Fall 2002

New Complications in Reporting on Science

Scientists have important roles to play in getting the news right, but they are often reluctant participants.

By Cornelia Dean

Scientists often complain to me about the poor quality of science journalism—that the science news they read or hear is too often misinterpreted, overhyped, or just plain wrong. I always tell them I agree. Then I tell them they are the only ones who can do anything about it.

Science journalism is difficult. At The New York Times, we struggle with it, and we have probably the largest science staff of any daily newspaper in the world. We have 13 full-time staff writers and another eight regular contributors on contract with us, most of them former Times staffers. About half of us have science training of some kind. One of our medical writers is a physician, for example, and another has a Ph.D. in physics. Still another stopped just before completing his dissertation. One has a master’s degree in the history of science and another trained as an engineer. Our behavior writer has a master’s in social psychology. Two of our regular contributors are physicians. The rest of us—the other writers, five editors, a graphics coordinator, an art director, and a photo editor—have no formal science training. But most of us have been involved in science news for a while.

Our science staff is large and has a large knowledge base. Why then are we struggling?

There are several reasons. The demands of the job are huge. We provide science, medical and health coverage for the daily and weekend papers, and we produce the weekly Science Times section. We cover everything from anthropology to astrophysics to atherosclerosis. We advise other departments when a ballplayer is injured or a court overturns a pollution regulation.

Our purview also extends into areas that might not at first glance look much like science. We did quite a lot of the newspaper’s coverage of September 11 and its aftermath, including the engineering of Ground Zero, the anthrax attacks, and the vulnerabilities of the nation’s infrastructure. We write regularly on topics like Star Wars, crime and advertising practices of the pharmaceutical industry, to name just a few subjects. So our reach has to be broad.

At the same time, science is becoming increasingly specialized. So it is harder for journalists, even journalists with advanced training, to know what is important and what is not important. Not too long ago, an eminent physics journal decided to cope with this specialization problem by issuing new instructions for would-be contributors, advising them that the first three paragraphs of all submissions must be readily understandable by any garden variety Ph.D. physicist. From the journalist’s perspective, this requirement does not set the clarity bar very high. This specialization is more or less apparent across the board, and it is bad news for science journalism.

Another complication of relatively recent origin is the intense, widespread commercialization of research, particularly medical research. Not so long ago, scientists who reported their findings in the journals of their fields could be relied upon to play it relatively straight. The journalist could usually be confident that the scientist would make a good faith effort to put the findings in their rightful scientific context. Now, as more and more researchers turn their labs into test beds for their own companies, or have grants from major commercial concerns, or seek venture capital, they have powerful motives for making the most of their results and playing down anything that might challenge them.

This kind of conflict of interest is now so widespread in science that even some government agencies have given up regulations that once prevented people from serving on advisory panels on subjects in which they have a financial stake. It was becoming apparent that in many areas no one who was knowledgeable was free of commercial ties. Scientific publications may instruct researchers to disclose potential financial conflicts, but these instructions are not always honored. Even research journals themselves, eager to attract attention, subscribers and advertisers, tout forthcoming reports in press releases that sometimes go significantly further than the research they purport to describe. So journalists are left with another layer of confusion to work through.

If we are insufficiently vigilant we can be sold on something whose true significance is far from clear. Or we might be so cautious that we miss truly important developments, or muffle them in a blanket of cautionary caveats. These are not problems that can be solved by journalists, even journalists with the considerable resources of The New York Times behind them. For journalists at most news outlets—many of which are fortunate to have one or two full-time science or medical writers—such problems are insurmountable.

These difficulties can be addressed only by scientists committed to explaining their work to the lay public in clear and dispassionate terms. But while some researchers are all too eager to discuss the importance of their own work, others are unwilling to talk at all. This reticence is starting to give way, and it is less a problem for those of us at major news organizations like the Times, but it still exists, and for reasons that are easy to understand.

For most scientists, talking to the press is still a no-win proposition. Reputable scientists do not normally communicate their findings in the lay press; they report them in scientific journals or at scientific meetings. Newspaper articles do not necessarily help them in tenure decisions or grant applications. Plus, if their work is described inaccurately, and often it is, it reflects badly on them. Finally, even if everything works perfectly and their research is described clearly, their colleagues may dismiss them as publicity hounds.

The result is that scientists have little incentive to speak to the press, and their inexperience shows. Often, they are shocked and dismayed that reporters are not already up to speed on their research. When they are asked to explain their work in simple terms, they are at a loss. Scientists need to realize that even specialist science journalists cannot possibly stay on top of every field they might be called upon to cover. If scientists want science reporting to be clear and accurate, they must help to make it so.

When I speak with scientists, I tell them they should prepare for a press interview the way they would prepare for a professional presentation: They should know what their most important points are, and they should know how to convey them clearly and simply. They should have graphs, charts, photos, maps or whatever other material helps explain their work. They should encourage reporters to ask questions, even if the questions are ill-informed or silly.

Once reporters get the story, though, another battle sometimes begins. They must sell it to their editors. And for a long time it has been a truism in journalism that science is a hard sell in newspapers. Though many papers started science pages or science sections 10 or 20 years ago, today many have scaled them back or eliminated them. This problem does not really exist at the Times, which established Science Times in 1978, when it already had a long history of supporting science and reporting on it.

A New York Times science writer, William Laurence, was the only journalist told of the Manhattan Project, for example, and the newspaper actually helped finance some of Admiral Byrd’s peregrinations. Though we have gotten out of the business of supporting research ourselves, the Times is still enthusiastic about covering science. Our editors regard thorough coverage of science and medical news as hallmarks that differentiate our newspaper and our Web site and television efforts from those of other news organizations. Though we do not always get every inch of space we want and not every story we pitch for Page One ends up there, the newspaper’s management is proud of the Times’s science coverage and generally does well by it.

People often ask how we decide what to write about. These decisions come out of the constant conversations between reporters and their news sources and editors. All of us look regularly at major scientific publications for reports that look important. The science editors and reporters converse early in the day to decide how much space we will need in the next day’s paper for the spot news and enterprise we hope to produce. Usually we get what we need. And when our stories do not get the play we think they deserve, it is often because we have done a poor job communicating, clearly and quickly, why they are important. This is the kind of problem we can (and do) remedy.

We are guaranteed a fixed amount of space in the weekly Science Times section, and space configurations on some of its inside pages are guaranteed, so we can plan art and photo layouts in advance. And anyone who reads the section knows that we think photos, graphics, maps, charts and so on are crucial to telling our stories, and we devote considerable attention to them.

Do we succeed? I don’t know. Certainly Americans remain ludicrously ill-informed about science. According to one recent survey, for example, only about half of us realize that the earth revolves around the sun. But more and more of the day’s important political issues involve scientific questions. Stem cells, antimissile defense, nuclear waste disposal, and other topics are all issues voters can expect to confront in the polling place. So as our job gets more difficult, it gets more important.

Cornelia Dean is science editor of The New York Times.


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