Scientists and the media

Our orientation session on the interaction between science and the media included a panel of esteemed science journalists from the Washington Post, PBS Frontline, Science Magazine, and the National Journal. Amid friendly discussions of how to improve science writing and how scientists can relate successfully to the media, they gave us unsurprising advice like “use plain English to describe your research.” They explained how the standard journalistic strategy of getting a “balanced” story by quoting a nut on either side of an issue works badly for science stories, and two admitted guilt of doing this for climate change stories in the past. Among the non-obvious advice, 3 of the 4 panel members stressed that contacting reporters and editors directly is a good way to influence coverage and to get stories into the press. According to former Washington Post Science Editor Curt Suplee, “one of the last professional classes in America that actually answer their phones is reporters, and, 60% of the time, editors. In contrast, the press release, which I had been told in a university seminar on dealing with the media is the way to get in the press, is useless. 3 of the 4 said they never read press releases, and the 4th, Neil Munro of the National Journal, said

“I read a lot of press releases. Not for the lead, but to see what people are selling. Sometimes you get a story out of that.”

Public Relations people were held in similar low regard as sources for a story.

Most of the tone of the discussion implied reporters are basically trying to present accurate information that gets read, and scientists are trying to inform the public, especially about the importance of their research. In contrast, Munro’s comments were rooted in a cynicism of bracing purity, painting reporters as vain and self-interested and scientists as flawed and, well, self-interested. That is to say, his comments were fascinating and enlightening.

“Journalists”, he explains, “write for other journalists”. They are trying to impress their peers. They consider themselves a professional class, like lawyers, and as a consequence, do afford scientists some respect as professional peers. And they are subject to flattery. We can flatter them, for instance, by giving them a story that confirms their prejudices, which is an “easy way to get a story into the media.” Another way to influence the media is to give them what they want. For example, be “responsive and interesting — no geeks.” Or give them a story about a scientist who “subordinates the scientific ideal to professional interests.”

Scientists, for our part, know that the journalist’s service is really valuable to us:

“A front page mention in the New York Times is worth how much? 20,000? 50,000? Do I hear 200? Do I hear a MacArthur Grant? An NIH grant?”

In his view, when scientists come to journalists, we’re not doing science, we’re advancing an agenda, we’re doing PR.

A couple of other gems:

  • Asked about engineering coverage as opposed to science coverage, Munro quipped, “The problem is, if engineers do their jobs right, the bridge doesn’t fall down.”
  • Asked how she felt about Hollywood celebrities getting involved in environmental issues, Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post said that she interviews them sometimes, and that some celebrities know what they are talking about and some don’t. Then, “Actually, Robert Redford knows what he’s talking about and most of the others don’t.”

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