The request came in as most do for us at SciLine—by email, from a reporter seeking an expert for a story she was working on. But this one was different. She didn’t work for a newspaper or radio station, as was typically the case for our free service, which connects scientists to journalists looking to strengthen their stories with scientific evidence. She was writing for a website called Man Repeller.
SciLine, hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, had launched in October 2017 with founding support from the Quadrivium Foundation and additional funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Rita Allen Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Heinz Endowments—all wanting to respond to the ongoing loss of science, health, and environment reporters in the nation’s shrinking newsrooms and the time-stressed “new normal” of having to file two, three, or even more stories per day. The goal was to help reporters—especially local and general assignment reporters—who were now struggling to cover those specialized beats.
But what was this Man Repeller? As it turns out, it’s a site focused on women’s issues that, despite its name, has no apparent animus for masculinity and gets more than a million visits a month. We connected the reporter to a Ph.D.-level experimental psychologist who studies the effects of volatile chemicals on cognitive and emotional processes, and a physician who conducts university-based research on immune-system activation.
The result: an excellent, evidence-based piece that quoted both our referred sources and tempered much of the hype surrounding the multibillion-dollar essential-oil industry.
It was another in a string of early hints that maybe our five-person startup could succeed in its mission of getting more credible, scientific evidence into news stories. Reporters appreciate that we quickly find articulate scientists with the expertise they need; contact those scientists to confirm their availability and willingness to talk to the reporter on deadline; and then share those scientists’ contact information with the reporter so they can follow up on their own. Scientists in our expanding expert database (we’ve recruited more than 7,500 already, across virtually every discipline) appreciate dealing first with a responsible intermediary, as opposed to answering cold calls from journalists they don’t know, and are often thrilled that someone wants to talk to them about the science they love.
Beyond the vicarious gratification we get from mediating these happy unions—there is a definite matchmaking vibe in the office—the questions we help with provide us with great dinner party talking points. Do those newly popular organic Baltic amber flea collars really work? (Let’s just say the research base is wanting.) Why don’t elephant testicles hang down like they do in most other mammals? (They used to, it turns out, but they got tucked in near their kidneys tens of millions of years ago. Even elephants don’t remember why.) How to explain the birth of twins to a biracial couple, with one twin appearing to be entirely Caucasian and the other entirely African-American. (Surprise: It can be expected in about one in 500 such sets of twins because there are relatively few genes involved in skin color.)
One challenge has been that requests from reporters tend to be very specific—like the one from a local reporter in Georgia covering an application to conduct seismic testing offshore to look for oil beneath the continental shelf. Residents were concerned because a number of unexploded World War II bombs had been dumped in the area decades ago. Might they detonate or leak if blasted with oil-company air guns?
We offered up a marine scientist familiar with the impacts of offshore oil exploration and a geophysicist who had studied the stability of munitions submerged for decades off the coast of Hawaii. (Spoiler alert: no significant risks were likely. Panic averted.)
This summer we got an email from a Midwest sports reporter who was wrapping up a story about a local high-school football player with clinical depression. The piece had supportive quotes from coaches, but it lacked an expert in teen depression. Within two hours we delivered a clinical psychologist from North Carolina, who added research-based insights and, as is the case for more than 80 percent of the stories we help with, was quoted in the final story.
One of my favorite first-year efforts involved a reporter at a small newspaper on the Gulf Coast of Texas who was covering the status of a long-running Superfund cleanup effort nearby. She was looking into a recent Environmental Protection Agency report indicating that, despite a huge effort, mercury levels in a species of fish there remained as high as they’d been back in 1997, when the site was first declared contaminated.
We suggested two experts—a marine biologist and an environmental biology professor—to explain why mercury lingers in biological systems. After the reporter learned that residents in the area were catching and eating these fish, she needed another expert—one familiar with the human health effects of mercury consumption. All three experts we suggested were quoted in her story, which explained to readers why those fish were still contaminated and strongly advised locals to stop eating them.
We’ve learned a lot about the state of science reporting in our first year of service (most gratifying, editors are hungry for locally relevant health and environment news)—and a lot about how we can help. For example, our database is going to have to grow considerably larger if most of the requests we get are to be resolved without us having to perform deadline web searches for the perfectly matched scientist. In addition, the database needs to be more sophisticated to allow searches for novel mixes of expertise—something we’re investing in now.
We’ve also learned that local television—the medium by which so many Americans get their news—is the hardest to break into, in part because their visual needs are so specialized. That’s going to require that we identify science experts with TV skills who have easy access to local studios, so they can appear on camera on deadline.
Another lesson: one of the best services our experts can provide is to talk a reporter out of covering a seemingly exciting or heavily promoted discovery that represents a marginal or even questionable advance. Many of these one-off studies have little lasting value; it’s often better to wait and do a serious roundup when a critical mass of evidence is at hand.
To be sure, there are still kinks to work out with this journalistic experiment. Perhaps most frustrating is that we currently have no way to measure the ultimate success of our effort—that is, whether we are not only getting scientific evidence into news stories but more fundamentally reminding news consumers that there is such a thing as evidence, that it is different from mere opinion, and that it is one of the best tools one can bring to the table when making a decision, be it about personal health or who to vote for.
Even as we’re learning, we’re growing. We’ve already added expert-vetted, easy-to-use fact sheets for reporters on science-related topics in the news, as well as live, web-based media briefings to get reporters up to speed on complex topics like gene editing, sea-level-rise modeling, extreme weather events, and wildfires. In the coming year we aim to sponsor boot camps for general assignment and political reporters to help them become more comfortable with the science that can inform their beats.
Our hope is that by providing—for free and on deadline—nuggets of scientifically grounded evidence and quick access to experts who can put that evidence in perspective, reason and rationality may ultimately prevail.