Journalists choose an angle for every story they write. Should scientists do the same when explaining the import of their research to reporters and the public? In a column at The Observatory last week, Earle Holland argued it would be better if they left that to the pros.

Holland cites two recent research articles on science communication that we published as respective co-authors. Unfortunately, Holland renders the false impression that the two pieces are highly contradictory. In fact, they are strongly complementary, and both support the case for scientists learning to better explain their work. By favoring a conflict narrative over context, he sacrifices accuracy for a good storyline, distorting the nature of a major area of research in the social sciences.

Holland, who directs the research communications office at The Ohio State University, considers his trade journalism. As a senior figure among public information officers (PIOs), he argues in a chapter in the Field Guide for Science Writers that the first priority for PIOs should be to serve their readers by operating as honest brokers who augment the ability of the traditional news media to report on scientific studies. PIOs, according to Holland, should follow norms of careful and independent reporting, crafting their news releases as if they were traditional media stories, emphasizing accuracy and context.

Yet in his Observatory column, Holland violates many of his own long-standing recommendations.

In the first peer-reviewed article (pdf), Nisbet and Scheufele synthesize past research on how the public makes sense of and participates in science-related controversies. They also discuss the ethics and goals of public outreach and detail six types of communication initiatives that can be sponsored by science organizations, government agencies, and universities. One of their recommendations is that universities provide communication courses and new interdisciplinary degree programs for scientists and students. Not every scientist has the motivation, time, or the ability to work on public outreach, but these courses and degree programs provide knowledge, skills, and confidence for those who do.

Nisbet and Scheufele also recommend that science organizations and universities invest in careful formative and evaluative research, identifying trusted information sources across audience segments, as well as the “frames” of reference that different audiences apply in making sense of a complex topic. Effective public communication “is not a guessing game, it is a science” they note.

Finally, Nisbet and Scheufele warn that “public communication and engagement should not be conceived of as simply a way to ‘sell’ the public on the importance of science; or to persuade the public to view scientific debates as scientists and their allies do.” Any efforts to do so are “likely to only reinforce existing polarization and perceptual gridlock.” The goals of public engagement should be to promote public dialogue, build trust, and enable wider public participation in collective decision-making.

In the second peer-reviewed article (pdf), Brossard and co-authors at the University of Wisconsin report on a survey of U.S. scientists, documenting the frequency of their contacts with the news media and their motivations for engaging journalists. The study offers good news: Roughly two out of three scientists had at least one contact with journalists in the three years prior to the survey, and more than a quarter had over five contacts. Not unexpectedly, senior scientists interacted more frequently with journalists than their junior colleagues. Formal communication training was the second strongest predictor of such interaction, however. An additional motivator was the belief by scientists that their media outreach would boost technical, practical, ethical, and social understanding and contribute to debates about policy. However, concerns over negative publicity or possible sanctions from their peers were not a statistically significant influence.

Audience research, not journalism

Despite the complementary nature of the work, Holland argues that Nisbet and Scheufele’s article “doesn’t jive well” with the findings of their close colleagues at the University of Wisconsin. First, Holland alleges that Nisbet and Scheufele recommend that scientists employ research on framing to become advocates for specific political issues and policies, when in fact they explicitly argue against this position. Holland then pits this false interpretation against his misleading depiction of the study co-authored by Brossard, claiming that scientists hold deep reservations about contributing to debates over policy issues. Holland asserts that their reluctance stems from a fear of social sanctions from their peers and department chairs.

In fact, the study’s results do not support these claims. Rather, as detailed above, they show that scientists as a group feel a social responsibility to communicate with the public relative to policy debates and that this partially motivates their interactions with journalists. Yet Holland concludes that scientists lack the time and expertise to either learn about or work on public communication initiatives, and that communication should be left to the professionals like him.

Matt Nisbet, Dominique Brossard, Dietram Scheufele are professors. Nisbet is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. Brossard and Scheufele are professors in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.