Communicating Newsworthy Social and Behavioral Science

The social and behavioral sciences produce “news”—interesting and important insights that can improve lives. But, what can scientists and the media do to accurately report science given the pressures they face? And what science is newsworthy in the first place?

Researchers and journalists offered their observations and practical advice on communicating social and behavioral science news in clear, compelling, and accurate ways at a seminar of the National Academies’ Roundtable on the Communication and Use of Social and Behavioral Science. 

Introduction to the seminar by Arthur Lupia: A changing marketplace for information from social and behavioral science

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What makes social and behavioral science newsworthy?

Journalists share their expertise.

Frank Sesno

Frank Sesno

Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs
The George Washington University
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  • Compelling
  • Relevant
  • Relatable
  • Contemporaneous
Seth Borenstein

Seth Borenstein

National Science Writer
The Associated Press
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  • Interesting
  • Complete
  • New
  • Tells a bigger story
John Sides

John Sides

Associate Professor of Political Science
George Washington University
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  • Underappreciated perspective
  • Not intuitive
  • Salient
Susan Pinker

Susan Pinker

Developmental Psychologist, Writer
Wall Street Journal
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  • Challenges conventional wisdom
  • Applicable
  • Sheds light on policy or current events
  • Offers a human angle

Journalists and Scientists: Different Backgrounds, Different Worlds

According to journalist Susan Pinker, developmental psychologist, writer, Wall Street Journal:



Journalists Often...

Have humanities, not science backgrounds
Have not taken (much) college statistics
Are under daily deadline pressure
Must snag new stories; can’t get scooped
Have little time for in-depth research
Look for color, stories, quotes, but have tight word counts

Scientists Often...

Have limited backgrounds in communicating science for non-scientist audiences
Focus more on the scientific aspects of their work than on the personal story of their work
Use technical terms, abbreviations, and jargon

Challenges Facing the Media in Reporting Science

Daily pressures


Reporting this news in an accurate way on deadline is no easy task. Susan Pinker, science journalist; Frank Sesno, director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs and former CNN journalist; and Brian Lin of EurekAlert at AAAS share insights about the daily pressures journalists face that affect how they report science.


susan pinkner Susan Pinker, Developmental Psychologist, Writer

Frank Sesno Frank Sesno, Director, School of Media and Public Affairs, The George Washington University

Brian Lin Brian Lin, Director for Editorial Content Strategy, EurekAlert!

The special challenges of reporting science


Science itself poses challenges for journalists as they determine what is newsworthy, investigate the accuracy of scientific claims, filter out hype, and clearly convey what the science means for their audiences. Three leading science journalists share their approaches for overcoming these challenges.

Richard Harris Richard Harris, Science Desk Correspondent, NPR

Daniel EngberDaniel Engber,
Columnist, Slate

Seth BorensteinSeth Borenstein, Science Writer, Associated Press

Ideas for Social and Behavioral Scientists
Communicating with the Media


Brian Nosek is co-founder and executive director of the Center for Open Science, which published a report in 2015 in Science, “Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science.” As the report was covered widely in the popular media, Nosek shared a set of best practices that his team used to communicate about it with the media.

Preparing to Communicate with the Media

  • Determine who will communicate with the media and prepare the team to do so
  • Prepare documentation–press release, notes, FAQs, list of non-author experts who could provide commentary
  • Make time available in your schedule to respond quickly to media inquiries
  • If applicable, plan stages of media engagement such as a press conference to initiate engagement and early interviews
  • Plan to follow up post release: provide corrections or suggest links

Communicating with the Media

The main messages of the science
  • Be responsive to journalists and help them do their job
  • Provide the main message of the study in a usable form: speak in quotes
  • Say what the study is or has found AND what it isn’t or hasn’t found
The nuances and uncertainty
  • Identify and prioritize the most important qualifiers of the study to share
  • Make uncertainty part of the story in a concrete way
  • Avoid throwaway nods about uncertainty such as “may” or “just a first study”
  • Explain what is not known, how it could be wrong, and why it is worth taking seriously nonetheless
  • Resist minimizing uncertainty when simplifying the explanation of the science

Following Up after Media Coverage

  • Take notes on quality and accuracy of coverage
  • Prioritize journalists for future stories

Watch Brian Nosek’s full presentation

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Communicating the Science

Ideas for Journalists


Asking good questions is at the heart of journalism. Participants suggest questions they ask scientists.

Is it newsworthy?

Frank Sesno shares approaches to determining newsworthy science from his book, Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change

Frank Sesno

Is it good science?

“How could you be wrong?”
—Brian Nosek

“What haven’t we talked about?”
—Seth Borenstein

“How do you know in your field, what is a good, trustworthy paper?”
—Dan Engber

How does a single study connect to others?

John Sides of The Monkey Cage and Maria Balinska of The Conversation describe how they approach putting single studies in the context of the body of work on a topic.

John Sides

Maria Balinska

SPONSORS

American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, Institute for Social Science Research, and SAGE Publishing