“Everybody has an agenda. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s knowing what the agenda is and being able to control for it.”— Scott Hensley
The goals of research scientists and the goals of the media for communicating science may not always align. Workshop participants discussed those differences and strategies that public affairs officers and science journalists can use to develop trustworthy science stories.
Kirk Englehardt of the Georgia Institute of Technology spoke about the role that university press offices can play in communicating science. He explained that universities want the “best students, the best faculty, and the largest grants” and added that there is tremendous pressure to “push out” stories as quickly as possible with the goal of maximizing “eyes on a story”. However, when universities value eyes on a story as the optimal outcome, “people start to think that quantity is more important than quality” and there is more room for error and exaggeration, both of which work against trust in science. Explaining how those circumstances evolved, Englehardt said that communication offices share responsibility for boosting a university’s external grant revenue and reputation, and these are related to the public’s perception of the importance and effects of a university’s research program. Communication offices seek to shape that perception among the mass media, funding agencies, and industry. Englehardt said that problems can arise when quality control is absent in the process of shaping perception.
Although university press offices are dedicated to building institutional reputations, Englehardt said that press releases do not always reflect a full understanding of the details of research findings because of the pressure to get material out quickly. Lack of understanding and context can decrease the quality of press releases that are picked up by journalists as part of what Tim Caulfield of the University of Alberta termed “the hype pipeline”. Englehardt said that hype often begins with press releases but added that there is “enough blame to go around” concerning the many forces that work to build media coverage of research findings. He touched on the increasing role of social media in promoting research findings and noted
that communication offices need to evolve as scientific discourse moves toward these platforms. James Grunig of the University of Maryland pointed out that as communication vehicles continue to move toward digital and social media and away from traditional print platforms, there will be increased emphasis on the ability of organizations—including universities—to interact effectively through the newer platforms. In this new landscape, Grunig said, “the big story” is not as important as interacting with the public effectively; universities and other institutions will increasingly be expected to move beyond simple dissemination of new findings and assume a more interactive role with the public. Grunig said that the new approaches to communication will be characterized by conversation and exchange of information, ideas, and reactions. Despite the increase in public discussion of science on social media, Englehardt said that university-based scientists remain poorly trained in navigating these platforms because their institutions do not allocate resources for training.
Caulfield noted that many factors fuel the hype pipeline, including researchers’ continuing need to publish new findings and secure external research funding, mass-media spin, marketing, vested interests, and the “science bandwagon”. He added that social media contribute to hype about scientific issues and that the effect of this hype is related to the asymmetry of negative information, a point that was raised by a number of speakers. Caulfield also discussed the role of “availability cascades” in driving news stories—self-reinforcing processes in which shared beliefs are formed through chain reactions that give a “perception of increasing plausibility through increasing presence in public discourse”. Caulfield emphasized that social media enhance the frequency and effect of availability cascades and that the cascades can be reinforced when celebrities, such as Jenny McCarthy23, take part in or provide leadership of them. According to Caulfield, the cascades “allow misinformation to thrive” in a manner that erodes public trust.
Caulfield said that in some cases, key intermediaries between science and the public—including journalists—may not care about improving the public’s trust in science because their incentives are different from those of scientists. Caulfield’s noted that journalists are “complicit collaborators” for whom building trust is not a primary objective. However, he also noted that although there is considerable criticism of the mass media for driving hype, his research shows that the media were generally effective in representing information that they were given. There are “errors of omission” in what is quoted by the media, but Caulfield said that the material is generally accurate even if it lacks important context.
Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch and MedPage Today moderated a panel discussion on the challenges faced by Web, print, and radio media in identifying reliable sources and promoting intelligent scientific discussion. Panelists touched on a number of issues raised by other speakers, including exaggerated press releases, communication with university-based investigators, conflict of interest, and the need to get information out quickly. Oransky began the discussion by asking panelists how they identify reliable sources and how they decide who is trustworthy (Box 5-1). Scott Hensley of National Public Radio said that he looks for sources who have expertise in the subject of the story that he is working on and that the
23 An America model, author, and television host known for anti-vaccine activism.
source also needs to be someone whom he can establish for the audience as having the right qualifications to provide input on the story. Hensley shared frustrating experiences in which he attempted to contact a university-based researcher to follow up on a press release only to find that the contact person was not available to speak about the work. He pointed out the practical challenges that lack of availability creates for journalists who seek to be thorough and accurate in their coverage. Julia Belluz, of Vox, expressed her desire to avoid sources who appear to be biased and those whose consistent positions on a given issue suggest that they lack objectivity. When researching a topic, Belluz said, she uses systematic literature reviews to find sources that have a broad and balanced overview of key issues, and she draws on people who have conducted the reviews to understand what is known and not known about an issue. She said that these “meta researchers [are] hugely helpful and tend to have less of a conflict and agenda.” Saying that “everyone has an agenda,” Hensley noted that he tries to understand his sources’ agendas and to take them into account in his reporting. Liz Szabo of USA Today said that because she works for an on-line media organization that demands rapid release of new information, she places a premium on the ability of sources to respond to her inquiries quickly. Szabo emphasized the extreme time sensitivity of the news in which she and many other science journalists must operate. In that setting, Szabo said, she needs her sources to be able to answer her questions “in the equivalent of a tweet” – get to the point quickly in an understandable manner.
Oransky pointed out that Belluz, Hensley, and Szabo are specialist journalists, each with their own expertise in science and medicine. He asked them to discuss the effect that having more generalist reporters cover science news may have on public trust. All the panelists expressed concern about reductions in the number of experienced reporters covering science and medicine. Szabo said that general-assignment reporters have “the hardest job in the newsroom” because “every day is like the first day on the job,” they have to rapidly learn
Journalists Hensley, Belluz, and Vox described a wide range of characteristics they take into consideration for selecting and determining the trustworthiness of sources for a science news story:
- Potential conflicts of interest
- Availability to response
- Timeliness of response to a contact or telephone call
about a new topic. As a result, some of the problems in health and science news stem from articles written by general-assignment reporters. Unlike specialists, generalists do not have the accumulated experience in science journalism to help them to identify good and bad elements of a story, or how to give weight to different opinions about the science. Their lack of depth expertise in science creates a situation, Szabo said, in which these journalists do not “know what to look for” when covering a story and identifying sources. She said that budget cuts, increased Web-based reporting, and other streamlining efforts have reduced the availability of science specialists and increased the number of generalists covering science beats. Although Szabo warned that these changes will mean that more young and unseasoned reporters will have a very challenging job, she emphasized that regardless of background and training, qualified reporters are always taught to “find the other side” and that opposing views need to be represented regardless of whether the reporter is a specialist or a generalist.
“I find it terrifying—the idea of covering the courts in the morning and medicine in the afternoon. I’ve been full time on medicine for about 4 years, and I’m still learning” Belluz said. She said that the fact that many newspapers no longer have a cadre of experienced science reporters prevents the public from relying on this aspect of “the golden circle” described by Marcia Kean of Feinstein Kean Health care and may drive public audiences to seek information from other, less traditional sources.
The media panelists acknowledged that although intrinsic safeguards exist, journalists make mistakes. Hensley pointed out that in cases where there are substantial failings on the part of the media, there is often more than one level of failure. For example, there may be a failing on the part of a reporter to include a reliable, opposing viewpoint in a given story, and this omission may also be missed during editorial review of the story, he explained. In most cases, institutional safeguards identify and correct such problems, but when there are failures on multiple levels, the problems can result in diminished trust in the media. Hensley echoed Szabo’s concerns about “the hollowing out of newsrooms” and about how reduction in the number of experienced science reporters weakens the balance that is designed to optimize reporting. Panelists said that the unfavorable effect of the staffing trends is exacerbated by an increase in the number of inexperienced reporters who work in specialty fields with less of an editorial safety net. Hensley said that “there is much more opportunity for errors in sourcing and errors in judgment on stories that are complex, and I think it is something that we in the profession recognize. But it is difficult to see how we improve it other than one story at a time.”
Oransky asked panelists what changes they thought had occurred in the perception of medicine and science as a result of changes in journalism. Referring to her reporting on the recent measles outbreak, Belluz shared the surprise that she felt when she learned about how much information is available to the public that encourages parents to delay or avoid vaccination. She said that was “not the world that [she] inhabits” and added that because these types of issues are so polarizing and because of the media’s inevitable effect on public-health messaging, journalists need to be particularly aware of the need for reliable sources. Belluz said that in her reporting she pays particular attention to “balances, harms, and tradeoffs” so that the public can get a full understanding of the complexity of issues. Responding to the
frenzy of media coverage during the Ebola crisis, Szabo said, the country “toggled from apathy to hysteria and back again.” In response, she attempted to use her reporting to prevent her newspaper from “going over the cliff into stupid land”. During that time, she covered the issue in a manner that was intended to “nudge people toward informed, engaged compassion.”
Commenting on the variety of ways in which media consumers can use their time, Hensley said that with each story there is “a battle for attention” and that he and his colleagues are “out there competing for people’s attention, whether it is with other news stories, video games, or e-mail or text messages.” He explained that “one of the challenges for us is to compete honestly for that attention and to do stories that live up to our standards as a news organization and still engage the audience.” He added that the intense competition for the public’s attention provides an opportunity for organizations and interests to release information on a variety of platforms that can be incorrectly perceived as legitimate journalism by public audiences. The media panelists and other workshop attendees spoke repeatedly about the challenges to both scientists and the public of navigating a new information age in which experienced journalists, nonscientist celebrities (such as Jenny McCarthy), and the lay public all have access to communication-technology platforms that facilitate the initiation and curation of complex scientific discussion.
This page intentionally left blank.