24 February 2009

Science and media

I've been spending more time commenting on other blogs, including The Intersection lately than constructing my own posts here. Latest bit being about science, scientists, journalists, and science journalists. I'll leave my comments over there to stand in their context.

But here, I'll tell the story of my one encounter with major media. Unlike standard stereotypes, for both of the scientist and the journalist, I think, it was a very successful and positive encounter. Jack Williams (then and still at USA Today) called me up at work with a couple simple questions about my area, and hoping that I could provide some graphics. I answered (life was simpler back then) and could indeed provide the data (my graphics then as now not being a strength). Towards the end of the call, though, he also asked the good journalistic question of what the topic we were talking about might affect that readers would care about.

I'll take credit for not doing the annoying scientist thing of diving in to obscurities of what I liked personally on the belief that of course anything I was interested in would be interesting to everybody (that's what a blog is for :-). But, in truth, there were plenty of reasons for readers to be interested. So we talked some more, he followed up, and so forth -- to the point that he took the story, as it had developed, to the science page editor for consideration as a feature story. The original idea was a little weather box, not a big science page spread.

More good news followed, as the science editor approved the story as a feature. So more telephone calls as he pursued understanding of the science, and asked for more people he could talk to about various parts of the subject. (I recently ran across my old notes, including a fax I'd sent him to ensure that he had exactly the right figure in mind.) He also did a fair amount of checking with me that he was representing the science correctly -- "If I said it this way, would it still be correct?" He pretty much always did have a good rephrase, but we iterated some on a couple bits.

It's a long time since that happened, but I still remember it fondly.

On the journalist side, what I think helped it work was he:
  • was willing to follow where the science led (no preset 'story' to force fit things into)
  • was obviously working to make sure he communicated the science correctly
  • did homework to develop his own understanding of the science
On the scientist side:
  • was willing to let things be rephrased to the audience
  • was meeting the journalist's questions, not trying to drive a conclusion
  • was trying to keep in mind what job the journalist was trying to accomplish (vs. trying to turn USA Today in to an AMS or AGU journal)

Not that I did a perfect job, nor him. But, then, perfect doesn't happen often. I do think that anyone reading that article came away understanding more about the science than they walked in knowing, me included.

While I'm sure that not all journalists take the care that Williams did, and that many scientists are harder to talk to than I was (and some much better), I do feel some confidence that science journalists and scientists don't have to be nearly as at cross purposes as often works out.


John Mashey said...

Well, you were lucky ... that somebody didn't come along and put a dumb heading on a good article. That happens too.
I once "lost" my company about 15% of its market cap in an hour or two that way in the MIPS Stock Glitch.

Message: think to ask "do you have any idea what the heading might be?"

Anonymous said...

Perhaps only somewhat related, but I thought you'd appreciate it-

Matt Nisbet Chooses Sides by Larry Moran.

Penguindreams said...

Thanks Thingsbreak. I know Larry from way back electronically, and have learned a lot about biology from him.

Thanks also for your summaries of the Will fiasco