Scientists and journalists: why can’t they just get along?

Everyone benefits when scientist-journalist understanding improves.

By: Lillianne Cadieux-Shaw

When journalists and scientists understand each other, Canadians benefit.

By Lillianne Cadieux-Shaw

 

Dalhousie professor Thomas J. Duck stands before photos from PEARL, an atmospheric science lab in Nunavut.

In her 11 years as the editor of Yes!, a Vancouver-based children’s science magazine, Jude Isabella maintained a great relationship with the scientists who were her sources. They would do anything to help. They wanted her to get the information right, for the sake of the kids.

Yes! went under in February 2012. The magazine’s owner, Mad Science Group, was tired of losing money. Kids’ magazines, particularly for science, aren’t profitable. They “pulled the plug,” in Isabella’s words, and she and the five other full-time staff were shocked.

Isabella now freelances for a variety of specialized science magazines – for adults. The scientists she calls for questions or interviews now are suspicious. The science is no longer about educating kids; it’s now exposed to the politics and biases of the general public. Science experts are wary. They worry Isabella will take their words out of context, making them look bad. They’re afraid she will misinterpret their findings, that she’ll mangle the science.

“The trust,” Isabella says, “is not there.”

 

Scientists want facts; journalists want a story. But they do have much in common. According to Pauline Dakin, national health reporter for CBC Radio, scientists and journalists are both “motivated by discovery.” They both strive for truth. And they face many overlapping challenges.

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Scientists and journalists are both “motivated by discovery”.

– Pauline Dakin, CBC National Health Reporter [/pullquote]

In a time where the 24-hour news cycle demands attention-grabbing headlines, quality of journalism suffers. The article Endangered Species: Science Writers in the Canadian Daily Press says reporters at smaller papers are forced to double up beats. Specialized beat reporters are being replaced by general reporters who have to juggle everything under a strict deadline. The esoteric nature of science doesn’t make the job any easier.  

Similarly, scientists face funding cuts and fear job insecurity. They frequently need public support to continue research. Dr. Rob Thacker, an astronomy and physics professor at Saint Mary’s University, is concerned. “You have to justify yourself in terms of your monetary value,” he says. “That’s a great challenge.”

These two groups could benefit from each other. Scientists can get the public interested in their research and in what they do. Journalists can use an increasing interest in science to provide accurate news to their audiences.

And yet, these two groups just don’t get along.

If Canadians don’t find out why, the consequences could be dire. In a 2007 Angus Reid study, nine out of ten Canadians say they changed their behaviour after reading an exaggerated health claim in the paper. The media is powerful. If scientists and journalists cannot improve their relationship, more than the quality of science writing will suffer. The knowledge of Canadian citizens, the decisions they make about how they lead their lives, will be at stake.

So can the relationship be repaired?

 

When the printing press first arrived in Canada in 1751, newspapers began to spring up. Despite audiences being interested in science and excited about new inventions, there was still little need for journalists and scientists to interact. However, science journalists did exist. Clement-Arthur Dansereau – one of Canada’s early science journalists – was editor of the 1890s Montreal paper La Presse. He got his information from various science periodicals rather than from scientists.

Journalists and scientists started to interact more in the 1920s. Scholars call this the era of “gee-whiz” science, where scientists were increasingly seen as heroes and their work was widely regarded as intensely exciting.

Increased interaction did not mean journalism was at its best. Current Canadian science journalist Peter Calamai says journalists should avoid becoming “enamored of the subjects (they’re) reporting about.” But that’s exactly what happened. TIME science journalist George W. Gray says, “What counts most is recognition from scientists themselves.” He was thrilled when he received an award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1947.

Enamored journalists reached their peak during the Space Race of the late 1950s. Astronauts were celebrated, and journalists fed the public political ideology and hysteria about the looming Soviet threat. There was no critique at this time, only wonderment. The relationship between scientists and journalists was excellent.  The public put scientists on a pedestal, and journalists had their audiences’ rapt attention.

The publication of Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book Silent Spring in 1962 shattered the illusion of an unstoppable and magnanimous force of scientific progress which the press had supported. Carson, a marine biologist, highlighted how the pesticide DDT, previously seen as a marvel of technology, was having a terrible effect on the environment and health of citizens.

The type of investigative journalism that broke the Watergate scandal in 1972 also led to many journalists taking a more critical lens on what they reported. The creation of the Canadian Science Writers Association in 1971 highlighted a new demand for unity among science journalists. There began a growing sense that science was not invincible. The nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, and the conflicting reports by on-site officials, cemented an apprehensive attitude towards science.  

Related Links

Scientific Literacy Test by the Pew Research Center: http://pewresearch.org/sciencequiz/

 

Rick Mercer Report – PMO Pest Control: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rH2_ueCeVv4

 

CSWA’s open letter to the Harper government: http://sciencewriters.ca/2011/04/25/an-open-letter-to-the-leaders-of-canadas-federal-political-parties/

Science reporter Boyce Rensberger calls this critical period the “Watchdog Era” of journalism. The relationship between journalists and scientists worsened. In 1973, the Canadian Ministry of State, Science and Technology approved a survey by Orest Dubas and Lisa Martel, which examined how science was treated by Canadian media. The Dubas-Martel report not only revealed communication problems between scientists and journalists; it also uncovered scientists’ deep growing mistrust toward the press.

 

Currently there is a lack of science coverage in the press. The topics that do get reported often distort the facts for the sake of the story. Health reporting is notorious for promising ‘cures’ and ‘breakthroughs’ to get the audience’s attention. The headline of a Canadian Press article published in the Globe and Mail on September 13 2012 reads, “Stem cells hold promise for restoring human hearing.” Health reporter Dakin says, “I’ve been doing this for 11 years and I don’t know if I’ve witnessed a cure in anything.”

Environment stories have different problems. They often skew balance to provide both sides of the story. Professor Thacker notices this trend particularly in coverage of climate change.  Articles give equal weight to fringe scientists who deny climate change, he explains, making audiences think there is uncertainty over the issue.

A snapshot of The Globe and Mail and The Chronicle Herald’s science coverage throughout September 2012 shows a neglect of science stories. Only two science stories made it to the front page of The Chronicle Herald, and both were about weather. No science stories made it to the front page of The Globe and Mail. Both papers only average about one science story per day, and the majority of them were from news services like the Canadian Press.


 

In both papers, health and environment stories were covered more than any other type of science. It’s about accessibility. Readers understand how melting Arctic ice affects them personally as water rises, or how a new study on the beneficial health effects of coffee applies to their life. To most, the discovery of magnetic properties in silicon nano-ribbons is less relevant.

Scientists have a role in this poor coverage as well. They frequently don’t understand the importance of a story having good analogies or a human element. Journalists rely on these details to engage readers, but including them without diminishing the science can be difficult without scientists’ help.

Scientists also often don’t understand that while the research may be theirs, the story is the journalist’s. One article published in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper by a group of psychology professors argued that scientists should be allowed to copy-check science articles. Journalists responded in outrage.

There is no one answer to why science coverage is lacking in quality and quantity. But the importance of clear communication between the two groups is paramount. They need to learn to understand each other.

 

A whitewashed array of boxy buildings; a Canadian flag stands to attention out front. Inside, a piece of tarmac lies stretched out in the huge, dark space. Lisa Porter stands at a cocktail table between the yellow painted lines. Beside her is a chemistry professor named Tricia Carmichael. A whistle blows. Five new faces appear at Porter’s table, notepads in hand, ready to listen.

This is scientist speed-dating. It is the second day of a four-day annual meeting for the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA) in Windsor, Ontario. They held their most popular event in the Automotive Research and Development Centre, a Chrysler Canada bunker which tests car headlights.

Resources for Science Journalists

Free online Science Journalism course provided by the World Federation of Science Journalists: http://www.wfsj.org/course/

Science Resources in the Journalist’s Toolbox (provided by the U.S.-based Society of Professional Journalists): http://www.journaliststoolbox.org/archive/science-resources/

Science, Technology and Medicine Information Resources for Journalists: http://www.uncp.edu/home/acurtis/Courses/
ResourcesForCourses/ScienceJournalism/ScienceJournalismResources.html

Porter is one of 16 hand-picked researchers and faculty members from the University of Windsor invited to this event. She is a cancer cell biologist. Her research is often complex. Her audience, being journalists, could help explain it to the general public – but they need to understand it first.

She has a few minutes to explain what she does, and then it’s Carmichael’s turn. The five people crowded around have approximately eight minutes to ask questions and get contact information. The moderator blows a whistle and a new group arrives before the pair.

Porter could have chosen to not come to this event. She’s had trouble with journalists before. She recalls one mistaken article that caused a “huge uproar” and resulted in many letters of complaint to the Cancer Centre. Porter understands that these mistakes don’t come out of maliciousness, though. She says, “We have a different language.”

Scientist speed-dating allows for scientists and journalists to get more familiar with each other’s language. Porter said by the time the last group arrived at her table, they were all “talking at each other’s level.”

This is one example of an organization trying to improve the relationship between scientists and journalists.

Similarly, the Concordia Science Journalism Project in Montreal hosts science cafés. The Society of Environmental Journalists holds yearly conferences. The Science Media Centre of Canada, a new resource created in 2008, provides workshops and webinars.

These resources create a space for journalists and scientists to interact, to understand each other. “It’s all about building bridges,” says Penny Park, Science Media Centre director. As an afterthought she adds, “But it’s personal, too.”


View Resources for Canadian Journalists Covering Science in a larger map

 

Thomas J. Duck’s chair squeaks wildly as he gesticulates. He is explaining, in equal parts excitement and outrage, how the Canadian political climate is damaging scientific research. Atmospheric formulas are scribbled in chalk on the blackboard behind him. As an atmospheric scientist and professor at Dalhousie University, Duck is personally affected.

In October, 2011, scientist David Tarasick authored a study about a new hole in the Arctic ozone layer, but was prohibited from speaking to the press about it. Duck, whose research overlaps, took media calls for Tarasick. Environmental researcher Kristi Miller was similarly silenced from speaking about her study on diseased salmon stocks.

When asked if he could provide names of other government scientists who have been affected, Duck firmly says, “absolutely not.” Their jobs would be at risk. They wouldn’t be able to say anything anyway.

New media protocol has forced government scientists to go through officials rather than speaking directly to the press. Dakin explains, “for some years now, it’s been impossible to get an interview out of Health Canada.”  Jude Isabella says the same thing about scientists from the Ministry of Environment. Government departments want to have a unified voice. This “unified voice” is making the scientists in these departments, and the journalists who wish to speak to them, increasingly frustrated.

This political climate may have benefits, though. An Environment Canada document referring to new media protocol says this “one department, one voice” policy allows scientists and journalists to rally together.

There is still mistrust between the two groups. Each has its own reasons, and neither is good at talking about them. The problem started five decades ago and it affects everyone. Some journalists and scientists recognize and are seeking ways to fix it.

Perhaps the best way to repair this relationship is a new unifying identity. Something to show the fundamental similarity between scientists and journalists. Information and facts are being encroached on, and the voices of some of Canada’s most important citizens are being muffled. Scientists and journalists may at last resolve their differences in fighting for what is most important to both of them: the truth.