Listening to Scientists and Journalists: By Hearing What They Say about Themselves and Each Other, Researchers Try to Find Common Ground to Improve Reporting. (Science Journalism)

By Reed, Rosslyn; Walker, Gael | Nieman Reports, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Listening to Scientists and Journalists: By Hearing What They Say about Themselves and Each Other, Researchers Try to Find Common Ground to Improve Reporting. (Science Journalism)


Reed, Rosslyn, Walker, Gael, Nieman Reports


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.

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Listening to Scientists and Journalists: By Hearing What They Say about Themselves and Each Other, Researchers Try to Find Common Ground to Improve Reporting. (Science Journalism)
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