From Bench to Headline: Translating science for the media


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Part of the MaRS Best Practices Series:

These are presentation notes rather than the presentation.

The Toronto Star’s science reporter, Peter Calamai, discusses how scientists and the media can work better together to contextually frame scientific and technological issues for the broader public. He also addresses how good science communication helps to better inform both the public and policy makers.

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From Bench to Headline: Translating science for the media

  1. 1. SESSION NOTES Not to be quoted without permission MaRS Best Practices Series: From Bench to Headline: Translating science for the media Speaker: Peter Calamai Infectious Science: the media and researchers as agents of contagion Notes for an address at MaRS Toronto Sept 14, 2006 I’ve been asked to fill the next 40 minutes with some thoughts about news coverage of science, and especially scientific research, by the mass media. As well my self-appointed task is to disabuse you of a few misconceptions that are often uttered by researchers. My intention is first to provide a half dozen practical tips for when you’re faced with dealing with a reporter, tips from the worm’s-eye-view of a reporter. Then I’m going to pull the lens back and look more generally about the general environment in which such interviews take place. Largely I think it’s an unhealthy environment because neither scientists nor reporters make enough effort to understand the culture and values in which the others work. That’s part of the reason there aren’t more of these interviews and more news about science in the mass media. Then I’ll deal briefly with ways to improve that environment. This talk is officially entitled “From bench to headline: Translating Science for the Media” but I had come up with an alternate title which was considered too risqué. That other title is “Infectious Science: the media and researchers as agents of contagion.” I think it actually gives some useful hints about the way forward. And finally I’m going to offer to tackle your questions. And all of this will be accomplished without resort to any PowerPoint slides. If you have read Edward Tufte's paper “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” you’ll know why. If you haven’t it’s probably too late to save you. There’s an the old Irish adage which says: “It’s a terrible death to be talked to death, it’s a terrible death to die.” Even worse if the long-winded speaker isn’t actually dealing with the audience came hoping to hear. So if my talk doesn’t deal with some of your concerns, then I urge you to ask questions. Okay, let’s start with those half-dozen tips from a worm’s eye view. The assumption here is that a reporter is interested in making news out of research carried out by you, your group or by someone at your institution who you’re advising. I’m also assuming that you have some prior warning that this is likely to happen, because a paper is coming out in a big name journal, or there’s a conference presentation, or the institute or university has put out a publicity release. So here’s how I would suggest you prepare either for yourself or in helping someone else:
  2. 2. SESSION NOTES Calamai MaRS remarks Sept. 14 • Be concise. Condense the main thrust of the findings to no more than 25 words. Try this explanation out in advance on a tough audience – your aged aunt, a teenager, a grounds worker at the university, • Be imaginative. Come up with some colourful (but still accurate) analogies for the most complicated aspect of your research. Let me give an example. Earlier this year I was struggling to write about a major advance in self-assembling molecular corrals, work carried out by John Polanyi’s group at the U of T. In an interview Professor Polanyi told me that they had “contrived to make molecules ski and crash down prettily.” I used that quote. When the piece ran in the Sunday Star the illustrations included a scanning electron microscope image of the molecular corral. But an imaginative editor also added four small photos of skiers falling down. The word image led to the photographs and I’m sure drew far more readers into the story than otherwise. [Microscope, March 26] • Be honest. Your work may have few immediate practical applications. Then say so. There is nothing shameful about a finding that advances human understanding without any immediate contribution to the economy or human health. • Be helpful. If asked – and only if asked – be ready to provide names and co- ordinates of other researchers who are familiar with the research but unaffiliated. In the science news business these are known as “validators.” They’re the people who say this is ground-breaking work, not you. They’re also people qualified to point out any limitations or shortcomings, which you’ve already volunteered of course. • Be visual. Either have already co-operated with the public information officials to make available good illustrations – photographs or graphics – or be prepared to help in making these happen. A rough sketch is often all that’s needed by a media outlet that’s big enough to have its own graphic artists. This isn’t just my view. The folk who run the EurekaAlert service at the AAAS asked science journalists earlier this year about their jobs. The results were presented at the EuroScience Open Forum meeting in Munich in July. Top of the list of problems was getting good visuals for stories. [citation here] • Finally and maybe most importantly: Be a thorough researcher. Check out the media outlet of the reporter(s) who will be interviewing you. That may mean switching channels for the national TV news the night before or picking up a different newspaper in the morning. Believe it or not, most reporters have fragile egos and they’ll chaff if it’s obvious you’re only aware of their competitors. All that applies to the best of all possible worlds, where you have some advance notice and time to prepare. What if the phone rings and it’s a reporter with a looming deadline who thinks something in your field is newsworthy that maybe you consider is old hat? The first priority is to clarify what the reporter is looking for. Are you the main focus of this news story or just one of the supporting cast, perhaps even a validator. Is this a quick news hit or a mini-feature? Is the reporter looking primarily for information or primarily for someone to quote or record on tape? We call that the search for the killer quote. 2
  3. 3. SESSION NOTES Calamai MaRS remarks Sept. 14 After determining as much as you can about the circumstances, buy yourself 15 minutes if possible to run through that check list of six items. Use whatever excuse you like – in the middle of a meeting, got to call home on family emergency. But do call back in 15 minutes or, if it’s someone like me on the other end, they’ll start pestering you in 16 minutes. Most likely, it won’t be someone like me. There are about 540 members of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association today, which is as much of a shock to me, as a founding member in 1970, as it probably is to you. But the number of full-time science and medical reporters working in staff positions for major mass media in Canada has, in fact, fallen over the past 35 years, not increased. It stands today at just 43. So you might get called by Anne McIlroy the Globe’s science reporter, or Maureen Taylor, the national medical/health reporter with CBC-TV, or Denis Buckert, who covers science and environment from the Ottawa bureau of Canadian Press, or Margaret Munro, the science reporter based in Vancouver for CanWest News. You might, but it’s far more probable that you’ll be called by a journalist who does not regularly report about scientific research and also certainly has no prior knowledge of your particular field. So those worm’s eye view rules apply even more to such general assignment reporters. Negotiate how much detail they want or need. Keep the explanations simple but not simplistic. Avoid acronyms like MaRS, abbreviations like PCR, specialized terms like nucleation sites. Don’t obscure the main story with subsidiary material. Don’t refer to previous research in the field unless absolutely unavoidable. Now for a really vexed question. Do you volunteer feedback to the reporter after the item airs or appears in print? I say yes, always. Certainly if you think the piece covered all the important points accurately and well, you should say so. But just as importantly if you think the reporter missed something vital or got something factually wrong. If you don’t draw such mistakes to the attention of journalists, they are electronically perpetuated not only by that reporter but by any other journalist whose “research” consists of checking the files. However, you should keep two things in mind. It’s quite possible that the reporter did not omit that one aspect you consider so crucial. It could very well have been cut by an editor for space. So a non-confrontational opening is to say something like, “too bad there wasn’t time/space to include the names of my co-investigators.” As for accuracy issues, just keep in mind that journalists do worry about accuracy but they’re much less concerned about precision. To spell your name wrong or assign you to the incorrect university or hospital is a cardinal sin to any reporter. So should be confusing a virus and a bacteria. But rounding off numbers to one decimal place (or no decimal place at all) usually isn’t. And referring to polymerase chain reaction as photo copying DNA is quite acceptable. You see, what we’re most worried about is that readers or viewers are going to find the story dull and tune out. The former editor of the New York Times, Howell Raines, used to refer to the deadly danger of “eat-your-peas” articles, ones which readers were expected to consume not because of any innate appeal but because they were “good” for them. Another term in the trade is “learn-until-you-bleed” stories. No one wants to write them because only nerds would read them. So that’s why the analogies in a science story 3
  4. 4. SESSION NOTES Calamai MaRS remarks Sept. 14 might be a tad flashy for your own taste. But are they actually wrong in a substantive way that does harm to the science. Then say so. [example of greenhouse gas warming, of gravitational warping of space-time – both wrong] From the point of view of a reporter with 40-years experience, all of that is good advice. You can pay thousands of dollars to so-called media consultants and get a lot less. But I don’t think such advice truly gets to the heart of the matter. The real issue is the mutually reinforced ignorance which divides journalists and scientists. This divide means that Canadians aren’t given enough opportunities to learn about the many newsworthy accomplishments of researchers in this country. I talk a lot at journalism schools about the failings of the media with respect to science, so today let me talk here about the other side, the misconceptions about the media under which too many scientists labour. There are four: First is the misconception of a partnership supposedly desired between the media and scientists. Second is the misconception that the country’s general welfare would be improved if we simply communicated more about science to the Canadian public. A corollary to this is the misconception that the public would be more likely to approve of developments like genetic engineering if they better understood the underlying science. The last is the misconception that scientists actually engage the public in any sort of meaningful dialogue. These matter because adherence to such ideas helps set most scientists apart from many of their fellow citizens. And unless scientists abandon these misconceptions I see little hope for narrowing the gap between the lab and the hearth. So to the first – the notion that the mass media has any interest in joining a so-called “partnership” with scientists to help explain their work to the wider public. Few news reporters in the mass media would ever make such a claim, at least not with a straight face or without crossing their fingers behind their backs. A news reporter is not interested in a partnership. We’re interested in exploitation. Reporters care about the activities of scientists when – and only when – they constitute good stories, good copy. Treating scientists like this isn’t discriminatory. Reporters have the same exploitative attitude toward politicians, hockey players, environmental activists, guerilla leaders, actors, CEOs, painters, serial killers, Supreme Court judges, al-Qaeda terrorists, the Governor of the Bank of Canada, and – should he or she be available for interviews – God. Let me be utterly frank: a reporter’s overriding focus is, will this story get me on The National tonight or in the front section of the Toronto Star. Or am I going to be relegated to hourly recycling on Newsworld or stuck away in the ghetto of the Science page to be seen by a fraction of the potential audience and have little impact? 4
  5. 5. SESSION NOTES Calamai MaRS remarks Sept. 14 A great many people in the world of science harbour a bizarre idea that reporters are ablaze with a desire to educate the public and that, therefore, they will embrace the idea of an educational “partnership” with scientists or judges or whomever. My only explanation for this misconception is that these people must have been listening to newspaper publishers or network executives. Our bosses often give speeches about the media’s duty to educate. Reporters almost never do. As I said at the beginning, I’m concentrating on MASS media and on NEWS coverage. This focus excludes many efforts that enthusiastically embrace the idea of a “partnership” between journalists and scientists and often do see public education as a primary goal. Think of Scientific American, Quirks and Quarks, Daily Planet, NOVA, The Nature of Things and so on. There are also trade publications, like Chemical & Engineering News, the slick in-house magazines from organizations like Genome Canada, and a plethora of information services on the web aimed at narrower and narrower audiences. I’m not suggesting for one moment that scientists ought not to want their research featured on Quirks and Quarks or in the pages of Scientific American. So long as they pronounce or spell your name right and give credit to the proper funding agency, what’s not to like. But these are “boutique” media outlets which appeal mostly to people already interested in science. So it’s a cardinal sin to extrapolate from their interest in “partnerships” and “education” to any such interest by reporters doing “real” news in the true mass media, such as “The National” on CBC-TV or the Toronto Star. My chief task at the Star, and the chief task of my counterparts in other mass media, is to make news about scientific research appealing to members of the public who don’t normally listen to Quirks and Quarks, watch Daily Planet on the Discovery network or leaf through Scientific American. A few statistics will give you a feel for the relative audiences. The Daily Planet show is broadcast twice a night, at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern. These airings average 200,000 viewers total each night. There’s no way of knowing but there’s likely a lot of overlap between the audiences on successive nights. Let’s assume that a quarter of the viewers are new for each of the four other nights, so that’s 50,000 times four equals another 200,000. There’s a Best-Of Daily Planet show on CTV on Saturday mornings watched by about 100,000. So total of 500,000 Canadian TV science viewers for the week seems reasonable. CBC’s Quirks and Quarks estimates the audience for the radio broadcast in Canada at 450,000 with something like another 15,000 who download the podcast version plus an unknown number who listen to live streaming on the Internet or download MP3 files directly from the show’s own website. So something around a half-million all across Canada. There would likely be a lot of overlap between Daily Planet viewers and Quirks and Quarks listeners. But assume there’s none. Add those two numbers and you have a maximum of a million across Canada over a whole week. That’s about 700,000 fewer than the nightly audience for CTV National News and 300,000 fewer than the Toronto area readers of the Star on a single Saturday. 5
  6. 6. SESSION NOTES Calamai MaRS remarks Sept. 14 Numbers don’t tell the whole story here, as anyone who watches or listens to these programs knows. They both do a tremendous job that isn’t matched in any other country and I have nothing but admiration for the shows and their dedicated staffs. And what’s news anyhow? I very deliberately haven’t defined it. That’s mostly because whole tomes have been written about this vexed issue. By far the best is Deciding What’s News by Herbert Gans, who is that rarity, a sociology professor who can write clear prose. Gans devoted 10 years to his study of how senior editors choose news stories at CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time. Last year Northwestern University Press issued a 25th anniversary edition of the book, with a new preface from the professor, who is still going strong. My own definition of science news is far more rough-and-ready than Gans’ scholarly work. Science news is some recent finding or development that Star readers are unlikely to know about and that I can convince an editor ought to be in the paper. This definition does not encompass stories explaining subjects like photosynthesis, which many people don’t understand because they either couldn’t be bothered to pay attention in primary school or because they haven’t been curious enough to look it up since. That’s not news reporting. That’s remedial education … and it’s not my job. In some cases, news also has the added frisson of being something that somebody wants to keep out of the paper or off the air. This doesn’t happen anywhere near as much with news about science as it does with political or sports news but it can. Just to give one example which you might not have already heard. Under the Liberals, the federal government produced Kyoto plans which claimed Canada’s managed forests would act as major “sinks” for carbon dioxide gas through that self-same photosynthesis process. But research by federal scientists suggested that, at best, it would be a wash, with the forests as much a “source” as a “sink.” This work was deliberately suppressed, with the scientists actively discouraged from submitting their studies for publication. I fear that I’m coming awfully close to killing this first misconception with sheer verbiage. But I feel it is crucial that you understand that news reporters in the mass media aren’t interested in “partnership” with scientists … or with anyone else. At the best, we’re interested in mutual exploitation. I get my story and you get publicity. In the interests of time, let me roll the second and third misconceptions into one. So that would be that more science communication would lead to more public understanding of science which in turn would increase support for research generally and ease the way for controversial developments like genetic engineering. The end result would be a better educated society and therefore an increase in general welfare. Academics who specialize in the public understanding of science call this view the “deficit model.” In other words, the public are deficient in their knowledge about science. To put that right, we pry open their heads and pour in information. Thus enlightened, Canadians will appreciate more fully the inherent cultural and economic values of scientific research and the days of milk and honey at the granting councils will be with us forever. Of course, that model doesn’t work, despite the earnest preachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The U.K. government and agrobusiness discovered this when they tried to sell 6
  7. 7. SESSION NOTES Calamai MaRS remarks Sept. 14 genetically modified foods by ‘educating” the British public about the underlying science. The Ontario government is discovering it right now with public opposition to wind energy farms, despite the overwhelming weight of favourable scientific findings. And the federal government will discover it whenever it finally proposes a plan for long- term management of waste nuclear fuel, despite a public “education” process which lasted three years. It doesn’t work because of the fourth misconception. Despite the belief of some in the research community, scientists in Canada have not really engaged the public in any sort of meaningful two-way dialogue. There have been attempts, a few of them laudable but most of them laughable, unfortunately. One of the latest ideas is a European import known as the café scientifique. The concept is simple. You propose a topic of proven public interest which has a substantial scientific component. Could be something like long-term management of spent nuclear fuel or dealing with an insect infestation like the western pine beetle. The locale is someplace where people already gather that’s not academic, like a café if you’re in Paris or a pub here in Canada. You bring some experts to the pub and they have a discussion with people who show up. I went to one of these recently, put on by a university which will remain anonymous in a town I will not identify for the same reason. It was a disaster. It reinforced everything that many non-scientists think about scientists. It was held in an alcove of a noisy pub, yet the presenters stood at a podium and attempted to deliver a classroom-style lecture using a PowerPoint presentation. They asked audience members to hold their questions to the end. Representatives from the university went around the bar chiding patrons for talking. But most importantly, the scientists never bothered to ask the members of the public what they wanted to know about the topic under discussion, a topic very germane to the daily lives of people in that community. They assumed the deficit model and tried to pour facts into the heads of their audience. It wasn’t just a failure to communicate (to use the words of Cool Hand Luke). It was a failure to engage. It hasn’t escaped my attention that I’m also guilty of very similar pontificating behaviour here. At least I have spared you the PowerPoint. In my defence I can say only that desperate times require desperate measures. And I believe these are desperate times for the position of science and research in Western societies. Consider these straws in the wind. About 40 per cent of Americans believe that Genesis accurately describes the creation of the Earth. Don’t get smug about those dumb Yankees. I’ll bet the figure in Canada is at least 20 per cent. Certainly there are more and more Canadians who express a belief in magic and who appear to have descended into superstition. Just talk to a university undergrad today and you can gauge the elevation of emotion over reason, of personal conviction over hard thinking. Some of this disillusionment was inevitable as science abandoned the Newtonian universe for what is still the baffling and inscrutable universe of quantum physics. Or on the biological side, does epigenetics explain why people behave the way they do one iota better than phrenology. For the Victorians, science made the world easier to understand. Since then it has made it far more difficult. 7
  8. 8. SESSION NOTES Calamai MaRS remarks Sept. 14 We have a paradox. To the greatest extent ever in human history, the world is being shaped by science. Scientific advance appears to be unstoppable, constant and cumulative, as has been argued in the recent book Suicide of the West by Richard Koch and Chris Smith [Continuum]. Yet there is a widespread and growing loss of faith in science among both the governed and the governors. It may seem trivial to some but I believe that the International Astronomical Union did a grave disservice to science last month by demoting Pluto. Most of my non-science friends had the same reaction: “If scientists can say that Pluto isn’t a planet after saying it was for so long, why should we believe anything that science says!” I think much of this disillusionment can be traced to a common public misconception about science, which is constantly reinforced in almost all mass media reporting about science and research. That misconception is that the goal of science, and scientists, is to provide answers. But scientific research almost never yields final answers, as I hope most here would agree. It does, however, keep coming up with better and better questions. Unfortunately, most Canadians who aren’t scientists manage to pass through 16 years of formal education without learning this distinction. As I said so smugly way back at the beginning of these remarks, I don’t see remedial education as part of my role as a journalist. But as scientists you could force me to do so, by making it newsworthy. That’s what I hoped to get at by suggesting that risqué title – “Infectious Science: the media and researchers as agents of contagion” I was trying to piggyback on the latest buzz word in government and marketing circles. It’s “viral” and it refers to programs or campaigns that propagate their ideas like a virus, usually through word-of-mouth. A good example of this is the idea of demonstrating nucleation sites by dumping a whole roll of Mentos (those round white candy mints) in a bottle of Coke (or Pepsi). We wrote about it this past Sunday in the Ideas section of the Star. The demo had done the rounds of science fairs and shows for years. But then a website called Eepy Bird posted a video of what happens when you combine 200 liters of Diet Coke and more than 500 Mentos. That was featured on YouTube, which is a free video hosting site. And that meant that Coke and Mentos experiment was recreated on almost every broadcast and print media outlet in Britain and in the U.S. Without anyone noticing they were learning about nucleation sites! I suspect some of you are muttering something like not in a blue moon, I won’t. Okay come up with something else, something that makes science so infectious. that ordinary members of the public can’t help but catch it. The second string to this bow is called by various names, such as “upstream engagement” or Science Push. It asks these kinds of questions: • how do we find out what people want to know about science, rather than just tell them what we think they should know. • how do we inform government policy-makers about what the public is thinking about science. • how and when do we inform policy-makers about what they want/ need to know 8
  9. 9. SESSION NOTES Calamai MaRS remarks Sept. 14 • how do we avoid nanotechnology becoming the next debacle, where people didn’t know much about the science but they knew they were uncomfortable with it. In Britain they’re years ahead of us in this approach, partly because they were so scarred by the public backlash against genetically modified foods and the public distrust of government after the mishandling of Mad Cow disease. As a friend in London who works in this field commented in an email recently: We could all do with spending just a bit more time thinking about who we want to talk with and why. All too often scientists, and science communicators, don't think carefully enough about what the audience is going to get out of an experience. 'Educating' people is not what science communication in any form is about. If you make science “viral” in Canada, the mass media will become your partners, completely against their natural instincts. We won’t have any choice because what you will be doing will be newsworthy, by anyone’s definition. If I was using PowerPoint, this is where I’d throw up a slide summarizing my take-home messages. The bulleted points would likely shoot in from the sides and flash on the screen. Then I’d insult your intelligence by repeating the words you are perfectly capable of reading for yourselves. So, minus the magic of PowerPoint here are those bullets: discover what people want to know about your field of research discover how this differs for various audiences discover how the media work (and also how reporters do) discover how to exploit the media to make science infectious Thank you for your attention and I’ll be pleased to try to answer any questions. 9