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, 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

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement