On Journalists and Scientists Talking

Last week's post about communications between scientists and journalists sparked a bit of discussion, and prompted the folks at the IoP's Physics Focus blog to ask me for a guest post advising journalists on how to talk to scientists. The post is now live, with the self-explanatory headline How Journalists Can Help the Scientists They Interview:

The temptation for each party in this situation is to try to push as much of the work to the other as possible, and that’s where most advice from journalists to scientists (or vice versa) fails. Each side treats the conventions of their particular profession as immutable laws of nature that the other must adjust to accommodate. Even when offered with the best of intentions, as with Ed Yong’s post last week, the advice ends up sounding one-sided: “Here’s what you need to do to work with me.”

In reality, the responsibility is mutual. Scientists need to make an effort to make the journalists’ jobs easier, as much as they can–translating technical jargon to simpler language, framing their comments in a media-friendly manner. And journalists, too, need to make an effort to respect the interests and concerns of the scientists they talk to, avoiding hype and oversimplification.

You should, of course, read the whole thing. I'll try to monitor the comments over there, as well, though SteelyKid and The Pip are returning this afternoon, so my Internet time may be limited.

On this general subject, and since I've stopped doing Links Dump posts, I'll also point to Tom at Swans On Tea, who raises an important statistical point:

There’s a reason you should take some of the advice in Ed Yong’s post with a grain of salt (as I’ve come to realize over several years of hearing or reading advice from Ed): because it comes from Ed Yong. Now, let me explain — this isn’t a dig at Ed. Quite the opposite. He’s an excellent science journalist, and the tips he gives other science journalists about journalism is quite good. But this is a different subject, and given that there are a lot of journalists out there, you probably aren’t going to be asked for commentary from Ed Yong. (To use some physics-y math, if there are N journalists and N >>1, approximately no journalists are Ed Yong)

So when I see advice like [...cut for length...] that only applies to Ed, or some other similarly-talented journalist. You could find yourself in a situation where you follow the advice but with a lesser talent, and be disappointed in the result.

I think that's an important point. I'll also at that while Eds is a name to conjure with in online science communication circles, I suspect that even his fame doesn't penetrate all that far into science in general. Before I got into the blogging thing, I would've had a very hard time naming any physics writers, let alone knowing who the really good ones were who could be trusted to have read and understood the paper in advance. Many of the scientists he's talking to aren't aware that they're talking to ED YONG, and thus are taking the precautions appropriate to the vastly more probable case that they're talking to one of the lesser talents.

Anyway, that's the latest in the eternal struggle between scientists and journalists. Until next time.

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"Nothing outrages a scientist more than having what they consider to be essential qualifying comments stripped out of a statement. That kind of thing, even when it’s not malicious, can leave scientists with grudges they’ll hold for years."

That was aimed at me wasn't it?

By Matt Leifer (not verified) on 28 May 2013 #permalink

"Aimed at" sounds awfully hostile, which was not the intent. You're far from the only physicist I know who has had bad interactions with the media, and taken a dim view of the whole journalistic enterprise as a result.

But yes, you were the proximate cause of that particular statement. Apologies if you think it was too harsh.

One thing I wish journalists would change, is to be less obsessed with biography, and more engaged with ideas.

How very often we see popular media interviews with scientists, that focus on the details of their personal lives, and leave almost no room for them to discuss their ideas. This may do well at reaching audience members who have only the barest grasp of science, but it does a radical disservice to those with more than a middle-school education.

The kinds of questions I'd like to see discussed in those interviews are:

What did you discover? What's your hypothesis? How did you test it? What do you think this implies for the state of knowledge in your field? What, if anything, do you think this implies for our overall worldview?