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Session 8: Communication Pathways to the Public: Reading, Watching, Interacting Moderator: Joan Johnson-Freese, Naval War College; Space Studies Board Member Speakers: Andrew Lawler, Science Journalist Dexter Cole, Science Channel Christie Nicholson, Journalist and Online Contributor, Scientific American Panelists: Jean-Claude Worms, European Science Foundation Sara Seager, Massachusetts Institute of Technology INTRODUCTION Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the Department of National Security Decision Making at the Naval War College, started by saying that she is political scientist, which gives her a different perspective. She observed that she thinks the scientists at the workshop have been “way, way too hard on themselves.” Scientists and the space community do need to think more about what they want out of communication, however. An important element is knowing what the goal is—to get the public to read Scientific American instead of Hot Rod Weekly, to be awe inspiring, to make people better informed, or to get more students into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields—what is the goal? She does not believe that people in general are interested in the Grand Questions or human spaceflight. They may be interested in an occasional article, but their behavior will not change because of it. She does not think that “we have settled on what we want our communication to achieve.” Media issues are “really, really hard,” she observed, but scientists are getting better at the language they use—using space weather instead of solar-terrestrial physics, for example. The “democratization of information” has made scientists’ jobs “infinitely more difficult,” and there is a lot of misinformation in the public arena. She said that an Air Force officer sent her a photograph purportedly showing the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia as seen from an Israeli satellite, but in fact it was a still from the movie Armageddon. People who should know better were distributing it, she said. Another issue is that today everyone thinks they are experts and they do not want to learn from those who really are experts, and this extends to the media when reporters with no background in a topic ask scientists to explain complex topics in 10 minutes. She commended the scientists for the effort they are making: “I think you’ve been doing a heck of a job, but we can always get better.” She concluded by saying that the “public is often wrong, but never uncertain.” ANDREW LAWLER Andrew Lawler is a freelance science journalist who worked as a staff writer for Science magazine for 15 years. He started his career as a space reporter at the time of the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986, so his beginning was not the glory of the Apollo program but a tragedy, he said. It was a good lesson in how NASA communicates with the public. 55
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Lawler began by discussing the field of journalism. He explained that it is “basically a blue- collar job,” and there is a method to journalism, but it is not the scientific method. As Joseph Pulitzer said, Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light. Scientists are esteemed and well paid, while journalists are not, he said. Journalists have a story to write, a job to do, and are working on tight deadlines. They do not have 6 months or 6 years to put out a paper that is peer reviewed. Calling them “sage truths,” he offered two quotes from humorist Dave Barry and Mother Teresa. Barry’s quote is, “We journalists make it a point to know very little about an extremely wide variety of topics; this is how we stay objective,” while Mother Teresa said “Dealing with the media is more difficult than bathing a leper.” Agreeing with Kaufman, Lawler noted that the newspaper industry is in crisis, and scientists need to remember that reporters may have several stories working at the same time, both online and in print. There will be fewer print journalists, but print is not dead yet, he insisted. Most online stories start with print, but now once a story is published it must be continually updated for the Web. The explosion of technology has transformed the system, which used to be hierarchical—a reporter writes a story, an editor reads it, and a top editor reads it again, and then it is printed. At Science, stories go through four levels of checking. Today, it is not clear if an online story has been vetted at all. Directing his remarks to the scientists in the room, Lawler said that a journalist’s job “is not to publicize your research, enhance your career, or tear down your critics; to hide your warts; to be your obedient graduate student; or to promise you page one, right column.” A reporter’s job is “to get it right; to ask sometimes foolish, embarrassing, or uncomfortable questions [to get the story right]; to write a compelling story which will pull readers in; and to correct what they get wrong as soon as and [as] publicly as possible.” Building relationships with the press is important, he continued: “Are you after a one-night stand or a long-term relationship? If you treat journalists as your enemy, it will be hard for them to become your friend. Like any relationship, you get to set your own boundaries. And don’t stew in resentment about a story, call the reporter and talk to him or her.” On the last point he emphasized the importance of telling a reporter if something is wrong in a story, and if that does not solve the problem, call the editor. Turning to which science stories get reported, Lawler explained that journalists tend to report most on the fields of science that get a lot of money, and, therefore, have a lot of people working in them. Science magazine thus is more oriented toward biology, but space science does quite well, considering the amount of money it gets and what the discoveries are. He went on to discuss the role of mythology in science and noted that in ancient times patrons were needed to build observatories; the same is true today, with Senator Barbara Mikulski serving as the patron of space telescopes. Finally, he urged that space advocates stop talking about how much people spend on potato chips versus space spending, which he does not find to be a compelling argument. It is the big questions that interest people—Where does the universe come from? What does the universe look like? Are we alone? and What happens in the end? DEXTER COLE Dexter Cole, vice president for programming at the Science Channel, said that his company is on a mission to elevate the level of national conversation on science in general and space in particular. We know we have to be great story tellers, he said, because that is the only way to be inclusive. We want people to think about space and science in ways they never have done before—to broaden their imaginations and change how they look at the world. We are moving away from reporting to 56
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“provoking,” away from the known to the unknown, with less focus on knowledge and more about imagination, less about answers than on “killer questions”—“we don’t want to feed your brain, but blow your mind.” Cole’s company is more than just a television channel, it is multiplatform, he said. Breaking down the demographics, he said that compared to all advertising-supported cable networks, their audience in prime time is more mature (median age is 51), more male (69 percent), and more upscale in terms of household income (earning more than $75,000). The Science Channel’s commitment to space programming is growing. Right now it is about 12 to 14 percent of programming, up from 10 percent a year and a half ago. By comparison, engineering is 45 percent, natural wonders is 23 percent, history is 10 percent, “humanology” is 6 percent, and science fiction is 2 percent. Cole turned to discussing strategies for storytelling. The Science Channel used actor Morgan Freeman in a series called Through the Wormhole to explore topics including “Are we alone?” “Is time travel possible?” “Who or what am I?” and “How did this begin?” It was an effective use of dramatic recreation and detective-style narration, he said. Wonders of the Solar System, hosted by Brian Cox, a physicist and professor in the United Kingdom, is another example. Cox serves as a “tour guide,” not as a scientist per se. Another storytelling strategy they use is a series entitled Meteorite Men that combines adventure and suspense in the hunt for meteorites. An approach they are looking forward to airing is personal testimony from people who work on the space shuttle program about the final space shuttle flight. There will be no host and no voiceover, just the individuals talking about the program and their role in it. CHRISTIE NICHOLSON Christie Nicholson, journalist and online contributor for Scientific American, quoted New York University media professor Clay Shirky as describing the “destruction” of print journalism in this manner: The core problem publishing solves—the difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public—has stopped being a problem. Today, every person can connect with the public in myriad ways that have almost no cost, so people can tell their own stories. The ability to post comments on a website is as expected as a doorway into a room, she said. Some people claim they are overwhelmed by all the content on the Web, but as Shirky also says, “There’s no such thing as being overwhelmed, there is only filter failure.” How do you engage with the public under those circumstances? People love to tell stories, she said. We need a narrative, characters, drama, and visual communication, whether in print, on the radio, or in whatever medium is used. That will not change. What is changing is that the communication is across platforms—video, audio, text, and graphics. The New York Times online still looks like a newspaper, but someone will find a way to use the Web for a new form of storytelling. “We’re in the very beginning of all of this,” and have not begun to use the Web fully, she asserted. Brevity and humor are important on the Web, she continued, adding that “apps” on a wide variety of mobile platforms will be the future. Nicholson urged scientists not to use social media only because everyone else is using them, but because there is some message they want to get across. “Get your message first and your tool second.” She encouraged scientists to start blogging if they have an “inkling” of what they want to write. If they want to know what the science community is thinking, read the blogs. Video is very important, while audio has not been tapped well by scientists with podcasting. Some scientists are on iTunes, but they are long 1-hour interviews; 30 minutes is really the top limit for audio. If you want a place to start, audio is the place, she suggested. Social media is simply a way to receive, consolidate, and share information, Nicholson said. Every social media tool does this, but using different interfaces. It is a way for “many to talk to many.” Twitter is a breaking news site. The Sichuan earthquake broke on Twitter long before it was announced 57
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by the U.S. Geological Survey. The same thing happened with the story of the Mt. Wilson fire in August 2009. Why should scientists bother with Twitter or other social media? Each person needs to decide what they need and to use it that way, but what it can provide is visibility and promotion, community and networking, monitoring conferences (like this workshop), testing the waters for different ideas, keeping a finger on the pulse of what is happening, and improving writing skills, especially brevity. This is a new era of experimentation, and we have no idea what will happen in the next 10 years. Try it out, the time is now, she exclaimed. PANEL DISCUSSION AND AUDIENCE INTERACTION Jean-Claude Worms, head of the Space Sciences Unit of the European Science Foundation, and Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, joined Johnson-Freese, Lawler, Cole, and Nicholson on the panel. Johnson-Freese chose to combine the panel discussion and audience interaction segments of this session. Seager asked how, with so much information out there, one sifts out useful information. Nicholson replied that the social media tools create filters, and people have to be their own “curators,” even though one may lose the potential for serendipity because the information received is narrower in focus. Worms asked about how to ensure scientific accuracy. Who does the filtering? Editors used to do that, he said, and asked if there might not be a role for that old media style in the new media. Lawler replied that perhaps the old media can inform the new media on models for filters. He also is worried about the absence of filters. He raised the issue of aerospace companies paying O’Brien to do interviews, as O’Brien recounted in his keynote address. Lawler remarked that it “made me really squeamish as a traditional journalist. Do people get that? That that person is paying money to be interviewed?” Seager asked Cole what he thought of Nicholson’s talk because she thought it was orthogonal to what Cole was saying. Cole responded that the Science Channel has a team devoted to new media that is constantly part of the development pipeline. One cannot have just a pure television platform today. “We toss [viewers] to our website, toss to blogs, and toss to our own Twitter account where we get individuals to dialogue.” An audience member asked Cole how his company handles the language of science in terms of setting the level of language that can be used to communicate. Cole replied that they have a team that looks at each episode and if terms are too scholarly, the experts are coached to speak in laymen’s terms. Another audience member asked the journalists how they convey that there is uncertainty in science. Lawler said they use qualifiers like “maybe” or “could” or “possibly.” “You can tell readers what is clear and why, and what is not as clear,” as Moore did in his talk about climate change. From the audience, NASA’s Alan Ladwig asked Lawler and Cole what NASA could do to make their jobs easier. Cole said the Science Channel is quite pleased with its relationship with NASA, although they would appreciate NASA deciding on the date of the final space shuttle flight so they know when to air their program. Lawler seconded what Kaufman said earlier that in terms of public affairs⎯NASA does an excellent job relative to its sister agencies. However, it is difficult to get into NASA headquarters now because of the concern and fear that has gripped Washington even before the September 11 terrorist attacks. He notices hostility toward reporters, which he finds tragic, especially at NASA, because part of NASA’s job is to disseminate information. It is virtually impossible for a reporter to wander the halls of NASA now, he observed. NASA should allow high ranking officials to be available to the media on a regular basis and let reporters talk to scientists without going through three layers of bureaucracy if it is not a controversial issue. 58