The last third of the 20th century has seen a lot of tension and conflict between scientists and journalists about the way the media treat science stories. Survey research in the United States shows remarkable continuity in the areas of contention. Journalists see themselves as engaging in criticism, entertainment and information. Scientists continue to want scholarly communication and public education about science and expect this to come from journalists.
Given the findings’ resilience, it seems surprising that researchers continue to propose the same sorts of solutions—science education for journalists and communication skills training for scientists. Many journalists (as distinct from science writers) opted out of studying science in school, so when in the course of general reporting they find themselves assigned to science stories, they are unlikely to welcome more science study. And some scientists are reluctant starters when it comes to interacting with journalists and are unlikely to voluntarily undertake media training. Perhaps a different approach to the problem is needed.
We have to confess to having been ignorant of this fertile field for research until the late 1990’s. A former college public relations colleague, who had been our student in a Masters in Communication Studies course, contacted us about her experience and suggested a research project to be conducted here in Australia. From her studies and experience as a working journalist, she could see how easy it was for journalists to underestimate what went into scientific research. And when working in public relations in a government agency, she had run up against journalistic reluctance to publish articles on worthy topics related to public health. When she worked in public affairs in the private corporate sector, she found herself battling with scientists who had something of practical importance to tell the public but who were reluctant to engage with everyday journalistic practice. Hers was a coaching role, and it was very hard work.
We began our research with two focus groups—one with scientists, the other with science journalists. For scientists, it was a prerequisite to have made some attempt to engage with the media. We wanted concrete experience rather than hearsay and prejudice. The scientists told us about their grievances. Among them were that the media wanted to set up “fights” in the name of debate, the difficulty of getting risk reported accurately, and also the frustration with rejected attempts to set the record straight when politicians and “shock jocks” played with emotions on an issue such as recreational drug use by young people.
Science journalists enlightened us about the futility of convincing editors and producers that “worthy” stories would do well on commercial television (and even public television) when a large segment of the public turns them off. And they told us that when promos focus on sensational bits of an upcoming science report, it annoys (and embarrasses) scientists who participated and journalists who reported the story. But sometimes that is simply the price of getting a good story on television current affairs. They also told us brutally about the really “bad talent” out there among scientists.
Focus Groups Sharpen the Issues
So, where were we to go from here? We decided to explore a few topics in depth with three journalists, three science writers/journalists, and three scientists. We framed these discussions in terms of each group belonging to a particular occupational community or subculture that went back a long way and embodied sets of principles and values that were integrally bound up with their sense of professional identity. Of course, the science writers had a foot in each camp—science and journalism. But this intersection was useful because we didn’t want to simply categorize people or even ideas. We wanted to see if there was some common ground among them and if, in this common ground, there were any shifts away from the sorts of well-recognized tensions, conflicts and dissatisfaction.
More understanding, we thought, might provide a better basis for improvement. We found that the occupational subcultures, or what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “habitus” (ways of holding and orienting oneself and the practical ability to cope with a wide range of situations unconsciously), went a long way in explaining the sources of tensions. Take the term “research” as an example. Both groups use similar words but with different meanings, and they have no idea that this is the case. Scientists are heirs of Enlightenment thinking, and approaches to their work and the ways they write and talk about it are generally unconscious. Journalists are heirs of another significant social tradition. As members of the “Fourth Estate,” they regard themselves as the protectors and watchdogs of democratic ideals. While this view is often more in the forefront of their thinking, they don’t perceive it as an obstacle to finding out the truth (or, more accurately, the “truths”) about science.
Given these orientations, once a sense of misunderstanding develops, each becomes wary of the other. In fact, in the name of professional integrity members on each side can be led into some fairly unprofessional actions. Journalists sometimes forget their usual tools of the trade. They stop asking questions and rely uncritically on publicity releases. They avoid talking with scientists and resort to using stereotypical frameworks from past reporting experiences. Scientists also may refuse to speak with members of the media by not returning calls in time to meet publication deadlines. In terms of public accountability, some scientists regard their responsibility for reporting their findings to be to grantmakers, as opposed to the public at large, and thus don’t feel a need to respond to journalists’ queries. Journalists, with some justification, think they have a role in scientists’ accountability to a wider public interest.
Our findings were not all doom and gloom. On the contrary, we found journalists to be as concerned about accuracy as scientists. And we found scientists concerned about making knowledge accessible to audiences. All parties were willing to suggest ways of bridging the gulf between science and journalism. For example, some media-savvy scientists have suggested that individuals who are working together on a project or in a lab be given a name, such as “The X Research Group.” This avoids the cumbersome problem some science stories present when researchers demand that journalists name each individual associated with the research group. Given space constraints, this demand can make it difficult for a reporter to devote the space necessary to accurately explain the science involved.
The Role of Public Relations
There remain strongly held views on both sides. Interestingly, public communicators emerged as having some potential in reconciling the two sides, even though our research found that the public relations (PR) role was regarded as a source of much controversy. Journalists are critical (and sometimes wary) of the “canned” story from pharmaceutical or PR firms. Many want to do their own reporting to avoid being led to a particular point of view. Others just want the story told to them and welcome the help of communication professionals, especially from universities. We also heard criticism of journalists for failing to check stories they write through press releases, which are published almost verbatim.
Our research revealed a much more complex relationship between public communication and journalism. One science writer suggested that scientists are as entitled to public communication assistance as other sectors of society are—but they are not entitled to just any PR. Science public relations people need to know more about science if they are to be effective. Scientists who take up this sort of role would also need to understand the needs and role of the media. As one scientist put it, “If they are going to be a link between the two, they must understand both beasts.”
While deploring the use of sophisticated, slick packages and provision of resources from private sector corporations and consultancies, journalists wanted universities, research centers, and government departments to provide the same quality and quantity of assistance as the private sector does in the interests of enhanced science communication. In other words, it was the source that was distrusted rather than the techniques used. If a relationship of trust existed, journalists’ complaints were about receiving not enough help rather than too much. At the same time, journalists realized this was a “big ask” in the context of declining resources for research and when scientists were canceling subscriptions for important but not essential journals.
Another role advocated for public communication intervention was the media training or coaching one. This included how to answer questions and present a news angle. Being able to answer questions concisely helps to avoid manipulation and reduces the risk of having bits of information (often in sound bites) taken out of context.
A content analysis of some newspaper coverage of science followed. We chose three Australian papers—two broadsheets (The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald) and a tabloid (The Daily Telegraph) that carries some quality reporting. We chose June to August 1999, when the Pacific Science Congress was in Sydney. It also included the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. We looked to see how science stories were framed. While the good reporting was more “informative” than “educational” in the view of scientists, we found plenty to increase public understanding of science. On the other hand, there was still a lot of stereotyping (especially of gender) and “gee whiz” emphasis on technological artifacts rather than additional focus on the explanation of important abstract ideas and processes. Sensationalism of the “shock horror” type hadn’t gone away, but we found fewer stories of the type scientists complained about than we might have expected.
Some suggestions for better science journalism that we’d seen in earlier research and put forth in our own are being put to use in print as well as television. These include an improved use of metaphors (though the tendency to overuse them is still visible) and of some creative “layering” techniques with text, pictures and graphics. We still think there is room for much more research. Better understanding of both the problems and what has been happening to improve science journalism might bring about even better suggestions for change.
Rosslyn Reed is a senior lecturer in social inquiry in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney. As well as science and journalism, her recent research includes the gendering of professional careers of young Australians. Gael Walker is associate professor in public communication in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology. Her recent research is on evaluation of public relations and communicating with activist publics.