The Scientist/Journalist Culture Clash: Exploring the Rift

           In our first class, we look at the challenges journalists face as they try to pry information from often recalcitrant sources. While journalists are often on a tight deadline and need to tell a complicated story in a few paragraphs, scientists may speak in jargon, insist that every nuance of an issue be covered and may take too long to return phone calls. The readings for this week focus on how to bridge the divide, so journalists can get information from the best scientists without betraying their trust. This article and this one both are based upon this scientific abstract of a study our guest speaker authored. Which article do you feel did a better job of conveying the most relevant information? What were the strengths and weaknesses of each piece? This ScholarCast blog provides some suggestions of questions to ask scientists. Do the science articles you’ve read reflect this kind of information? What criteria do you think make for the best type of science article? An article in The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media describes an initiative intended to make scientists more easily accessible. Is this a worthwhile idea or does this plan have any limitations or drawbacks? This article paints a negative picture of the scientist/journalist relationship. Do you feel the situation is that desperate or is there hope that the relationship will improve? I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

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About jhalpert

Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist with more than two decades of experience writing for national publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek, CNNMoney.com, iVillage, Fortune.com, and AARP Bulletin. She currently contributes regularly to over 25 publications. She is also the co-author of Making Up With Mom (http://www.makingupwithmom.com/) and has recently started blogging for The Huffington Post. Her subjects have focused on everything from how auto makers will reinvent themselves following bankruptcy, to the viability of various environmentally-friendly technologies and how boomers will reinvent retirement. She also covers parenting and family issues for such magazines as Parents, Family Circle, MORE and Redbook. She has reported on the air for many public radio programs, including The Environment Report, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She also co-teaches an environmental journalism class in the University of Michigan's Program in the Environment and was a founder of The Society of Environmental Journalists.

6 Responses to “The Scientist/Journalist Culture Clash: Exploring the Rift”

  1. I think that initiatives such as the Rapid Response Team to bridge the gap between scientific research and the public are necessary and overdue. Reporting and writing in science is a challenge because it is often difficult for a scientist to ascend the levels of complexity to present a topic well and a journalist must understand the concepts thoroughly enough to explain it to a broader audience. This breakdown in communication is detrimental to scientists, journalists, and the public. I think the Rapid Response Team is a great program that streamlines the reporting process. However, a constant problem is the lack incentive for scientists to participate. The focus and rewards in scientific research are most often through peer reviewed papers and communication with peer groups. Time is precious and I feel that a significant challenge is scientists sacrificing time for things that may not seem as important. However, I think this paradigm will soon change to include more outreach efforts. The Response Team is a step in the right direction but the mind of the scientific community as a whole must be more open to investing in multiple levels of communication.

    • Kaitlyn: You make an interesting point about the lack of incentives for scientists to participate. I hope you’ll raise this issue with our scientist guest speaker and ask him how this situation can be improved.

  2. There needs to be a willingness from both scientists and journalists to bridge the divide that exists between the two groups for the sake of communicating their particular topic for the public’s knowledge and response. Both groups have a responsibility to educate and inform the public and there should be little delay in attempting to ameliorate the relationship between the two.

    The articles by R. Lovett and S. Mukherjee present biodiversity findings in two different manners, with Lovett conveying the most relevant information in a comprehensive way. He explains why research findings contradict themselves and how Dr. Peter Mayhew corrected his methodology in his latest study to come to its most definitive conclusion. He also includes a counter argument that provides the other side to the argument. At the end, Lovette gives readers a future direction of the research, leaving readers with a sense of closure despite the open ended nature of the studies. These elements were a part of our class discussion as to what good journalism consists of.

    Mukherjee’s article is extremely short and fails to fully expound on the issue at hand – why study results are conflicting with previous findings and why present climate trends will not result in an increase in biodiversity as researchers predict. The article does not develop any of the researchers’ findings, provides little to no background information on biodiversity and no future direction for research. While Mukherjee’s article’s length may be helpful for readers who don’t spend time reading lengthy articles, Lovett’s article is most effective in communicating a difficult subject to readers.

  3. Obviously, journalists get a lot of flack for including irrelevant information or leaving out the most crucial elements of a story, particularly in the realm of science-related journalism. At the root of the problem, I think, is a failure on the part of both sides to respect what the other’s job truly is. Does the scientist recognize that the journalist’s job is to report her story as accurately and as accessibly as she can, that she’s writing for an audience? Does the journalist recognize that the scientist’s work truly is more than the “shallow soundbite” she may have boiled it down to? I think it is best for both sides to lay out from the get-go what their goals are for either writing a particular piece or sharing their research with the public.

    Moving on, I thought that Lovett’s article did a better job of synthesizing the findings from Mayhew’s study and pointing out precisely how the new study contradicts the old. The article also included a variety of voices (both supportive and critical) and indicated the significance of the findings, particularly to evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, etc.

    Also, it’s interesting to note how Lovett may have actually asked the first two questions featured in the Scholarcast Blog: “What’s most surprising about your work?” and “What specific directions do you think your research might or should go from here?” Lovett actually includes a quote from Mayhew in which he says it was a “big surprise” to reach the conclusions that he did while conducting his research.

    I thought Mukerjee’s article did an all right job of summarizing Mayhew’s study, though I was certainly left with more questions, many of which were answered in Lovett’s story. Still, I thought that Mukherjee’s lead was strong in its simplicity and in grabbing my attention.

  4. The relationship between journalist and scientist may not seem dire to the public who buy tabloids and tune in to see the most recent political sex scandal. But scientists have been under a great deal of scrutiny that is more covert. Michael Mann received death threats after being interviewed on his climate change findings and eventually investigated by congress. Potentially living in a modern day McCarthyism, the rest of the world has made incredible progress with renewable energy while America continues to discuss if it is even real. Needless to say this has likely deterred other scientists from coming forward for fear of losing their reputation, future funding, or compromising the validity of their life’s work.

    Essentially this leaves the country at a stand still on an incredibly important subject that will influence generations to come. I can’t imagine how silly it will seem when read in the history books 100 years. It is certainly our generations version of the world being flat. Thankfully organizations like the Rapid Response Team exist giving them the opportunity to perserve their anonymity. We may believe freedom of the press exists because it is listed on the Bill of Rights. Yet it can only be and honest with access to the truth.

  5. By reading either Mukherjee or Lovett’s article, one can get a sense of the surprise and importance of the work done by Mayhew and his team on biodiversity and temperatures. In Mukherjee’s article, the information was organized in a way that made it easy to see how the research was done, and the important information was easily found through Mukherjee’s organization. The specifics about biodiversity patterns we see near the equator and the biological effects are relevant for the reader to fully understand the point of the abstract. In contrast, phrases like “in the long run” were too vague, with climate change the time scales and rate of change are crucial to understanding the science, and Muhkerjee brushes over these specifics.

    By giving us details about the research conducted, such as marine inverts and analyzing sea surface temperatures, Lovett excels in convincing the reader that the information presented is scientific and relevant to the public as well. Another strength of this article is highlighting what other researchers had previously thought, explained why this was, and also gave evidence for the flaws. Although the article continues to support the abstract, with pieces about biodiversity falling with temperatures, Lovett includes concerns from other researchers from esteemed Universities. One concern I have with “Species multiple as the earth heats up” would be the length of the article in comparison to the abstract. Overall, Lovett backs up his statements with stronger evidence than Mukherjee.

    In the Yale forum, the response team is a good idea, although there may be some issues coming from both the media and scientist’s sides right now. Having some sort of institution to help bridge the gap, in a surprisingly efficient way, between science and the public is a crucial tool, and this acts as a good model at the least. This article shows that with added person interest and conflict comes more attention, shown by the surge of scientists joining the team after controversy.

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