World Federation of Science Journalists

Lost in Translation


January 10, 2011

Better communication between scientists, institutions and journalists can boost the media’s coverage of science and public understanding of science.

In August 2010, the American Academy of Arts & Science published an absorbing volume of nine essays focused on the question of how to enrich Americans’ engagement with science and technology and the media’s role in that endeavor. Although scholars have seen improvements in scientific literacy in the United States, much of the American public remains confused about many of science’s basic constructs. The problem with that, the report notes, is that scientific understanding is crucial to public discussion and good policy-making.

The report, edited by Donald Kennedy, the former editor-in-chief at Science, and Geneva Overholser, director of the USC Annenberg’s School of Journalism examines the journalist’s role in furthering Americans’ understanding of science, the evolving scientist-journalist relationship, and how digital media is transforming the way science news is covered—and consumed.

The publication of Science and the Media follows a recent bout of despair over the future of science journalism brought on by extensive job cuts in traditional print media in the U.S. How science is covered by the media has a vital role in scientific literacy, and yet, “many—perhaps the majority of—big science and technology news stories are covered by reporters who do not specialize in these areas,” write the editors. Coverage may emphasize politics or personalities and skimp on science.

“Good science writing combines knowledge of the subject, the skill to translate complexity into language understandable to the layman, and the ability to tell a story that will engage the reader, listener or viewer,” writes Cristine Russell in her comprehensive essay on how to improve the coverage of controversial scientific issues. Russell, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, offers a set of guidelines that is useful for all science journalists, whether in the U.S. or abroad (see Better Coverage).

But the path to better science writing doesn’t rest solely with the media. Scientists must also invest in improving they way they communicate science to journalists and to the public. “We focused quite a lot on the way scientists find themselves disappointed with media coverage and why media people are sometimes impatient with scientists,” says Kennedy, a professor emeritus, and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

Scientists often denounce the way media covers science, medicine and health, writes Cornelia Dean in her essay “The Scientist as Citizen.” Dean, a science writer and former science editor at the New York Times, realized that to improve media coverage of scientific issues, scientists would have to learn to talk about their work in a way that was easily understood and they would have to believe they had reason to do so.

“Seeding the nation’s scientific establishment with researchers who understand the importance of communicating with the lay public, and who are willing to take the time to communicate, can only be good,” she writes. Several programs, such as those Dean leads at Harvard and the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, now provide scientists with the skills to communicate their work to non-academic stakeholders.

The transition from traditional print media to online forms of science journalism is revealing that although Americans may show some discomfort with science, they appear to be interested in such issues. Long lists of comments often follow online stories, Kennedy points out. “There really is more public interest that we might have suspected,” he says. In his essay “Revitalizing Science Journalism for a Digital Age” Alfred Hermida, a veteran BBC journalist and head of the integrated journalism program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, explores that changing nature of science news and the “participatory potential” that accompanies the online shift.

The report nine essays by award-winning science journalists and communicators offer perspective on the American public’s understanding of science and the interconnected roles of the media, the scientific community, and the public in building a scientifically literate population. It’s a good read for anyone—journalists, editors, academics and public information officers—interested in improving the quality of science coverage in the media.

Better Coverage

Ten guidelines to keep in mind when covering controversial science and policy issues.
  1. Put new research in context.
  2. Stop the yo-yo approach to science, environment, medical, and technology coverage (swinging from “breakthrough” to “disaster”).
  3. Avoid “dueling” experts on science and policy. 
  4. Write about the process of science as well as the end results. 
  5. Watch out for anecdotes.
  6. Be careful in citing risk statistics.
  7. Distinguish between the impacts on individuals versus the impacts on society.
  8. Provide information on what, if anything, can be done about a given problem by individuals, government, or the private sector, as well as the degree to which the available science supports such action. 
  9. Avoid becoming an advocate for any side if you are a news reporter or editor. 
  10. Recognize that there is no single “public.”
Adapted from “Covering Controversial Science: Improving Reporting on Science and Public Policy” by Cristine Russell, in Science and the Media.



Photo by Daniel R. Blume from Orange County, California, USA (A stack of newspapers) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons