Science media centers & the press, part 3

Can a SMC work in the US?

With a mission to provide the press and the public with high-quality scientific information and sources, the Science Media Centers in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan have become influential, but controversial players in the world of journalism. While some reporters find them helpful, others believe they are biased toward government and industry scientists.

This three-part series will examine the role that the original center plays in the UK, the performance of the centers during the Fukushima nuclear crisis, and the proposal to launch a Science Media Center in the US. For each installment, two writers were asked to submit opening statements replying to the question in the headline. They exchanged those statements and wrote short replies.

In Part 2, Curtis Brainard, editor of The Observatory and a member of the US SMC exploratory committee, and Ron Winslow, a science reporter at The Wall Street Journal and president of the National Association of Science Wrtiers, respond to the question: “Can a SMC work in the US?” Part 1 is available here and Part 2 is available here.

Curtis Brainard, opening statement:

After years of worry about the dearth of science coverage in American media, a variety of new websites, blogs and podcasts have sprung up to fill the void left by newspapers, magazines, and broadcast news.

It is unclear whether the newcomers are reaching the broad readerships and audiences to which traditional newsrooms cater, however, and there is still a need to support more, accurate and high quality coverage of science in the press, regardless of the medium. In that spirit, I agreed last year to join the exploratory committee for establishing a Science Media Center in the United States.

I’d heard from many journalists that the existing centers were helpful, but I’d also heard the concern that they function as PR outlets friendly to government and industry scientists. Indeed, no sooner had the idea for an American center emerged than reporter Colin Macilwain wrote an op-ed for the journal Nature detailing why he thinks the SMC model wouldn’t make a good fit in the US.

The center would have trouble coping with the size and diversity of the American media landscape, Macilwain argued, and with politically and socially divisive issues like climate change and stem cells. Moreover, American journalists would never go for things like the packaged “rapid reaction” quotes from scientists that other centers often provide during breaking news situations.

These are valid concerns, but ones that the exploratory committee fully intends to account for, and, as my fellow committee member, Julia Moore, wrote in a reply to Macilwain:

If established, a US centre would embrace a uniquely American model of operation to serve the country’s journalists and public understanding of science. It would adapt to its cultural landscape, just as those of Canada or Japan have.

The question is, how? As Macilwain noted, size matters, and a US SMC would need to focus its efforts where it’s most needed, which seems to be traditional print and broadcast newsrooms with little to no scientific expertise on staff. That means a lot of local papers and TV and radio stations. It will also have to support those outlets, like wire services, which are providing more and more science content for both traditional and online reports. So the center will make greater use of telecommunications and digital and social media to serve its constituents.

Beyond geography, the most important consideration is the concern about PR practices. As Fiona Fox, the director of the British center, noted in the opening installment of this series, the UK SMC, “not set up to help journalists, but to support more scientists to engage effectively with journalists.”

The US committee generally agrees that to work, an American center would need to flip this idea on its head and be geared toward supporting journalists to engage more effectively with scientists. That means fewer or no pooled quotes based on what the SMC thinks is the big science news of the week, and more capacity to respond to journalists’ requests for help with the stories they’ve determined to be important.

We’ve already seen proof of concept for this strategy in popular services such as the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, which has enlisted over 135 scientists and field questions from a variety of news outlets and won praise from journalists, and EurekAlert!’s “Science Sources,” a searchable online directory of public information officers from research institutions around the world.

The US committee is also sensitive to concerns about controversial areas of science and conflicts of interest. The current plan is to pursue funding from an array of charitable foundations rather than governmental or corporate entitles, and the SMC will need to develop a set of written guidelines to explain how it handles conflicting scientific opinions in areas like biotechnology. But the overriding ethos of a SMC is that the best available science and most rigorous application of the scientific method will rule.

Far from adding another layer of PR to reporters’ work routines, the idea is to help them cut through the large volume of communications they already receive. Ultimately, though, the US committee would like to hear from American journalists about what they think a SMC could do for them and how it can best establish itself as a trusted, rigorous science resource for the media.

Ron Winslow, opening statement:

This is the first I’ve heard of the idea of a Science Media Center and while the concept is intriguing, I’m not convinced it’s the way to go in the US. Apart from the potential contribution for deadline needs on breaking science stories, an SMC feels like a redundancy to me for US-based journalists.

We have a robust if eclectic group of organizations and initiatives already in place with missions to improve the quality of science journalism. The National Association of Science Writers, the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the Association of Health Care Journalists, and the Society of Environmental Journalists are among journalist-run and directed organizations that offer first-rate programs featuring professional skills development, science content seminars, or source-building opportunities, or all of the above. In addition, the HealthNewsReview blog, focused on medical/clinical science coverage, and the Tracker, a blog hosted by the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, are among peer-review watchdog style efforts that publish regular critiques of science stories. A variety of fellowship programs provide opportunities for professional development and background reporting on science. Some of these initiatives might be competing for funds necessary to launch and operate an SMC. Where does an ambitious organization like an SMC fit in this already well-populated if unstructured space?

Improving reporting of evidence-based science is a big driver of the formation of the SMCs in the UK and elsewhere. What is the evidence base that the ones that have been up and running for a while are achieving that goal? How would any success translate in the US?

Moreover, what is the statement of need in the US? Is our journalism filled with misinformation?

I agree with the skepticism in the Nature piece that US journalists would use canned quotes from sources provided by an SMC. One person’s “independent source” may be another’s agenda-driver. A database listing the economic conflicts of science researchers may be helpful, though other organizations already maintain such resources.

Reporters who might best be served by a deadline news/briefing service would be those in mid-to-low profile organizations where no one else knows anything about what they cover and who also may have a hard time getting calls returned from scientists in a timely manner.

Another missing feature in the science-journalism training infrastructure is help for general editors who need a better background/perspective/understanding of the scientific process why the instinct to play up the breakthrough or to demand a definitive lede on a story of a preliminary finding can lead to science stories that hype rather than inform.

Finally, an SMC seems to be about properly educating the public about science. Maybe it’s also born of concern about science denialism in our culture. No doubt journalists play an important role in the development of a society’s scientific literacy, but our role as educators is overstated and imbued with unrealistic expectations. We cover the news. Then we go on to the next story. We inform our readers, viewers and listeners, and in the best efforts offer them insight and open doors to ideas they previously knew little about. These are far from trivial functions. But we don’t educate in the conventional sense. If improving journalists’ roles as educators is driving the concept of an SMC, the end will be mostly frustration.

Science journalism, like science itself, is a work-in-progress. We can certainly use more support for the efforts and programs in place to improve our craft and our profession. We don’t need yet another well-meaning organization to dilute the already scarce resources dedicated to that end.

Curtis Brainard, reply:

These are all important questions and concerns and ones that many American journalists will likely have, especially those who are unfamiliar with the SMC network.

Ron is right that the US is fortunate to have an excellent support structure for science writers already in place. I’m a member of the National Association of Science Writers and the Society of Environmental Journalists. They’re invaluable, and they do provide timely help with stories for reporters on deadline, but their work is much broader, and they’re not setup to do that fulltime in the way a SMC would be.

The most important function of a SMC is to help reporters “triage” major research papers using a volunteer network of top scientists. While I agree that we should avoid diluting scare resources, I don’t think that a center would duplicate any services currently available, and thus the question is, as Ron notes, is there a need for the center? And if so, how much?

I don’t know of any scholarly evaluations of the SMCs’ influence on the media in other countries or writ large (and such info would certainly be helpful), but reporters on variety of beats, including science, have said they appreciate the centers’ assistance. In fact, the centers have collected numerous testimonials from top journalists, scientists, and press officers who have worked with them.

In the US, misinformation is certainly part of the problem, but so is the general decline of science coverage in general-interest newspapers, magazines, and broadcasting. The mission is both to improve accuracy the accuracy of science coverage and to encourage more of it. Indeed, the US exploratory committee is eager to hear from journalists how an American center could do that.

Among other things, the committee hopes to commission studies on the current state of science media in the US and on where Americans get their science news. It will also ask a small number of US science journalists to volunteer to sign-up for the SMC UK’s email list and take advantage its services in order see what they find helpful or unhelpful.

Ron’s suggestions—like the need to provide better training for general editors about the scientific process—are incredibly helpful and exactly the kind of pointers that the committee is looking for. The committee would also like to hear concerns, such as the one Ron expressed about improving journalists’ role as educators, which isn’t the center’s goal. The goal is to help them locate accurate scientific information and sources for their reporting, and over the coming months, the more input the committee receives, the better.

Ron Winslow, reply:

So is it a dearth of science coverage in the US media that is driving interest in a Science Media Center, or is it concern about the quality of science journalism?

Any SMC providing science resources for the media—however trusted and rigorous—would be of limited value if the science-writer workstations in our newsrooms are mostly empty chairs. Prospects that conventional print and broadcast outlets, even those with a prominent online presence, are poised for a science-journalist hiring binge are remote at best.

In that light, perhaps organizations such as Kaiser Health News or Propublica would be worthwhile models to consider: independent staffs with strong editors that provide coverage where voids exist or where collaboration with other media can leverage limited reporting staffs. That could expand coverage, with a bonus of high quality, but it would be a much different resource than an SMC. And hey, if sustainable financial support could be found (no doubt a big “if”), it might even put some good science journalists back on a regular paycheck.

Another consideration is whether any effort to increase levels of science journalism is better directed at digital as opposed to conventional outlets and what form such an effort should take.

Some of my NASW colleagues wonder about the possibility of a central clearing house with links to currently available resources at various journalism organizations, blogs, etc. It wouldn’t necessarily create new prorgrams, but could serve as a one-stop shopping site for what is already available and require regular updating. It could be based at an existing organization, avoiding the need for a new infrastructure.

We currently exist in a kind of perfect storm: Scientific discovery in both life and physical sciences is exploding, demanding both smart and critical reporting. Yet the media’s resources devoted to covering stories so crucial to society are depleted amid profound changes driven by the Internet’s disruptive impact on conventional news organizations.

But journalists on other beats face challenges too. Are we really so different from the rest of our profession that we need a dedicated Media Center to improve our lot?

This is an important conversation and I hope it will lead to efforts to strengthen and expand existing resources to meet the challenges facing science journalism.

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Curtis Brainard and Ron Winslow collaborated on this article. Brainard is the editor The Observatory and a member of US SMC exploratory committee. Winslow is a science reporter at The Wall Street Journal and the president of the National Association of Science Writers. Tags: , , , ,