Bridging the Journalism/Science Divide, Professions Seek New Ways To Collaborate

September 15, 2012

E-Reporting Biz


Rogers and Hammerstein taught us in the ageless musical Oklahoma that “the farmer and the cowman should be friends.” But there’s nary a word about the ideal relationship between the journalism and science communities. “Friends” is a term few ink-in-the-veins journalists might want to see attached to their news sources. In some ways, journalists and scientists are just beginning to get the message about the nexus between their professions. With their shared commitments to verification, authentication, transparency, and, if you will, “truth,” there would seem to be lots of ways for their two disciplines to get along and learn from each other.

And they can do so while preserving their own independence and remaining loyal to their underlying principles — especially important at a time when traditional news organizations, in particular major metropolitan daily newspapers, are undergoing wrenching and in many cases foundation-shaking changes.

Scientist in the newsroom, reporter among the scientists

But there’s evidence the two professions are trying to work together in new ways.

CBS News, for instance, recently began a partnership with a respected environmental scientist, M. Sanjayan, bringing him into its flagship news operations to comment as the network’s “Science and Environmental Contributor.” What makes the collaboration so interesting — and so unusual in the “mainstream” journalism world — is that Sanjayan will continue in his capacity as lead scientist with The Nature Conservancy.

Given Sanjayan’s considerable experience and skills in communicating with general audiences on complex environmental and science issues, the partnership no doubt has the potential to improve environmental and science communication for CBS News audiences.

But it’s precisely the kind of church-and-state collaboration — pairing a “straight news” operation with a representative of an outside policy advocacy interest organization — that used to raise the hair on the backs of news executives. A pity, some might say, that CBS News couldn’t, or didn’t, find a full-time “credentialed” journalist to fill that need.

In another example, New York Times technology correspondent David Pogue recently regaled a National Academy of Sciences “Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication” with smart ways to have some audiences eat their science spinach — even when it may not tickle their taste buds. Recently named host of PBS’s NOVA scienceNow, Pogue has written regularly for Scientific American, provided on-air science coverage for CBS’s Sunday Morning, and been profiled on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and “48 Hours.” The online video of his 27-minute Sackler presentation is worthwhile viewing for SEJ members interested in broadcast science news.

Do what researchers do – pretend it’s about cancer

On a somewhat lighter note, a posting poking fun at science writing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science Career blog spoofs the practitioners and at the same time brings smiles and laughs, and also something of a scold.

In “The Unwritten Rules of Journalism,” writer/scientist Adam Ruben deadpanned that “Science writers appear to obey a collection of unwritten rules when trying to convey science to a mainstream audience.” Some of his examples:

  • “Start your article with a personal anecdote, even if it’s narcissistic or tangential to the rest of the piece.”
  • “Put the reader at ease by discussing at length the small details of the day you met the scientist. Did you have coffee? Who ordered what? These elements are just as important as the details of the scientific discovery …. In your story, use one sentence, such as: ‘Dr. Anderson, who showed up 5 minutes late and ordered a medium cappuccino, discovered something about cystic fibrosis. Or maybe anthrax. But definitely cappuccino.’”
  • “Relate the research to readers’ everyday lives …. If you truly find yourself unable to determine the relevance of the research, do what the researchers themselves do when asked to write a grant application: Pretend it’s about cancer.”
  • “Don’t think of what you’re doing as ‘dumbing down’ science. It is, but don’t think of it that way.”
  • “You are required to use one of the following adjectives when describing a new scientific result: ‘breakthrough,’ ‘landmark,’ ‘game-changing,’ ‘innovative,’ or ‘revolutionary.’”
  • “Enabling the equation ‘one dissenter = controversy,’ include in your article the views of at least one dissenter. Think scientists have settled whether Earth is round? Think again … Controversy! Now you can write, ‘Scientists continue to argue whether the Earth is round.’”

To be sure, not all science writers saw only humor in some of those remarks.  Responding to Ruben’s pokes, Radiolab senior producer and blogger Soren Wheeler  fired back: “Tell a story, be visual and concrete, connect to the reader’s everyday life, use clear, simple language… all things that good science writers do,” Wheeler wrote.

Then there’s the cultural cognition work being pioneered by social scientists such as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman at Princeton and Dan Kahan at Yale. Their work is raising serious questions in the climate science community — and should be doing the same in the journalism community — about how the public at large accesses and understands (and more important fails to) environmental and, in particular, climate science.

“Cultural cognition” may not be a term that routinely flows off the lips in many news rooms. But understanding and appreciating its significance may be crucial to effective journalism on climate change and a wide range of environmental risk issues. It can be daunting for some perhaps, but a great way for environmental journalists to begin to come to grips with it lies in reviewing Kahan’s May 27 post in  Nature Climate Change.

In that piece, Kahan writes that public divisions over climate change are the result not of scientific illiteracy, but rather are driven by “a distinctive conflict of interest.” People’s needs to form beliefs “in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties,” Kahan wrote, runs afoul of  “making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.”

No wonder climate change is often seen as a “perfect storm”of a communications challenge — one that some researchers label an especially “wicked” public policy challenge.

Bud Ward, one of the co-founders of SEJ, is editor of The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, published by Yale University’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and its Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer/Fall 2012. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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