Overcoming difficulties reporting science

Many of the bloggers here at ScienceBlogs lament about the woeful state of science knowledge among the U.S. public. This ignorance about the basics of science and the scientific method has been blamed on many things, whether it be the poor quality of science education in the public schools, an all-too-prevalent view of science as not being “sexy” or “interesting,” and the rise of a distinct antiscience bias, particularly in the present administration. Many of us have also lamented at one time or another about how this ignorance allows pseudoscientific belief systems like “intelligent design” creationism and the use of alternative medicine therapies that are not evidence-based to proliferate.

There is little doubt that, if we as a scientific community are to have any hope at all of reversing this disturbing trend, high quality science reporting that engages the public is absolutely mandatory. Sadly, as several ScienceBloggers have also lamented, the quality of science reporting is often substandard, with reporters using an all too common fallacy of presenting “both sides” of a debate or controversy (such as “intelligent design”) as though they carried equal or near equal weight, even if one is science and one is pseudoscience. And it’s not just ID, but it’s also alternative medicine, as much of the reporting on Starchild Abraham Cherrix did.

That’s why I found the findings of a survey by the EurekAlert! and the American Association for the Advancement of Science of science reporters and publicity officers responsible for publicizing scientific findings. While admittedly not a strictly scientifically conducted survey, it nonetheless has some findings that seem to ring true and are thus worth further investigation:

MUNICH, GERMANY–As many U.S. and other newspapers continue to lay off science journalists, reporters still covering technical topics say they increasingly need good-quality images, as well as researchers who can help make science more understandable.

Judging the trustworthiness or integrity of scientific findings while avoiding “hype” also emerged as key concerns for reporters who took part in the survey, sponsored by EurekAlert!, the science-news Web site of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The survey, released today during the EuroScience Open Forum 2006, reflected the responses of 614 reporters and 445 public information officers.

Survey details were disclosed beginning at 8:30 a.m. in the Forum am Deutschen Museum, Helios Room, Munich, Germany, during a session titled “Myths of science: Glowing monkeys, wonder dogs, and more.” The session, featuring top researchers, as well as reporters from the Washington Post, Financial Times, and the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, was co-sponsored by EurekAlert! and the Max Planck Society.

Predictably, when asked to rate a series of challenges, reporters said that their top concern is to learn about breaking science-news stories before the information reaches either competitors or the public.

Beyond these usual news-reporting concerns, however, finding researchers capable of explaining science in an understandable fashion was the task most frequently cited by reporters as either “very challenging” or “moderately challenging.” Obtaining photographs or other multimedia materials to help convey complex scientific content was the next task most often listed by reporters as either very challenging or moderately challenging. Another of the most vexing concerns for reporters, overall, seemed to be in judging the trustworthiness of research or researchers, followed by the need to convince supervisors to run science-news stories as well as tight reporting budgets.

(The complete survey can be found here.)

The findings in the survey of science reporters are summarized in the graph below:


(Click for a larger version of the figure.)

Particularly disturbing is how high on the list of tasks rated as “very difficult” or “moderately difficult” is finding researchers who can explain science so that it’s understandable to the lay public, although it is somewhat more encouraging that most rated it “moderately” difficult. On the surface, you might think that this should be among the more easily accomplished tasks of a science reporter. After all, why can’t scientists explain their work so that an educated layman can understand it? Well, as I discovered after I started blogging, boiling down the complexity of the issues in science and medicine while not distorting the actual science is incredibly difficult. Readers still sometimes complain that my language is too technical or that I use too much medical jargon, and sometimes they’re probably correct. I try to tone it down, realizing that the vast majority of my readers are not physicians or scientists, but it takes a conscious effort on my part, and sometimes when I’m pressed for time to finish a blog piece (such as when it’s midnight and I’m asking myself whether I really need to finish my writing or whether I should just go to bed) I get lazy and lapse back into jargon. It’s almost an unconscious process whereby I sip back into medical language. Why? Because it’s easy. Jargon exists for a reason in science and other highly complex fields, such as engineering , medicine, and law: because it makes communication of complex ideas faster and easier among those who are trained in them. It’s far easier and more precise for me to say “angiogenesis,” for example, than to say “the growth of new blood vessels.” The problem is, most people don’t know what angiogenesis is or its significance in tumor growth and wound healing. Not all of us are Carl Sagan, who could wax lyrical explaining highly complex scientific concepts for the lay audience.

Another not-so-suprising finding that may puzzle some people is how much science reporters considered it difficult to get institutional permission to speak to researchers and to persuade the researchers themselves to talk to them. You’d think that researchers would be happy and flattered to have reporters interested in publicizing their work, but such is often not the case. Often, scientists (myself included) tend to view the press as an intrusion. We don’t trust reporters, are afraid of being misquoted or taken out of context, view speaking to them as a waste of time that might be better spent doing other things. Personally, I’ve only been contacted by the press a couple of times in my career, not being a heavy enough hitter in my chosen area of research interest, tumor angiogenesis, to attract much in the way of press interest. Back in 1998, when angiogenesis inhibition was being prematurly touted by the press as the new “cure” for cancer or a strategy for turning cancer into a chronic, manageable disease, I certainly wasn’t of any interest to the press, as I was just a surgical oncology fellow doing his laboratory research. Second, we’re all afraid of our work being overhyped, as, for example, Judah Folkman’s discovery of angiostatin and endostatin was back in 1998. When the results of early clinical trials in humans were not nearly as impressive as the results in mouse models, there was great disappointment, although angiogenesis inhibitors like Avastin are now being shown to be useful as adjuncts to chemotherapy for colon and breast cancer, among others. However, compared to the hype, the fairly impressive benefits of, for example, Avastin appear to be very modest indeed. Expectations matter.

Not surprisingly, when you look at the results of the survey of publicity officers, many of the same concerns are expressed when they are asked what they find difficult about publicizing science in their jobs:


(Click for a larger image.)

It looks to me as though there’s lots of overlap there, particularly, ironically enough, in getting scientists to speak with the press, getting the institution to give permission to speak with researchers, and providing good multimedia materials for reporters to use to explain the story. One particularly sad observation that was mentioned elsewhere by approximately 20% of the publicity officers is that researchers are sometimes so rude in interviews that they scare off reporters. And this was a complaint by the publicity officers, not the reporters!

So what to do about these problems? Among the solutions reporters most often agreed with included (with a little of my commentary added):

1. Researchers should respond more promptly to reporter queries. I can see how this would be a problem. What we in science frequently forget is that reporters work on often tight deadlines. If you don’t accommodate yourself to that, they’ll cease asking you for interviews. Unfortunately, at least in my little neck of the woods, we sometimes get mixed messages. The press officer at our cancer institute occasionally sends out memos and e-mails urging us to make ourselves more available to the press on a more timely basis on the one hand, but emphasizing that we should let the press office know about all reporter inquiries and clear any interviews with the office. I can understand why the press office would want to have some control over this sort of publicity, but if it’s going to insist on such control it had better be a streamlined operation that can approve and arrange such interviews rapidly. However, reporters don’t always understand that scientists are busy too, our lives taken up by meetings, grant writing, lab meetings, mentoring lab personnel, etc. This is especially true of clinician-scientists. If I’m scheduled to be in the operating room all day and a reporter calls me for an interview, I can’t tell my patients to wait while I talk to the reporter.

2. I want more e-mails about truly promising scientific news. Reporters should be careful what they ask for and remember who is deciding what research is “promising” and for what reason. They could find themselves buried in e-mails. On the other hand, this is a fairly easy thing for a press officer to do.

3. Too many researchers need media training to communicate clearly. This is a difficult one, as I don’t know that many scientists would be willing to get serious about media training in order to publicize their findings. There’s also an inherent suspicion in the scientific community of scientists who are too willing to plug their own results to the media. Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that nearly all scientists could benefit from improving their public speaking skills. We don’t all have to be Carl Sagan, but more of us should at least try to emulate him. This is particularly true given that pseudoscientists, such as adherents of ID, are often much more effective with the press and as public speakers than scientists.

Many of the other complaints were about multimedia materials and how researchers and press officers don’t understand what reporters’ readers are interested in, which seem more difficult issues to resolve in a way that produces better science reporting. Fixing the first would involve scientists taking the time to produce (or to help to produce) such multimedia materials, while the second seems to be more a problem in two cultures understanding each other.

Of course, the survey was not without its contradictions. For instance:

The biggest problem that negatively affects public trust in science, according to press officers, is that reporters may hype research findings or make mistakes in coverage. Yet, reporters said press officers or other reporters are more often to blame for excessive hyping of scientific findings. The intersection of science with values, morality, or politics also was a top concern for press officers, along with scientific ambiguity. Like reporters, press officers identified deliberate research fraud as a rare problem.

So basically, publicity officers and reporters blame each other for “excessive hyping” of scientific findings. And then we have this result:

Interestingly, some 400 press officers out of 445 said they “strongly agreed” or “somewhat agreed” that researchers should “talk up their research.” But, nearly the same number (about 360) also said researchers must avoid hyping results.

Holy mixed messages to researchers, Batman! It’s a very fine line between appropriate “talking up” of one’s research and “excessive hyping,” and the line is not always in the same place.

Overall, looking at this story, I thought about my own role and responsibilities in publicizing science. As I rise (hopefully) in prominence, contact with the press will become more and more inevitable. Indeed, one of my partners shows up on local radio stations fairly frequently discussing his specialty and his work, and one of these days they’re likely to hook me into such activities. However I remain reluctant, as I’m only a competent but not electrifying public speaker, and I’m probably not much of an interview. I sometimes joke that I have a face and voice custom made (by the “intelligent designer,” no doubt) for blogging and that I’m way less interesting in person than I am on Respectful Insolence™. Consequently, for me, blogging serves as my means of explaining medical science, applying skepticism to overblown claims of alternative medicine, and just pontificating to my heart’s content. To me, that’s one reason why I like belonging to ScienceBlogs so much. It provides me a platform along with a variety of other scientists of various disciplines to try to communicate just what is so interesting and–dare I say–fun about science.

Which reminds me: I haven’t written much in the way of straight pieces about medical science, having drifted off in various other directions. Maybe it’s time to get back to thta again.