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2004-2005 Brown Bag Discussion of "Science's Audiences"
March 4, 2005

Al Dorof (Public Affairs),
Dorothy Wright (Science & Technology Newsletter - science journalist), and
Ruth Guyer (Haverford, General Studies - science journalist)

Bridging the Two Cultures: Communicating Science to the Media

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Powerpoint Presentation

Al began with a powerpoint presentation on communicating science to the media. After explaining "why bother?" (because of the right to know, the need for an informed citizenry, to feed the pipeline and to promote Bryn Mawr), he traced both the similarities and differences between scientists and journalists. Both groups are curious, analytical, objective/impartial and communicative (=they publish what they have learned). Why then can't we all get along? Because we differ in publication speed and style, and in our primary audiences: scientists write for their specialist colleagues, journalists for the general public. Al explained that scientists can successfully mediate with journalists if they keep in mind that all audiences are non-specialists (so research needs to be explained in plain English; analogies, metaphors and similes used to promote understanding; questions asked and anecdotes given to connect with the audience; and answers provided for the query, "So What?" Scientists have to be able to put their research in the broader context of social or economic benefits, without overselling or exaggerating the scope of what they do. Scientists were also advised to have realistic expectations in their work with journalists: to remember the deadline pressures, to request in advance to review quotes, to recognize both that everything is subject to editing (an entire article might be "spiked"), and that nothing is off the record.

In the discussion which followed, it was suggested that objectivity is "both impossible and not bad." Subjectivity--the having of all kinds of agendas--is inevitable; scientists and journalists might all prosper by being upfront with their biases. It was argued that such a position raises the question of credibility: all of the primary literature in the "hard sciences" is "catholic" in its reduction of bias and misconception; none of the "humanness" of the scientist is allowed to be "infused in communication." No, it was argued, most scientific papers open with a description of the "research space," tracing what's currently occupying it, what's controversial, and how this work will add to it. It was also suggested that scientific papers, by design, are "first generation," while journalistic reports add "a layer of translation": mediated, filtered, and assigned a wider context.

Dorothy followed this discussion with a presentation of a "typical science story," Seth Borenstein's "Ocean data show extent of global warming," from the Health and Science section of the Philadelphia Inquirer (2/21/05). She called our attention to the use of

  • a lead paragraph: the evidence/ general findings "in 50 words or less"
  • the implications, both practical and in terms of global warming debates
  • reference to recent popular film/imagery
  • succinct quote about the significance and shift in focus precipitated by the findings
  • specific findings
  • new evidence confirming the global warming threat
  • reference to other sources
  • concrete, practical comparison, to put large numerical figures in context
  • metaphor to explain the process
  • reference to earlier event
  • implications
  • supporting data
  • volume of data
  • metaphor
  • findings; significance--measurements confirm computer models
  • conclusion.

This detailed review of the general format of a science story was offered as a way of helping to us prepare to talk about our research: we need to be able to provide a succinct quote about its significance, and put it in a context understandable to a general audience. The kinds of things that get quoted are "what it means, what makes it exciting, what makes it real, and how does it feel?"--that's what people want to hear. During discussion, it was suggested that such skills applied not just to our conversations with journalists, but might well be embedded in the educational process that scientists undergo. We could all be better taught how to explain what we are doing, both to our parents and our Ph.D. examining committees, rather than (is is now common) launching into masses of data, without being able to give a larger sense of the project at hand. It was also suggested that the best science writers don't have degrees in science, and so lack both "implicit" and "technical" understandings. It's actually better if they have to work to understand, because then they can help the audience to do the same.

Ruth concluded the presentations by handing out a number of examples from the wide variety of her own writing on science, medicine, bioethics and technology; her most recent, and very enjoyable forum is three minute spots of NPR commentary. She offered these as illustrations of why it's important for us to describe our work ourselves (why would we want a "second generation translation"? If we really want people to understand the significance of our work, we should not trust journalists, but do the explaining ourselves). Encouraging us to write in formats other than refereed journals in our own fields, Ruth argued that it was in our own interests to "explain science in English to people who aren't scientists." For instance, it's important for policy makers--who are "slouching toward policy based on science fiction narratives," to understand that "everything is NOT possible." Scientists need to be proactive, to stop policy makers from fantasizing. (A particular instance: we cannot make a vaccine for an organism that mutates widely; there are 100's of infectious diseases, but only 25 vaccines, and there will never be one for AIDS.)

Ruth also told us that she "cares about form--and surprise." She evokes and echoes her beginnings in her endings, trying to make her articles more interesting than "flat writing: this happened and it's over." There are lots of ways to talk about science, but "people don't get it if you talk in jargon." You have to "fit it in with other stuff people know, because that's how they remember." If there is "nothing in it for them, their eyes will glaze over." Once you get to know your editors, you can also negotiate with them the terms of your writing.

Discussion of all of these issues is invited to continue in the on-line forum. The semester's series will continue after spring break, on Friday, March 18, when participants are invited to make visits to three research laboratories on campus: Peggy Hollyday's in developmental biology, Sharon Burgmayer's in inorganic chemistry, and Liz McCormack's in laser physics. We will return to the following week's meeting (on March 25) to reflect on both our experiences and the differences between reflecting on and doing science.

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