The True Challenge For Science Journalists

A response to Paul Raeburn's "Scientists and Journalists: Too Cozy?"

Paul Raeburn’s recent Observatory column, Scientists and Journalists: Too Cozy? was one of many snapshots that looked at Sharon Dunwoody and friends’ latest assessment of journalist-scientist interactions. And like many of the other commentators, Raeburn focused on what he saw as the quick-and-dirty conclusion of Dunwoody’s reasonably complex research.

That, in itself, is one major problem in science reporting.

Dunwoody’s study basically asked if scientists “like” reporters. Are the interactions between the two amiable and cooperative, or hostile and combative? Paul Raeburn and other members of the Fourth Estate historically have denied the need for being “friends” with scientists. But the truth is that science reporters want to have positive relationships with their sources in most cases. They want to build trust with the researchers they cover. That’s why they return to the same sources again and again.

Similarly, researchers want the attention of the news media and, when asked, will jump through hoops for press coverage, providing it accurately depicts their work. Granted, some researchers still offer horror stories about reporters making stupid mistakes that cost a scientist’s reputation. And among journalists, a parallel mythology continues that researchers are frantic for coverage in order to line their pockets with grants.

Both ideas are folklore, born of a level of ignorance about what actually goes on in these surprisingly similar—but dramatically different—cultures.

Scientists, like journalists, would naturally like the public to appreciate their work. But based on my three decades of science reporting, it seems like they mainly just want to be left alone to do that work. I’ve followed the literature for thirty years and know of no valid studies that have ever been published citing a direct coorelation between increased news coverage of research and the increased funding of that research. Clearly there’s folklore to that effect, but there is no evidence that isn’t anecdotal. Peer review panels that make funding decisions do not consider news coverage of specific research being proposed as a determinant for higher scores and, therefore, of getting funded. Suggesting that researchers primarily want visibility for their own financial gain ignores the basic funding structure in research institutions where the work is done. Believing otherwise is like suggesting that staff reporters get more money if their stories appear on the front page rather than inside the paper.

Raeburn’s theater critic analogy doesn’t seem to work for science journalists. Most of us want to know the critics’ opinions; at the same time, we recognize that the critics’ views are subjective, based on a set of expectations that readers have previously weighed and may or may not value. If we really acted on the recommendations of critics, the majority of artistic productions would close after opening night, based on reviews generally being more negative than positive.

The public wants journalists to alert them to discoveries, to explain them when they are abstract, to purge out the jargonistic and esoteric, and to place them in context. In short, science journalists’ work is almost always explanatory. They’re the bridge that allows a reasonably smart but scientifically weak public to appreciate the work and enhance their understanding beyond their vestigial science education.

And when the need arises for science journalists to investigate the darker side of research, and shine a bright light on work that just doesn’t seem to be right, they should do so with zeal and single-mindedness.

But those darker science stories aren’t the norm of science coverage. The reason they warrant such coverage is that they contradict how science is typically done. They no more exemplify the world of contemporary science than the escapades of Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass depict the norm of journalism.

The true challenge for science journalists is not the risk of being seen as too friendly with scientists. It is instead the battle to make sense out of the increasingly complex, and to successfully convey these complexities to a public suffering from an ever-dwindling attention span.

Reporters who cry out for more distance between their colleagues and sources only lead readers to wonder if those same journalists have forgotten their role.

Earle Holland is assistant vice president for research communications at Ohio State University and a former board member of both the National Association of Science Writers and the Society of Environmental Journalists.