The Scientific Method for Reaching a Wider Audience

How digital media is helping science escape the “echo chamber”

“Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber? Chamber? Chamber?” Ed Yong, an award-winning science blogger at Discover, wondered in a mid-January post about new media’s ability to attract general-interest readers to special-interest topics.

Yong’s question is the latest episode in a decades-old debate about how (or even if) the media can move science news from the margin, where it gets seen only by science aficionados, to the mainstream. The decline of traditional media has reinvigorated the debate, and Yong summed up the conventional logic underlying concerns about the echo-chamber argument:

With newspaper sales on the decline, people aren’t exposed to science stories nestled among other topics at the turn of a page. It’s hard to achieve the same effect in the heavily tagged and increasingly specialized world of the Internet. Surely, it is said, only people already interested in science will subscribe to a science blog’s RSS feed, or click on the Science section of the Guardian or the New York Times.

However, “This is a fairly limited view of how the modern Internet works,” Yong, writing on his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, continued. In fact, new media may mobilize sequestered science and allow it to spread even more efficiently than before:

You don’t expect people to come to you. You go to where they are or, better still, you get other people to take you there.

When I link to a post on Facebook or Twitter, it reaches a few thousand people. Some of them will pass the link on to their friends and followers, and it ripples outwards. At every iteration, the stories land in front of more potential eyes, with increasingly diverse interests.

Moreover, Yong emphasized, the niche audience problem has deep roots in print media. Indeed, long before the term “echo chamber” was employed, journalists worried about the “ghettoization” of science in the easily discarded pullout sections of newspapers. Specialized magazines face the same dilemma, and Yong quoted two prominent editors to make the point:

Mariette DiChristina, editor of Scientific American, says that while most of the magazine’s subscribers already had some interest in science, fewer than 10% of them are scientists. The same is true for New Scientist. Its editor, Roger Highfield, told me that most of the magazine’s print readers have a science degree or higher, but most are not directly involved with science any more.

While it appears that these magazines aren’t catering solely to scientists, they may not exactly have the ear of the mainstream either. Far from exacerbating the problem, however, DiChristina told Yong, “Digital media give us lots of new ways to engage our audience.” Apps and link-swaps now complement traditional syndication partnerships and marketing efforts.

Yong’s post came on the heels of the ScienceOnline 2011 conference, which inspired numerous reflections on the state and direction of science writing on the Web. In fact, it was Emily Anthes, who writes the Public Library of Science (PLoS) blog Wonderland, that first asked about the echo chamber in a post headlined, “As Science Bloggers, Who Are We Really Writing For?”

There are a variety of ways to try to answer that question. Dr. Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who runs the blog Context and Variation, used SurveyMonkey. Yong merely asked his readers to post something about themselves in the comments section of his blog. He’s done it three times since 2008 (here, here, and here), drawing almost 500 responses in total. Most of those people had a background in science, engineering, or computer programming, but certainly not all of them did.

Beneath Anthes’ post, veteran science writer Paul Raeburn (who now blogs for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker), wrote “…as a journalist, I’ve always thought of myself as writing for a broader audience, and I still do. I spent much of my career at the AP and BusinessWeek, places I liked to work in large part because they addressed a general audience.”

Raeburn’s comment touched on an important question: when it comes to escaping the echo chamber, does it matter whether you define yourself as a “journalist” or “blogger”? After the ScienceOnline conference in 2010, Yong argued that conversations about the distinction had grown “sterile and unhelpful,” but not everybody is ready to close the door on that debate.

Chris Rowan, a geologist at the University of Chicago who co-authors the blog Highly Allochthonous, drafted a fascinating list of “elephants in the room” at this year’s ScienceOnline meeting. Among them: “Not all bloggers want to be journalists.” According to Rowan:

Whilst advice on clearer writing and reaching a wider audience can be valuable, underneath it all seems to be the almost unconscious assumption that everyone is in this game because they want to be a journalist or a popular science writer. But some of us are scientists first, and science writers second… I think that perspective needs to be better articulated in these discussions, lest we lose sight of the fact that science blogging is most valuable when it spans the entire continuum between scientific journals and popular exposition.

Bora Zivkovic, who organizes ScienceOnline and is the blogs editor for Scientific American, expressed a similar sentiment in a recent interview with a science journalism student at New York University. Zivkovic contrasted journalistic writing, which focuses on short summaries of “what’s new,” and blogging, which places more emphasis on explanation, no matter what the length. The latter, he argued, can be just as captivating.

That’s important. Although not all bloggers desire to be widely read journalists, many at least want to be widely read. With that in mind, Carl Zimmer—who writes about science for just about every medium there is—keeps a continually updated list of words that everybody should avoid while blogging their way out of the echo chamber. According to Zimmer:

…anyone who wants to learn how to write about science-and to be read by people who aren’t being paid to read—should work hard to learn how to explain science in plain yet elegant English—not by relying on scientific jargon, code-words, deadening euphemisms, or meaningless clich├ęs.”

The current iteration of the list includes obviously alienating words and phrases like “Anomalous,” “Anthropogenic,” “Modulate,” and “Et al,” as well as less obvious turnoffs like “Context,” “Food source (when just ‘food’ will do),” “Literally (even if it’s used accurately, the word is generally useless),” and “Multiple (as in many? Then just use many).” (It’s also worth reading another of Zimmer’s posts at his blog, The Loom, headlined, “Death to Obfuscation,” where he expands on the difference between good science writing and bad.)

New media are not only about breaking out of the echo chamber, however. They should also aim to improve upon traditional science coverage. In a column for The Guardian, former Scientific American editor John Rennie, wrote that his enthusiasm for new media:

…sprang not just from enthusiasm for the improvements possible through linking to primary sources, fostering dialogues with readers, incorporating multimedia and tapping the awesome explanatory power of LOLcats. Rather that online reporting could offer a fresh start - the opportunity to correct major defects in the existing coverage of research.

Rennie went to explain a fundamental difference between news and science news:

Most categories of news are built around discrete events. A building burns down; a law is passed; a sports team wins a match: these things happen once and they cannot unhappen. News media race to inform the public quickly about these events and the consequences that unspool from them…There is rarely a distinct moment when a finding or theory comes to be accepted as canon by a consensus of scientists…Yet journalism typically treats the publication of a paper in a journal as a newsworthy, validating event.

Rennie complained that because of the mad rush to report any new finding, a lot of the ensuing coverage is identically unimpressive. The antidote, he argued, is delaying coverage and sacrificing the “newness” for thoroughness and context, and while he did not explicitly say that help bring science out of the echo chamber, there is every reason to believe that it could. A week after penning his column for The Guardian, Rennie wrote a post at his PLoS blog, The Gleaming Retort, that highlighted reporting by Yong, which “keyed off a new paper on induced pluripotent stem cells,” but broke the “usual mold” by doing two things. First, Yong reissued an older story he’d written, updating it with information about the new paper:

Then, even more creatively, he used the online tools at to create an interactive timeline recapping the history of reprogrammed stem cell research. In fact, the timeline was noteworthy enough that Ed was instantly able to syndicate it to the Guardian.

In other words, Yong escaped the echo chamber with a little innovative storytelling (the Nieman Journalism Lab and the Knight Science Journalism Tracker also ran posts calling attention to the timeline). Such triumphs do not come easy, of course, but the proof is in the digital pudding. Struggling to pull science out of the media echo chamber will always be challenge, but a new (scientific) method is emerging online that will help writers of all stripes in that endeavor. And it should be clear by now that the emergence of new technologies is alleviating, rather than exacerbating, the ages-old “ghettoization” problem.

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Dylan DePice is a former CJR intern. Tags: ,