In 16 years as a science writer, I have thought a lot about how biologists interact with the news media. I have observed this interaction at work and participated in it, both as a reporter for a newspaper and as a public information officer at a large university. From countless exchanges on the telephone, in labs, and in the field, I know that, by and large, biologists are a group of people with a deep sense of frustration. It is the frustration articulated so beautifully by Aldo Leopold, whose words express the essence of the problem you face if you care about communicating your science to the public. In Round River, a collection of journal entries published posthumously in 1953, Leopold wrote that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds” (Leopold, p. 165). Those with an “ecological education” are biologists whose experience and thinking give them an ecological perspective, which reveals the elegant and fragile processes that govern life on Earth. The frustrations felt by those of us who hold such a perspective are compounded by ignorance, nonchalance, or disbelief on the part of the general public. As Leopold put it, “An ecologist must either harden his shell...or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise” (Leopold 1953, p. 165).

Most of you have seen the marks of death and have hardened your shells. Some of you are attacking the problem. Here are a few initial, simple thoughts on how to go about building better relations with the news media. If you don't try, many journalists and experts on science policy I've talked with over the years believe, ignorance will prevail. As Neal E. Miller put it in The Scientist's Responsibility for Public Information, “The growing importance of science in our society and its increasing dependence on the taxpayers' support makes it a duty of the scientist to cooperate with the science writer in educating the public. Unless reputable scientists supply accurate information to the popular media, the public is left at the mercy of the charlatans, the sensation mongers, and of exposes by the anti-intellectuals” (Miller 1985, p. 1).

The culture of newsrooms

If you want to communicate with the public through journalists, it helps to understand some basics about the culture of newsrooms and the mindset of news reporters. The culture of newsrooms is not homogeneous. Journalists around the country—from New York to Los Angeles, and from television to newspapers—have different ways of approaching their jobs, working with sources, and writing for their audiences. The newsroom is filled with fascinating people who are an assemblage of diverse intellectual interests and powers. It is a culture with harsh deadlines, intense pressure to engage the audience, and severe constraints on communicating intricate ideas. Despite this rich culture, a newsroom can at times seem resigned to mediocrity, perhaps even uninterested in the world of ideas.

It is true that we journalists tend to be a skeptical, and often cynical, bunch. That's because of the nature of our jobs; the things we see and hear in the real world; and the way we are treated by sources, the public, and even our own news media system. We deal with police, government officials, politicians, spokespeople for businesses, and other stakeholders in our society who for one reason or another often give us misguided or incomplete information. The point is that we work in a world of mutual mistrust, and that shapes the way in which we interact with our sources. Another way of putting it is that our profession demands that we be skeptical. The operative philosophy and slogan of the City News Bureau of Chicago, where I trained, was “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Despite the skepticism, most professional journalists are fairly enlightened people, and most of us care intensely about truth, justice, and scientific progress. Most of us are not in this for the money, recognition, or fame. We are in it because we care about our towns, states, nations, and world, and we feel that we can make a contribution, however small, to making things better through journalism. It is a Jeffersonian view of the media's role in a democracy.

We believe that we are the “eyes and ears of the public” and that our work is a public service. Stress and burnout are high not only because of the hard, high-pressure, and often risky work but also because of the strain of conflicting views within our own newsrooms about the newspaper's responsibility to democracy. Although we may have an enlightened view of science, we are not automatically your advocate. In general, we ask our questions and write our stories with the public in mind. Our responsibilities are primarily to the truth and to the people we are writing for—not necessarily to the interests of scientists or any other stakeholder in the democracy.

A clash of cultures

Scientists and journalists have had plenty of positive interactions. Yet despite the idealistic motivations of scientists and professional journalists, the interactions between them are sometimes characterized by chaos and hard feelings. Such discord is largely the result of a clash of two cultures, science and the newsroom. Framed simply, science is the world of labs, publications, peer review, and acceptance according to the values and norms of science. Journalism's task is to inform the public speedily, to detail “history on the run.” Although science thrives on details and precision, journalists generally have to simplify ideas in lay language at the expense of dumping details. We're faced with the immutable constraints of time and space and with the differing capacities of our readers (a very diverse group) to absorb complex ideas. Our task is to do the best we can, within these confines, to make our reports as accurate and truthful as possible. In many ways science and mass journalism are simply as incompatible as a scientist concerned about the nuances of a complex study and a journalist who only has space for a 300-word story. Success in communicating science to the public requires a diplomacy of personal interaction and writing that would test the skills of a seasoned diplomat.

Problems related to the clash of science and journalism include scientific illiteracy and science phobia among the public. The great writer and humorist James Thurber once wrote that his grandmother firmly believed electricity dripped invisibly all over the house from wall sockets. She lived in another era, but such ignorance still exists, even though the unenlightened today may know that electricity doesn't drip. Ignorance is also at work in the minds of editors, whom I must persuade about the worth of any story I want to write. Editors, however, reflect the general public attitude about science, and if I'm going to communicate effectively with my readers, I must make sure that my editor understands the story and finds it interesting. One of the most important lessons I've learned as a science writer is just how simply we must write if we want to communicate successfully and broadly to that audience. I am well aware that what I write may appear superficial to scientists, but I need to keep in mind my audience (including the editors) while I research and write a story.

Although I have “specialized” as a science writer, I'm far from being an expert. In truth, I am a generalist, and I rely heavily on the scientists I interview to help me understand and explain their research and the issues it raises. The broad diversity of science often limits the depth of knowledge a journalist can have in any one branch or field. That diversity is reflected in the job of a science writer. In any given week or month I might write about a volcanic eruption and its impact on local climate, health care policy, flood ecology, hazardous chemicals, earthquake research, world population issues, biodiversity in state parks, species extinction, and many other subjects. In a very real sense, science writers are merely messengers of information they hear from scientists.

This is a stimulating but often disorienting job. The fun of it is that I am constantly encountering subject matter I know little, if anything, about. On some of the most disorienting days, I parachute in, intellectually, with about six hours or less to research and write a story that makes sense. It is a story that a diverse, general public is going to read the next day—I take that fact very seriously. Perhaps the biggest problem I face as a science reporter (and any reporter faces this one) is lack of time. We are always face to face with deadlines. The scary feeling I get when I turn in the story is the realization that it is only going to be read briefly by a few intelligent but scientifically illiterate editors, then continue its uncertain journey to an audience of hundreds of thousands of scientifically illiterate readers. I live in fear of getting the forest right but failing to identify one of the trees correctly. As the old saying in journalism goes, “A story is only as good as the dumbest error in it.”

Recommendations for bridging the gap

This has been only a superficial introduction to newsrooms and the people who inhabit them, but it's a start toward understanding the world of journalists and specifically that of science journalists. It might help you understand what to do when a reporter calls about a breaking story, or when you want to prepare for possible media interest in a research paper you are about to publish. For more thorough discussions of interacting with the media, I recommend two booklets: Communicating Science News: A Guide for Scientists, Physicians, and Public Information Officers (NASW n.d.) and The Scientist's Responsibility for Public Information (Miller 1985).

Here are a few of the most important tips for scientists from these and other sources:

  • Prepare for interaction with journalists well in advance.

  • When called for help on a breaking story, determine the level of the journalist. That is, is the journalist a science writer, environment writer, or a novice? Does he or she have any background on the issue in question? Ask in a diplomatic way, because some journalists get very defensive very quickly. You might, for example, ask whether the reporter is a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists, or a similar organization.

  • If time permits, prepare a written statement and give it to the journalist. Doing so can help you avoid spending a lot of time on the phone explaining basics to reporters (which could happen anyway, however, so be patient). The statement should be short and clear, with the main idea in the first paragraph. It should mention implications. The issue for the scientist is not whether to give the “steak” in the statement, but what pieces of the steak. Choose the best pieces. Ask the journalist to read it and call back. Promise to be there!

  • In interviews—and this sounds easy but is extremely difficult—speak with brevity. Develop key points, “sound bites,” if you will. This not only helps the reporter deal with all the constraints of time, space, and the like but also keeps you from talking more than you would like. You don't want to up the odds that your elaborations will get quoted instead of your central points.

  • Above all, work with the public information officer (PIO) at your institution. All responsible universities, government agencies, and research organizations have PIOs. They are often former reporters and can give you advice on how to deal with the news media. Get in touch with the PIO before things break.

  • Invite your local science or environment reporter to lunch just to talk. Try to develop a long-term relationship. Many small news organizations don't have specialists, so invite a nonspecialist. Ask about how the newsroom works. Be aware that the news business has a rapidly revolving door. Showing a reporter your lab or field work is hard and takes time, but it can pay off, individually and for the entire enterprise of communicating science to the public.

  • When news breaks and journalists call, please don't dodge us. You can sometimes avoid us for a few days, but even if what you say hurts or is personally risky to put forth, consider two things: Without you, the sensationalists will rule the day; second, the best of us will find you and get the truth anyway, and then an adversarial stage is set, trust is broken, and credibility is lost.

The booklet Communicating Science News suggests that some scientists approach interactions with the media with “trepidation” and worry about “hostile media, misquotation, or appearing to be a self-promoter” in the eyes of colleagues (NASW n.d., p. 27). “However,” the writers point out, “the scientist will quickly find that the huge majority of media are interested only in being fair and accurate. The scientist who is forthright will be treated fairly, and the scientist who explains clearly and who provides written information will be unlikely to be misquoted or misunderstood. Finally, the scientist who seeks to explain his or her work and field in perspective, including credit to colleagues, will most likely be seen as a responsible member of his or her profession” (NASW n.d., p. 27).

My experience with scientists tells me that most abide by the imperative to conduct research, teach, and provide public service. Public service, including communicating science to the public through the media, sometimes seems to take a back seat to other tasks. As a citizen, I believe that such communication is an obligation of the scientist in a democratic society that supports the scientific enterprise in so many ways. As a science journalist, I have seen that such communication can be stimulating and enjoyable for a scientist. I hope you try it sometime.

References cited

1
Leopold
LB
. ed. 1953. Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold. New York: Oxford University Press.
2
[NASW] National Association of Science Writers. n.d
. Communicating Science News: A Guide for Scientists, Physicians, and Public Information Officers. Greenlawn (NY): National Association of Science Writers. (Online at www.nasw.org.).
3
Miller
NE.
. 1985. The Scientist's Responsibility for Public Information. New York: Scientists' Institute for Public Information.

Author notes

William Allen (e-mail: wallen@post-dispatch.com) is a science writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis, MO 63101.