The Society of Environmental Journalists, meeting this year on the Stanford campus in Palo Alto, is once again delving into the issues that compromise science journalism.
At a breakout session this morning, Dr. Pat Conrad of the University of California at Davis, gave one effectively all-encompassing answer: scientists fear journalists because journalists are scary. Although Conrad was slightly more polite than this, journalists are pushy and demanding, often badly informed, sometimes lazy and – for the scientific mind – altogether too willing to talk about things they know nothing about.
Actually, Pat Conrad said her worst experience in dealing with journalists came more as a result of her own (she now thinks inappropriate) fear rather than from any legitimate journalistic threat. Her university had put out a press release on disease in the sea otter population and Conrad was not prepared for the journalistic response. She soon found herself being hounded beyond her ability to respond. And when she couldn’t respond in timely fashion, journalists began looking for other potential commentators. The result was a series of stories that went straight sideways – that speculated thoughtlessly on the actual cause of sea otter sickness.
Conrad has since learned that journalists, while potentially frightening, are curious and excitable – quick to engage on scientific issues if only they can find a scientist who will answer the phone and explain their position in an accessible way. She has learned that the problem between journalists and scientists is educational and cultural. Journalists work fast on the basis of the best information available at the moment. Scientists take time – sometimes lots of time – to be as specific as possible about a single supportable issue. Journalists speculate. Scientists validate. If journalists really DO enjoy talking about things beyond their ken, scientists hate it.
The problem (the public relations problem) in this relationship is that journalists and scientists are not alone in their relationship. There are politicians, advocates, corporate campaigners and aggressive think tankers who are only too willing to provide journalists with “scientific” information that is clear, certain and accompanied by a pre-written headline. Even if it is not actually scientific, in any demonstrable way.
So, the journalists and scientists are not alone in blameworthiness – although not entirely without blame – when it comes to sorting out the understanding of science in the public realm. There is work for us all.