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.