BACK

Nurturing science through communication: journalists and scientists

19 comments

Tagged in

Summary

The thrill of writing the story and the pride of having  carried out the research still belong to the individual journalist and scientist respectively, but the activity, as a whole is more important than that.

Full Article

Source. CC BY 2.0

This piece was born out of comments to the article ‘Scientists and journalists square off over covering science and “getting it right”’, by Dana Smith. The comments were by scientists Sutirth Dey and Amitabh Joshi and journalists R Prasad, Priyanka Pulla and myself from The Hindu. The discussions centered around how to build accuracy into reports on research work and how to deal with inaccuracies; should journalists show a draft to the scientists concerned as a quick way to check facts; do media outlets display comments and clarifications in case of errors that may creep in etc.

 

I wish to look at the above from two vantage points: There is the close up view telling us that it is the work of a particular scientist or group and that the onus is on the journalist to communicate the work accurately and in an easy to read format. There is also the other long term vision which looks at the whole vista of scientific enterprise, communication and its being absorbed by society as if it’s embedded in a social matrix and matters deeply to the working and establishment of rationality and order among people.

 

I believe that the former view is something of a  microview  – leaving just the work, its creator – the scientist and the journalist as a passive conduit that takes this to the people who are at a receiving end.  In this picture, certainly the scientist has invested a lot more than the journalist in the work and so has more at stake in getting the story out accurately, so it does not matter if the journalist shows the draft to them to get their ‘go ahead’ before publishing. But while I believe that if the journalist is confused about some part of the work or the appropriateness of an analogy, it is ok to get the idea  or part of the writeup approved by the scientist, it is bad practice if it becomes a rule or an expectation on the part of the scientists.

 

There is also the other point of view – the panoramic one where scientific enterprise is a lattice embedded in the matrix of the society and is as crucial as a scaffolding holding it in place. In this point of view, given that science in our country is practiced only in labs within institutes and universities, there is a wave of communication passing between the scientists, journalists and the society. This wave informs, reinforces and replenishes the population using the knowledge base created by the scientists. Individual stories and scientific works are single events in this cluster. The thrill of writing the story and the pride of having  carried out the research still belong to the individual journalist and scientist respectively, but the activity, as a whole is more important than that. I believe this picture and feel it is more important for scientists and journalists to work  as if they complement and complete each other in a larger social context. There is the need to give up the ‘I’ in working out a better way to address some of the problems in science communication that exist today.

 

Towards this, I have a few requests to make of the scientists.

  1. Scientists could maintain a dossier of stories from various media – both good stories and badly reported ones. They could form a committee and ensure analysis and action on these reports.  If MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker could do this, so can Indian scientists.
  2. Organize short workshops for media people including science writers/reporters, heads of editorial departments, desk editors etc, by invitation and consultation with editors of the media houses. Let it be an exchange of ideas and a two-way learning.
  3. Also have talks by journalists for the scientists on the challenges they face in terms of even time and fact checking. Resolve methods to address these in consultation with journalists.
  4.  Highlight once a month a story that stands out for some aspect – either accuracy or innovative storytelling or for having discovered the story.
  5. Hold workshops in places other than Bangalore or Delhi.  In fact also hold workshops in regional languages. These could be held once in a year and if enough people volunteer this could be possible.
  6. Scientists should understand the background of the journalist they are talking to. Perhaps look at a sample of their stories. This may not be possible on the brink of bringing out the article but sometime when there is a bit of leisure. For instance is the person a regular science reporter or is usually assigned to some other beat etc. This can help them pitch their description of their own work accordingly.

 

As far as what scientists can expect from reporters, the following points come to my mind:

  1. That they acknowledge honestly when they do not understand a concept.
  2. They can compile lists of science reporters that they can share with the scientific institutions.
  3. Acknowledge mistakes and issue corrections if there is a mistake.

 

I would like to acknowledge a useful discussion with K Deepa Lakshmi, Internet section, The Hindu Newsdesk.

 

Shubashree Desikan is a science journalist with The Hindu and writes primarily on mathematical sciences.

Add comment

Login

E-mail is already registered on the site. Please use the Login enter another or

You entered an incorrect username or password

Sorry, you must be logged in to post a comment.

19 comments

by Newest
by Best by Newest by Oldest
1

I’m late to this discussion. But I wanted to point out that the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which Shubhashree Desikan referred to in one of her comments, and which Sutirth Dey also mentioned, was run not by scientists but by professional journalists. This was, as they liked to put it in their tagline, “peer review within science journalism”. They still have this in a different form [https://undark.org/tag/tracker/]. In fact, the article that began this discussion was part of this “Tracker” section of Undark.

While having such peer review within science journalism in India would be a good idea, I do not think the Academy or scientists should be involved in any way in such peer review, apart from facilitating it, like MIT has done through its partnership with the Knight Foundation. Any such initiative should be run by journalists. This is not merely a matter of professional pride but of professional integrity.

A somewhat related issue, though not immediately relevant here: The jury of the RedInk Award for the Science & Innovation category, if I remember correctly, consists entirely of scientists. This is inexplicable – I don’t see why journalists should be willing to let scientists give out awards to them any more than scientists are willing to let journalists give them awards. As a journalist, I’d want to be judged by my peers. Again, this is a matter of professional integrity.

In terms of what scientists and the Academy could do to help science journalists: The best way to improve the quality and depth of reporting, as far as I’m concerned, is for journalists to acquire better knowledge of what they’re reporting on. So it’d be useful if the Academy could conduct short (one/two day) courses for journalists that are overviews of various areas of scientific research, latest or otherwise, to help journalists understand the science. That is what I feel would be the input from the Academy/scientists that’d be most useful for me.

2

@Nithyanand Rao
Conducting workshops: That is an interesting thought and other journos have expressed this idea too. However, as an academic, I am not sure what kind of things would be deemed useful by the journos. There are several possibilities:
1. A quick refresher course on a given topic? That would be a bit boring and text book stuff, but would actually help the journos to appreciate papers in the topic better.
2. Latest discoveries in a given topic? Definitely interesting, but would the journos be able to use that, since the scientists are obviously going to pick the eye-catching pieces, which the journos most probably know anyway.
3. Controversies in the topic? That would be awesome, but is very likely to be so technical that the journos (and most likely many subject experts too) will find hard to digest.
4. Some combination of the above three: Seems the safest thing to do! But will it be useful? I do not know.

Some thoughts on this aspect would be very welcome!

3
Raghavendra Gadagkar

I am in sympathy with journalists who do not want it to be mandatory that they show their drafts to the scientists whose work they are reporting. If I were a journalist, I would certainly not agree to this. Good journalists (and there are many of them) verify their facts by checking with other scientists, not involved in the work being reported and this works very well. We scientist should be willing to help in this process if we care about science in the media.

4
Guruswamy Kumaraswamy

@ Sutirth, @ Shubashree
I think that Sutirth is mainly worried about the "everything is breaking news" breathless aspect of sensationalism (as exemplified by the PhD comic strip). I presume that this discussion is limited to more responsible descriptions. It is really hard to function if we only consider worst case scenarios.

5
Guruswamy Kumaraswamy

@Sutirth
Another way to think about this, and (perhaps) this is what Shubashree is getting at is the following. When a scientist writes an article - it is their intellectual contribution. When a science journalist comments on a scientific development - it is their interpretation and their intellectual contribution. These are necessarily distinct and add to the richness of science as a cultural endeavour. I see your point about the journalist's interpretation being the one that is most easily available to the public, and therefore, your concern about hype around scientific results. However, if a scientist was aggrieved enough to rebut this view, then (I hope that) the media will allow him/her space to do so in the same widely available format. If you feel that scientists might not be interested in/have the bandwidth to get into rebuttals and arguments, then I disagree. Science has implications for society and, to a large extent, is funded by society. Therefore, not engaging isn't an option. And in any case, scientists as a lot are argumentative. This is what we like to do, in any case...

6
Shubashree Desikan

I agree with Guruswamy's comments a lot. I think mainly we have to get into the mode that the original article and the newspaper article are meant for two different audience and purpose. The PhD comic situation happens sometimes - if some measures are taken to communicate between the groups it may be better managed - even then it can happen, but treat it like an experiment that didn't work ...

7
Shubashree Desikan

Two short replies to longish comments by Sutirth - I do not have in mind that every single science article is going to have the scientists making a writeup and so on - that will generate more metadata than we can deal with. But I had in mind some kind of sampling - as scientists you would know better than I what that means if it has to be done systematically.
Secondly I feel if it is being done not with the attitude that there is something collectively to be learnt from the exercise, I am sure the journalistic community will value it. At least many of the people I know will.

Thirdly when I say it is bad practice to regularly show the copy to the scientist/ have an expectation that the J will show them the copy before publication is for many reasons - they range from the sheer surprise value in store for the scientist when they see another person appreciating their work to the professional reason for existence of science journalism, namely to form a bridge between the scientist and the reader (again I am also not referring to critical pieces but those that involve communication of work done. In the former case there is no question of getting it vetted. ) I believe the journalist will never learn to take off and fly if this safety net is always there.

8

I do appreciate that sampling is what is needed here. But any sampling process requires a sampling rule. I merely wanted to state that given that scientists and journalists have such different views about what the piece ought to do, it will be a very difficult thing to come up with such a rule. Also, when I said that a commentary needs to be written about each piece, I meant each piece that was sampled. It will definitely be a very time-consuming exercise. But if it works, it might benefit both the scribes and the scientists alike.

9

@Shubha Desikan

On what a scientist can expect from the reporters:
Just add "They will inform the scientist when the story is published or when, for whatever reason, it has been axed".

Most scientists would be overjoyed to get this much from a journalist (+ the showing of the draft of course!!).

What are your expectations from a scientist?

10

@Shubha Desikan

"Organize short workshops for media people including science writers/reporters, heads of editorial departments, desk editors etc, by invitation and consultation with editors of the media houses. Let it be an exchange of ideas and a two-way learning."

Excellent idea. But what are the topics that one should discuss?

=======================================================

"Also have talks by journalists for the scientists on the challenges they face in terms of even time and fact checking. Resolve methods to address these in consultation with journalists."

Excellent idea again. In fact, if you and your journalist friends give us some ideas about what those challenges are, then that would be an excellent starting point for a discussion. As you would appreciate, the scientists have their own worries and challenges too. Talking about them is the best way to understand each other.

=============================
"Highlight once a month a story that stands out for some aspect – either accuracy or innovative storytelling or for having discovered the story."

I think this is best done by a body comprised of both scientists and journalists. This is because both sides can have very different ideas about what is a good piece!

=============================
"Hold workshops in places other than Bangalore or Delhi. In fact also hold workshops in regional languages. These could be held once in a year and if enough people volunteer this could be possible."

Workshops for what? Popular science writing for scientists? That would be outstanding and I can assure you that many scientists would be very interested in coming for such workshops. But is it possible or desirable to have something for the journalists as well? If yes, then what?

===================
"Scientists should understand the background of the journalist they are talking to. Perhaps look at a sample of their stories. This may not be possible on the brink of bringing out the article but sometime when there is a bit of leisure. For instance is the person a regular science reporter or is usually assigned to some other beat etc. This can help them pitch their description of their own work accordingly."

I am a bit skeptic about this. Can you give us an example of how the same story can be pitched differently to the two groups??

===============================

11
Shubashree Desikan

On topics for workshops: (1) Fatal errors that have actually happened and how to avoid them. (2) Possible topics for writing on science - what is the larger canvas (3) How does one make a science copy ;less dry and more fun to read w/o compromising on quality (4) what should be the length of a pop article on a research topic? (5) Will scientists be willing to give critical comments on each other's work if so a database of such experts who can give a perspective. (6) How does a news room work - journalists can talk on this - Scientists can visit news rooms ... etc.
-----------------------------------------
Highlighting good stories - "Both scientists and journalists" - I disagree with this. I feel like the pillars of democracy, the two should stand apart, while definitely conversing. If there is a problem within the system help/modification can only come from external agencies. This balance should be maintained. The point is that though journalists will have priorities, they get to understand what the scientists perspective is. Also in selecting the piece, the scientists should see it both from the pov of the reader as well as their own...It shoudl be selected for journalistic excellence not because it adheres to what the scientist wants in print.
-------------------------------------------
Workshops in regional language:
I meant popular science writing workshops.
Also the workshops can highlight what work is being done in places that are normally invisible - like universities or less known labs.
-------------------------------------------
Pitching work to different types of J:
Hmm I mean that a regular science reporter will understand the significance of your work better than someone who is from a different beat who is merely there to cover the event or occasion... scientists need to learn a bit of this...
-------------------------------------------

12

On topics for workshops:
1. Fatal errors: Scientists can talk ad infinitum on this. Not sure about the ways to avoid them though. There are very few apart from being cautious.

2. Possible topics: Every scientist thinks sees beauty in his/her work. It is the journos who are supposed to have a better feel for what "sells". So it is they who need to specify the parameters related to "acceptability" of a piece. Personally speaking, I have often failed to see a pattern in what the sci-journos choose to cover and ignore.

3. Making science-writing fun: This is obviously a topic to be covered by the J side. Incidentally, I had requested a senior science J of this country to write something about it. The person sent me a long list of good pieces of science writing (including entries like complete non-fiction works of Asimov!). I pointed out that most scientists do not have time to go through such a long list, and even if they did, they would not know what to pick, unless pointed out. Therefore an article highlighting the salient points would be greatly appreciated. The person said that I was looking for short-cuts, there are no short-cuts to good writing, and broke of all communication!! I hope that there are at least some sci-journos who do not feel that way!

4. Critical Comments on other people's work: Scientists already give critical comments to each others work in the form of peer-review. However, that is typically blind. Will scientists be willing to give non-blind critical comments to the press? That is a touchy one. This is because if the journo manages to mangle the comment, or put it out of context, then the scientist will have no way to convince his/her colleague that this was NOT what was said. I think that if such a thing needs to be done then there has to be very clear rules about showing a draft to the commenting scientist. I heavily doubt that anyone will agree to do it otherwise. I would not, for example. This topic is worthy of a discussion among the scientific community.

5. Highlighting good stories: I see. Interesting point. There are pros and cons on both sides. Would love to know what other journos think about it.

6. Workshop in regional languages: The first part is easy, although it is the journos who need to do that! Highlighting what work is being done in lesser known places is tough in a workshop. That is more the job of a regular website. I think, this is what is being done by KP Madhu at Curr Sci. Given the size of our country, more is needed.

7. Pitching the work to diff types of J: That is true. But please appreciate that most of the times, the scientists do not choose the J, it is the other way round. When approached by a J, S can not really tell him/her to send us their 5 best pieces in the last 1 year!! We are going to be skewered for arrogance and God knows what else. Bigger problem is, what does a S do when he understands that the J in front of him is someone from a different beat. Can we simply tell the J to go away? I do not think that is an option. So what are the courses of action left for a S? I hope you will appreciate that it is a very sticky wicket here!!

13

"Scientists could maintain a dossier of stories from various media – both good stories and badly reported ones. They could form a committee and ensure analysis and action on these reports. If MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker could do this, so can Indian scientists."

This is a very nice suggestion. But will the scientific journalist community be happy about such a list? How will one figure out whether a given piece is to be categorized as a good one or a bad one? That will require writing a commentary on each piece. Assuming that a group of scientists actually end up spending their time and energy doing so (big assumption, but still), will the sci-journo community take kindly to it? More critically, the scientists and the journalists will obviously have different criteria for judging a piece. So how does one ensure that various aspects of a piece (i.e. technical accuracy and journalistic flair) are judged in an unbiased way? How did the MIT guys manage to do it?

14

a) Any society needs good scientists to do cool things and good sceince journalists to tell those stories to the non-scientists.
b) When it comes to a piece aimed at the non-technical person, the interests of these two groups often (though not necessarily always) differ.
c) Good science communication is possible only when both sides actively work towards creating the piece. For this, it is critical to have mutual trust and respect.
d) There are several examples of individual scientist-journalist pairs having such mutual trust and respect. However, as a collective, there is a trust-deficit in India between the two groups.

In this context, this terse but thought-provoking article has several points worthy of contemplation. This article is important because it makes several recommendations for both sides.

15

@Shubha Desikan
"it is bad practice if it becomes a rule or an expectation on the part of the scientists"

Can you please elaborate on why you feel that way? Is it a simple point of inconvenience? Fear of interference? Infringement of creative license?

The reason I ask this is because I am seriously trying to understand the reason behind the almost visceral reaction that science journos seem to have in terms of showing their drafts to the scientists prior to publication. Although all the science journos are unanimous on this point, no one is really telling us why. It is almost looking like an axiomatic adherence to a fundamental principle (almost like agreeing to the point that right to life or right to free speech are important!!).

Let me clarify here that I am talking only about those pieces where a sci-journo is trying to report a particular paper or piece of work by a given group. This is obviously not in the context of an overview or critical examination of an issue where a journo needs to weigh various positions and portray them in a suitable manner. There, a scientist does not expect a journo to share the draft for accuracy.

16
Guruswamy Kumaraswamy

It is easy to agree that neither journalists nor scientists will want to compromise on accuracy. However, there might be differences of opinion (perhaps, strong differences of opinion) on the *implications* of the results. In a paper, a scientist might wish to be circumspect in what is stated, and this might carry over to what they would be willing to see in print (even in an article on their work that they have not penned). In contrast, a journalist might be more willing to speculate. To a scientist, this might appear sensational. A journalist interprets scientific results for the lay audience. What is exciting about science is the possibilities that the results offer - I think that it is reasonable for a journalist to present those possibilities even if a scientist feels that there isn't sufficient data to make such claims in a peer reviewed paper. The rigorous stuff and technical details that underlie good science belong in scientific journals. This rigour is what underlies the belief that we as a society have in science and the scientific method. However, once that is published, then exploring the implications in an article meant for a broader audience appears to be fair game.
I think that the idea of regular exchange of ideas between scientists and science journalists is an wonderful idea. There are certainly opportunities for each of our communities to learn from each other.

17

@Guruswamy
I appreciate that there is greater scope for speculation in a newspaper piece than in a journal article. However, sometimes this speculation can actually backfire. For example, ever so often we see a newspaper piece that scientists have discovered something that is a significant breakthrough in terms of treating or solving . However, as all scientists appreciate, most things that are published in newspapers do not actually make it up to the commercial stage. Therefore, after some time, people do start wondering what happened to those promising leads. That is why, I am a bit skeptic about the "implications" of my work that are going to be spun in a piece for the general public. One also needs to remember that once a piece is written and published by a science journo, it takes a life of its own. Bloggers, social-media warriors, talk-show hosts and a host of other people often end up treating a science journo's piece as the primary source. Therefore, it is not a bad idea to be a little circumspect even in a newspaper piece.

For a funny take on this matter, see http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1174

18
Shubashree Desikan

Thanks Amitabh - in fact there's much more to it given the huge canvas we're thinking of - wish to see more ideas here.

19

Very nice article. Would love to see feedback from other science journalists as well as scientists.