh, which is neither my intent nor goal. I cannot tell how utterly frustrating it is for a scientist to have their work miscommunicated to the public. Unlike politicians, we do not have an avenue for rebuttal once errors are made, intentionally or not, by the journalists who cover our research. I am merely trying to establish a dialogue so that we can all work to together toward what I hope is a common goal. That goal is clear and accurate communication of scientific research, which we desperately need to maintain an informed public.

Dr. M (1606 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, created to facilitate research to address fundamental questions in evolutionary science. He has conducted deep-sea research for 11 years and published over 40 papers in the area. He has participated in dozens of expeditions taking him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses mainly on marine systems and particularly the biology of body size, biodiversity, and energy flow. He focuses often on deep-sea systems as a natural test of the consequences of energy limitation on biological systems. He is the author and chief editor of Deep-Sea News, a popular deep-sea themed blog, rated the number one ocean blog on the web and winner of numerous awards. Craig’s popular writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.





,
21 comments on “From The Editor’s Desk: Stop Being Such a Journalist
  1. Great article. As an aspiring science journalist myself, I found your list of suggestion an enormous help. I was happy to hear that you don’t mind explaining difficult concepts. I can do background research to a point, but my brain starts to fizzle at a certain mathematical threshold. The appeal of science journalism, to me, is the exploration and distillation of topics on the cutting edge of the human intellect to a larger audience. The promulgation of ideas that most people don’t even think of as possible, yet are being tackled by researchers in tangible ways, is vital to our understanding of what can be achieved by the human mind.
    If you have any more suggestions, please don’t hesitate to send them my way.

  2. Nice article.I agree to what you said that only 28% of peoples in America are literate in terms of science.I am telling this because if there would be more literacy in terms of science and environment then they would have not created the second largest dead zone of world in Gulf of Mexico near Mississippi.

    Thank you,

    Regards,
    Mike

  3. Amen, brother. I can relate to just about everything on your list, and NO, its not harsh. To “don’t create controversy” I might add: “there doesn’t have to be a counterpoint or a contradictory/cautionary quote that creates opposition where there isn’t any. Make your story dramatic, by all means, but do it by talking about how the work came about, not by creating false or non-existent conflict.”

  4. While I’m always despondent when great scientists have poor interactions with the press, I’d like to point out two minor things: 1.) Press releases run the gamut from right to wrong, just as mainstream media pieces do, and a good writer/journo will always double check basic facts from them with the source. They might preface this by saying, “So I read the press release, but is XYZ correct?” Obviously, it’s another thing entirely if the writer simply didn’t read it, but sometimes they may just be fact checking by running it by you again. 2.) Sometimes the editor might change the tone or re-arrange things, and it’s out of the writer’s control. Something I wrote recently got tweaked like this, and while the tweaking didn’t alter any of the facts, it made the tone a lot cheekier than I think the scientist whose work it touched on would have liked. Depending upon the writer/editorial relationship, this can be out of the writer’s hands, though of course it looks like we did it because our byline is stamped on it. Other than that, this a good list for writers to read to get the perspective from the flip side. Best, DeLene

  5. If (ahem) “junior high science” is fundamental to understanding your work, then take the extra minute or so to explain the concept or you WILL be sorry at the outcome.

    Yes, they should have read your paper and boned up a little before calling you (even if it’s on Wikipedia), but I think you can accept the notion that academic papers are only truly understood by the people in your sub-field of sub-fields?

    It turns out that there are some very smart and well-read reporters covering science who just may have had their training in physics or statistics rather than biology, and you need to be willing to help them along a bit if you’re really interested in their coverage turning out well. Same goes for them having the temerity to repeat something from the release. They’re just trying to get their minds around it so they can explain it. Be a teacher and be wiling to repeat yourself.

    Listen carefully to the questions to see whether they’re really tracking you, and by all means, ask “so, which parts of this are you going to use?” or “can I hear which quotes you’re going to use?” before hanging up. That’s perfectly acceptable behavior, and much more effective than asking to see a draft later.

    PS – it’s not that they view the public as mindless idiots but that many of their editors truly are, and they have to get past that first hurdle to get anywhere.

    • I think your last point is a good one. Actually ask what they are going to use. Is it kosher to ask to see a draft of your quote after the interview? To make it sure context and meaning are conveyed? I spent 30 minutes talking my work on deep-sea animals and ecology and the one quote the journalist used was about how we are going to find new microbes at hydrothermal vents. Our lab doesn’t study microbes. I was a little embarrassed about not conveying our lab to the public well, but my advisor just laughed it off and commented at the horrible picture they took of him.

      • Kevin, Any newspaper/magazine that is truly a good one will not have qualms if you ask for a quote read back before publication. This basically just means they read your quotes back to you to verify that’s what you said. Sometimes I’ll send a short excerpt that shows the quote in context. But even if they writer thinks all of the quotes or info will be used, often parts get cut for space, especially if there is a print version involved.

      • Ah, KZ falls victim to the “I’m not really an expert” syndrome. For the purposes of a popular article, you ARE an expert enough to say new microbes might be found, even though you yourself don’t study them. If you gave a whole paper about vent microbes at a conference without studying them, that’d be one thing, but a quote for Joe Reader is harmless. I’m with your advisor on this one.

        As for the “i spent a half hour and they only used one quote” syndrome, well that’s how it goes sometimes.(Try to make shorter quotes next time.) But again, if your work got a reporter’s interest, among the gazillions of things being published each week, it’s an excellent use of your time (and good for your career) to take the time to satisfy them.

        • No, maybe you misread me or I wasn’t being clear. It wasn’t so much that I “wasn’t an expert”, but I was misconstrued. I am expert enough to discuss the role of microbes at vents. But, that is not what I do or why I went to the field. The quote said something to the effect of “Kevin is going to these new vents to discover new species microbes” or something like that. He wasn’t taking good notes, wasn’t listening to what I was saying, and cherry picked something from memory that was just just wrong. He even ran the article by my advisor and I for a quick review and that quote wasn’t in it. So it was added after that.

          Anyways, that was my first experience with a journalist many years ago. I’ve been in the company of journalists now and am much better at getting my point across (hopefully) during conversations. Plus more journalists send me questions by email these days, which gives me the time and effort to craft decent “soundbites” for them.

    • These are good points. But I think my point was missed. I don’t ever mind explaining concepts of my papers or research. I love talking about my work! On the other hand, I do think a reporter should read the paper, press release, and be somewhat acquainted with the field (i.e. an understanding of the relevant science at the high school level). Without this minimal information how could one be expected to write an accurate article? I would expect the same from a reporter reporting on new legislation to actually read the new legislation, understand party differences,and how our democratic process works. I don’t expect the reporter to comprehend every subtle nuance of the paper but familiarity is always a plus.

      “but I think you can accept the notion that academic papers are only truly understood by the people in your sub-field of sub-fields?”

      I think there is a great variance in how accessible scientific papers are to those outside their discipline and to the public. For some papers, I think the main point could be easily grasped by the public even if most of the details were lost. I would also comment that every good interaction I have had with press always included the reporter asking for the paper.

      • Some science writers just do evolutionary biology or marine biology; others are called upon to do evolutionary biology on Monday, materials science on Tuesday and astrophysics on Wednesday. It’s just not realistic to expect a person like this who has to be a mile wide and an inch deep to be able to go very far into your paper’s subtleties. Even if they read it, they may not get it. But yes, by all means push a copy of the paper on them the minute they contact you.

        If they bit on your story among all the stuff they’re offered, they did grasp the main point. And they grasped it well enough to think the public might dig it and to give you a call or an email. Beyond that, it’s incumbent on you to talk them through it in plain language to make sure they really get it.

  6. Seems to be that editor’s are often faulted. How widespread are these occurrences of editors changing the story fundamentally or radically changing the tone, e.g. dumbing down or making cheekier? In the articles you’ve seen or written what percentage would fall into these categories?

    • Small percent for me; though it happens. A great editor will make the story *better*. I think some of the horror stories are more often when an editor with a non-science background (or little understanding) edits a science piece. At the Observer, Ann takes a light touch with my stories and I always get to review them before they go to print. On the whole, I’d say mine get edited more often for tone (make it zippier, more exciting, etc.) But I’ve heard of cases where the writer may not get the final review (that’s only happened to me a handful of times).

  7. Pingback: Under the Bridge—A New Science Literacy Feature

  8. Pingback: Open Laboratory 2010 – two weeks to go! | A Blog Around The Clock

  9. Pingback: Open Laboratory 2010 – only eight days till the deadline! | A Blog Around The Clock

  10. Pingback: Only three days to go – Open Laboratory final stretch for submissions! | A Blog Around The Clock

  11. Pingback: Open Laboratory 2010 – submissions now closed – see all the entries | A Blog Around The Clock

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>