Another of Orzel’s bugbears was Yong’s suggestion that scientists avoid “boilerplate adjectives” and “banal quotes,” such as, “This research is interesting, but more work needs to be done.” Orzel wrote that he was “a little dubious about the push for really strongly worded comments… There’s only so much you can inflate your comments about a fairly cool but not utterly amazing new paper for media consumption. At some point, it becomes deceptive.”

Clearly, though, Yong was not calling for inflated or deceptive comments. Nor was he advising against “qualifications and equivocations,” as Orzel also suggested. Rather, Yong seemed to be calling for specifics. If something is interesting, but not enthralling, a scientist should try to explain why that’s the case. It’s just like the classic line of advice to journalists: “Show, don’t tell.”

Ultimately, though, Orzel conceded that what really bothered him about Yong’s guide was the “sense that the ways scientists talk to journalists are wasting the journalists’ time, which they would otherwise be using to do Important Journalism.” As he explained in a follow-up post at PhysicsFocus.org, he’s sick of the lecturing, which goes both ways:

The temptation for each party in this situation is to try to push as much of the work to the other as possible, and that’s where most advice from journalists to scientists (or vice versa) fails. Each side treats the conventions of their particular profession as immutable laws of nature that the other must adjust to accommodate. Even when offered with the best of intentions, as with Ed Yong’s post last week, the advice ends up sounding one-sided: “Here’s what you need to do to work with me.”

One might point out that in both journalism and science, there is as much lecturing and advice that comes from within, as there is that comes from without. While there is plenty of obstinacy to go around, at some level, both sides recognize that their conventions are not, in fact, immutable.

Orzel is correct, however, that journalists and scientists could do more to fulfill the mutual responsibility to make each other’s jobs a bit easier, and “with that in mind,” he drafted four tips for journalists—including “tell us what you know” and “accept that the truth may be boring”—that complement Yong’s guide for scientists. Like some of the best books on covering and/or communicating science, which have a scientist and a journalist on the byline, it helps to have both perspectives.

 

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.