When I was young, I remember watching the news coverage of the space program. I am too young to remember the Mercury Project, and I only dimly remember some of the Gemini missions. However, I remember sitting in front of the TV for hours watching the Apollo missions. My parents would be switching from station to station to find the best coverage. They had their favorites for the local news. However, for the space missions, invariably they went to ABC. One reason was Jules Bergman. He was a science reporter for ABC News. When it came to reporting on the space program, he made a point of learning as much as he could about space exploration in order to provide the most complete and accurate reports. He seemed to be much better at this than most of the other reporters. Even as a child I knew that. But, that level of science reporting, particularly among the mass media, seems to be rare today. I really miss Jules Bergman.
Now, there are some very good science reporters. Most of them, though, work for publications that specialize in science: Sky and Telescope, Physics Today, Science News, etc. You would expect such publications to have qualified science reporters. And, some mass media do quite well, too. I have seen some quite good articles in the New York Times and the Houston Chronicle. In fact, there are some really stellar science reporters for the mass media. But, all too often you see some story on the evening news or you read something the newspaper, and you just want to cringe.
Recently, Tara Smith posted a blog entry at her Aetiology blog about academics and press interviews. Jennifer Ouellette responded with a posting of her own at her Cocktail Party Physics site. Both postings are worth reading. Tara addresses the matter of researchers responding to interview requests. She points out that the top researchers are often hard to get hold of, and when you do reach them they are very busy. It is difficult for them to take time to respond. She doesn’t say this, but that is particularly true if the reporter is on a deadline and needs the interview by some set time. If the interview can be anytime in the next two weeks, say, then the research scientist can often find time. But, if the reporter calls at noon and the interview has to be this afternoon so that the reporter can meet a 5pm deadline, then it becomes difficult. Most research scientists have a pretty busy schedule anyway. But, she also points out that many scientists won’t talk to reporters anyway for fear that what they say will be turned around and the reporter will end up reporting things that were not said in the interview. This happens on a regular basis. For her, an assistant professor going for tenure, being made to sound like she doesn’t know what she is talking about can be scary. For someone trying to build a reputation in the field, it also can be scary if a reporter takes what you say and screws it all up. So many researchers don’t talk to reporters.
Jennifer is a science writer, so she has a bit of a different perspective. But, she understands that it is a real concern to scientists that what they say in an interview be reported accurately. She also makes a valid point, though, that scientists can’t really complain about science reporting if they won’t talk to reporters. She also points out that there is a bit of snob nosing going on among scientists who look down on their colleagues who actively engage in public outreach. Yeah, I’ve run into that. Again, that doesn’t make sense, since we would all be better off if the public were better informed.
There are problems all over the place when it comes to getting good science news to the public. Clearly, one problem is that there are a lot of reporters who shouldn’t be reporting on science. They avoided all the science that they could in high school and college. They know almost nothing about any of the sciences, and for some reason they (and a lot of the public) seem to be proud of their math and science ignorance. Then, they are assigned a science story by their editor. It may be some hot topic. There may be some big discovery that has just been made. All the other newspapers and television stations are doing a story on it. The regular science correspondent is busy. So, the story falls to the guy who doesn’t even like science. He calls the top research scientist, who then spouts a lot of complicated jargon that the reporter has no hope of understanding. That is if he can get the top research scientist. Often he is starting the whole process just a few hours before the deadline, and it is hard to catch these guys. He ends up doing an internet search and taking some information from what he finds online. not knowing enough about the field to even be able to gauge whether or not the information found there is valid or not. Hey, one of the local television news broadcasts a couple of years ago broadcast a story saying that Mars would be the closest that it had ever been to Earth on a particular night and would appear that night to be about as big as the Full Moon. Yep. That was an internet rumor, and it got broadcast on one of the major evening news broadcasts in the Dallas / Fort Worth area. All too often, reporters are rushing to get the story out, and they don’t even check their facts. Now, not all do that. I’ve spoken with a few who were working on news stories, and they called me just to check facts and to clarify something that someone told them. Those are the ones who care, and they generally produce pretty good science news reports.
But, the problem is not just with the reporters. Part of the problem is the scientist. After all, the top research scientists are used to talking to other research scientists. They write journal papers, they present at professional conferences, and they give colloquia to faculty in their discipline at other universities. They are used to talking to others at that level. Then, a reporter comes along who knows not only nothing about the particular news story they are writing about, but they also know nothing about the field of study that generated that news item, and they don’t even have the basic background provided in freshman science classes in that field. The top research scientist then goes on to explain their work using technical jargon, and at a level that would confuse a graduate student. I know. I’ve heard them do this! The poor reporter has absolutely no hope. Many are so confused, they don’t even know what questions to ask. So, is it any wonder that they get the story wrong? Even if the reporter is interested, they are lost. Worse, many of the top research scientists are so far removed from the public that they don’t even have a clue how to communicate with them. Back some years ago, the Superconducting Super Collider project was in jeopardy of losing federal money (which it did). The top researchers were interviewed to explain why the project was a good idea. So, they were talking about gauge bosons, W particles, quarks, etc. No one had a clue what they were talking about other than other physicists. The Texas delegation in Congress didn’t even know what the SSC was for. The Texas governor even said that we needed the SSC to provide good clean electricity for Texans! When, it became apparent that the SSC was losing public support, the particle physicists decided to change strategy and explain the purpose of the thing in terms that the public could understand, so they said that they were going to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang. That was a BIG mistake. That went over like a lead balloon, particularly here where most of the public says that they don’t even believe in the Big Bang. Besides, it raised fears that they would blow up the planet. The SSC eventually lost funding. Now, I can’t say that it was just because the top particle researchers didn’t know how to talk to the public, but I do believe that was part of the problem. And, the reporters didn’t know who to ask to explain the SSC other than the particle physicists.
So, many scientists will no longer talk to reporters because there are some reporters who totally mess up a story. Some reporters won’t talk to the research scientists because the one who will talk to them often can’t say anything in words that they can understand. I have seen all too often run to the wrong people to ask questions. They’ll find someone who is not even a scientist, such as a volunteer at the museum, because that person can answer questions intelligibly. However, the answers are not always right. Even good reporters then wind up reporting poor science. Reporters lament that they can’t report on science because they can’t understand it. Scientists lament that reporters don’t report science right.
Personally, I believe that there needs to be more science reporting, and more accurate reporting. That means that everyone has to do their part. Personally, I am quite active in public outreach. I host public star parties, I give talks in schools, I am available to the media, etc. When a reporter does contact me, I try to make sure that they understand what I am saying. I try to explain things in simple terms, but without “dumbing down” the material. That takes some skill: to explain complicated topics simply. I have not perfected that skill, but I at least try, and I believe that I am significantly better than most. If we, as scientists, don’t talk to the press, though, then we can’t justifiably sit back and blast the media for not reporting science properly. I agree with Jennifer on that point. However, when we do talk to the press, and they still get it wrong, then we need to ask if the problem was with the scientist or the reporter. It is the responsibility of the journalist to make sure that they get the story right if they do interview someone. Everybody that I know who has dealt with reporters has plenty of stories about how they didn’t get the news right. I know a lot of people who won’t talk to reporters because they are convinced that they won’t get it right. I haven’t joined their ranks, … yet. I will still grant interviews. I will even answer questions of reporters who want me to explain someone else’s statements (and more often than not, they don’t mention me in the article as a source at all, but that’s OK as long as they get the facts right). Science literacy in this country is abysmal. Anything that we can do to help is a plus. So, I encourage other scientists who are asked for interviews to grant them … carefully. And, I encourage any reporters to check and double check your facts, and try to be as accurate as possible.
(Bergman image courtesy of Wikimedia)