Understanding the Context
“Science values detail, precision, the impersonal, the technical, the lasting, facts, numbers and being right. Journalism values brevity, approximation, the personal, the colloquial, the immediate, stories, words and being right now. There are going to be tensions.”
Quentin Cooper made this statement on Material World, a BBC Radio science program, almost a decade ago. Albeit symbiotic, the relationship between scientists and journalists becomes ‘tense’ when science leaves the pages of technical journals and finds itself addressing the realm of the general public. From fundamental concepts like the greenhouse effect to discussions on emerging research on COVID-19 strains, science needs to be communicated to the masses, at which point it enters the ambit of journalism.
Most journalists would agree that science must be reported to the reader as objectively as possible. At the same time, as journalists, they must retain the right to write freely. Scientists believe this freedom could jeopardize their scientific temper, and are often adamant about reviewing their text, using certain terminology, or focusing on specific aspects of a phenomenon.
So, what constitutes good science journalism? What role can scientists and journalists play to report and comment on science for the general public? How can both communities ensure that science is reported accurately?
Three authors, all being different stakeholders within the ecosystem of science journalism, attempt to answer these questions. Kartik Shanker is an ecologist by training. He writes that a middle path can be found between the two estates when the role that the scientist plays in a story is clear to all. Are they experts or actors? Nevertheless, a scientist’s review of a draft can immensely benefit the accuracy of communication.
As an environment journalist, Vaishnavi Rathore recognizes the potential that her stories possess of being transversal, and more importantly, educational. She explains how scientists can help journalists in telling their stories more accurately, and why journalists carry a responsibility to research thoroughly to ensure that neither party’s professional integrity is diluted.
Sometimes, even when journalists have the best of intentions, scientific findings, phenomena, or deliberations are misreported, and a misinformed public is a dangerous proposition when it comes to science. Henri-Count Evans, who teaches and trains journalists, approaches these questions from a pedagogical perspective. Just like business or politics, science reporters must be trained to tell complex stories to a wider audience.
Ordinary citizens seldom have the time, or access to scientific information, so journalists are the only vehicle of public communication bridging scientists and news audiences. We’ll let our authors take you through the rest, from here.
Click on a quote to read the opinion
“Some of these differences arise from conflating different types of science journalism, which can be resolved by seeking clarity on the rules of engagement within these types… it is actually difficult to solicit an objective and informed view [from a scientist], due to a combination of specialisation and competition…”
— Kartik Shanker
“These measures of responsible and robust research, communicating the end goal of the story to all stakeholders, and simplifying scientific technicalities, are not just about diminishing the mistrust between scientists and non-specialised journalists. It is also about maintaining ethical standards of reporting and improving our ability to analyse accurately.”
— Vaishnavi Rathore
“A good science journalist is one who can write in ways that transcend the ivory towers built around the sciences by using the ‘public idiom’ and ‘oral translation’. More important than breaking the news is the value a journalist places on the news’ significance and proximity to the reader”
— Henri-Count Evans
Science plays an increasingly important role in the lives of people around the world. Never before has it received such patronage. Yet, at the same time, there is an information overload when it comes to communicating science. So much so, that it becomes difficult to separate signal from noise, let alone from downright ‘fake news’. Science helps us understand the world we live in better, whether it is astronomy, physics, or evolution. But, beyond that, we also need people to understand science because of its role in technology (such as vaccines), or policy in various spheres (like climate change) so that there is public support for the actions that follow. Thus, good science communication has never been more critical.
Sharing science with society: Intent matters!
On the one hand, the onus lies on scientists to engage with society to a far greater degree than they ever have. This would require more public engagement through writing in popular forums, books, and many other forms of interaction. In many domains, citizen science — or the involvement of the public in data collection and monitoring — has become a valuable instrument of both engagement and communication.
On the other hand, the principal bridge between the public and the expert remains journalism, and this bridge needs to work well if knowledge is to flow freely across the two domains.
However, science journalism is beset by mistrust, frustration, and occasionally, downright hostility between journalists and scientists. Much of this derives from scientists’ desire to ensure that the details of science are reported correctly, while perhaps paying little heed to the timelines and constraints that journalists operate under. Conversely, journalists may believe that scientists are fussy about details that no one else cares about. In some cases, this could be an underestimation of the importance of these nuances during reportage; in others, it may well be a lack of confidence in a journalists’ ability to understand research.
Some of these differences arise from conflating different types of science journalism, which can be resolved by seeking clarity on the rules of engagement within these types. Journalists engage with scientists in many ways, but they can view the latter in one of two ways: as experts, or as actors. This distinction is fundamental to the type of science communication that is borne from a journalists’ efforts.
As experts, a scientist may be called on to comment on their own research (often in the context of a published paper), or on a general topic of some news interest. Sometimes, multiple scientists may be consulted while a piece is being developed. Alternatively, the scientist may be one of the actors in a narrative that may or may not be exclusively about science. How a journalist might engage with a scientist should depend very much on which role the scientist is playing in their story.
Whose word matters?
While identifying the nature of the transaction can ease communication between scientists and journalists in many ways, there is one significant issue that has created tension: the matter of sharing copy. Many journalists today (especially those working in newer digital media) are happy to have their work reviewed as far as quotes and context go (sometimes even full articles). However, there is a large section of journalists, especially those working in traditional sectors (such as print) who are often adamant that they will not.
This stance has been justified by the practical consideration of time and the philosophical issue of independence. While timelines are a fair claim (although one can set rules to accommodate all parties), ‘independence’ is an utterly baffling reason for most scientists. This is particularly true in instances wherein the journalist has consulted a scientist as an expert with regards to a general topic, but more so about their own work. A scientist’s ‘review’ can only possibly improve the interpretation of their own research or expertise; it only needs to cover the sections to which they have contributed.
Of course, scientists may end up ascribing more importance to their work than it deserves (they are as subject to human frailties, as anyone else), but the journalist is free to take a decision thereafter. After all, there is no obligation for the journalist to make the changes suggested.
Meeting each other halfway
The matter of relevance and importance also poses an interesting conundrum. Today, reporters will often seek an opinion of a scientist within a said field to get an ‘objective’ view of a body of work, or a specific research paper. But, it is actually difficult to solicit an objective and informed view, due to a combination of specialisation and competition that are often associated. It is certainly not impossible for a journalist to source such input, but it would require knowledge of the people in the research community and time, both of which journalists rarely have at their ready disposal.
When it comes down to it, both journalists and scientists want accurate reportage in language that is accessible to the public. If one can structure these interactions as outlined above, then perhaps there can be a clearer understanding between the two estates. For their part, scientists need to make a greater effort to communicate science, and not merely to promote their own work. Journalists need to set aside old-fashioned paradigms of pristine copy, and figure out the best ways of engaging with scientists so that they can convey science to society.
In 2019, I wrote a piece on Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), a chemical-free agricultural practice based on traditional farming methods and negligible investment. Amongst many things, the piece touched upon the irony of the Andhra Pradesh government allocating large amounts of money for what is supposedly “zero-budget”. Soon after its publication, the article received a comment from a core team member of a ZBNF movement. Let us refer to them as S. S called the article a “propaganda piece” and accused me of “not knowing [what I was] writing about.”
Science communication versus Science Journalism
S opined that the article was an “injustice to methods/technology of ZBNF”. While I may not be an equal expert in the sciences behind ZBNF, I was sure S had misunderstood the motive of the piece: the piece was not about communicating the A-B-Cs of ZBNF as a practice; it went beyond that. I was analysing the funds, the risks that ZBNF might transfer onto farmers, and the exclusivity around ZBNF that claimed it was different from any other method of organic farming—all of which would fall into the ambit of “scientific journalism”, and not just “scientific communication.”
Science journalist Brooke Borel draws a line between the two by arguing that science communication tries to “portray the truth….explaining how a natural phenomenon works…” while a science journalist has to take a step beyond “wonders, hypotheses and data” and show the “closest possible depiction of reality.” This reality may include informed critique, which is something that scientists need to be comfortable with.
A scientist’s work may be ground-breaking, and that would make for a fantastic science communication piece. However, concerns beyond the data and data are valid and deserve inspection in its own right. If all stakeholders recognise what the larger intent of the piece is—whether it’s a report, or an analysis, or a feature of the project— it would be possible to minimize the chasm of mistrust between scientists and journalists.
Fighting mistrust demands credible research skills
The next natural question is this: how can journalists without specialisations do such analyses? Research is the only solution. “Standing on the shoulder of giants”, Isaac Newton’s famous metaphor which attributes to building upon previous discoveries for more intellectual progress must be taken seriously by us, as journalists. Navigating government reports, scientific and research papers, court orders amongst others will help rule out the “he says, she says” problem which might arise if the piece is solely based on comments of scientists and experts (many of whom may also have personal agendas).
The homework for scientists would be different. Before agreeing to be interviewed by a publication or a journalist, they should check their history of biases and writing accurately.
The researcher hat needs to stay on even while looking for experts to quote in the piece. If a piece is largely based on a project led by, say, a marine biologist whose work I wish to incorporate, I can find experts independent of the said project supporting it as well as those who are critical. But, finding the right expert is the tougher part. Does this expert understand marine ecology? Have they had similar experiences and conflicts as the marine biologist whose project I am covering? Do they understand the geography where the project is based?
This is still only half the work done. Whichever side the expert might be leaning towards, as journalists, we need to ask why they said what they said. But how do we know that this amount of research is enough research?
Writing over 70 environmental reports, I’ve come to understand that the environment cannot be reported alone — a river needs to be seen with its river bed and ecology around, a wetland has to be seen as a composite unit including the rivers that feed it. The environment needs to be written about cumulatively. As journalists, our research should follow this cumulative understanding of the subject at the heart of our story, and tease out the delicate interconnections at play.
Coming to the highly contested question of sharing quotes (or even drafts) with scientists before publishing the piece, I think it’s a fair ask and even helps to make articles accurate. In a piece about flood monitoring, I once interviewed an Indian Meteorological Department scientist who was telling me the need for a certain satellite to improve India’s flood forecasting. When I sent his quotes back to him, he mentioned that I had gotten something as basic as the name of the satellite wrong!
But this pre-sharing comes with a non-negotiable condition—while I will hear the scientist out on what they may think is inaccurate or misquoted, I am not obliged to make the changes. In cases where the journalist is interviewing a scientist as one of many stakeholders, one efficient way to reduce misquoting could be to use the quotes verbatim in the story. It’s the paraphrasing that sometimes goes wrong.
Dear Scientists, in the interest of the public, please cooperate!
When scientists write for the scientific community in academic journals, it is only normal for them to be laden with academic, technical terms that their peers would understand. But if they would like their science to also reach out to the public at large, then they would need the patience to explain and simplify complex matters to the journalist. I had once reached out to the head of a solar energy program at a reputed science organisation for understanding the developments in India’s solar sector. After my second question, he asked me to speak to his junior staff, for my questions were “too basic”. I was taken aback by the high walls that the scientist had built up around him, which restricted him from answering questions like “why have residential colonies not moved towards solar despite the push from the government?”
At the same time, I have communicated with scientists and experts who have spent an extra five minutes of their time explaining to me what a terai-arc landscape is and why it is important for elephants, how longshore currents shape the ocean shore, and how flood forecasting satellites really work. When I once apologised for asking what may have been a very basic question to an expert, he was gracious to stop me right there and say, “If you don’t have clarity, you won’t write clearly. Ask away.”
The simplification does not always dilute the essence of the social scientific (or even social science) work. Consider the celebrated American political philosopher Michael J Sandel, whose book What’s the Right Thing to Do introduces philosophical thought ranging from utilitarianism to justice, all topped with real-world examples and complexities, all the while keeping the technicalities intact. (So much so, that he discusses Libertarianism with an example of voluntary cannibalism!) Simplifying things only ensures that as a journalist, I know what I am writing about. While I will use the technical terms that the scientist might refer to, I can then dedicate a sentence to explain its meaning, so that it is understood by more people, and perhaps even a youngster who might be inspired to take up science!
These measures of responsible and robust research, communicating the end goal of the story to all stakeholders, and simplifying scientific technicalities, are not just about diminishing the mistrust between scientists and non-specialised journalists. It is also about maintaining ethical standards of reporting and improving our ability to analyse accurately.
These skills and ethics also need to be refreshed and up-skilled, which is possible via practice and the several available courses and media-specific training. Editors too need to see value in and accommodate for their journalists’ time for such training, ensuring that their responsibilities go beyond meeting deadlines for pieces.
Science Journalism through the eyes of a trainer
As the world of science evolves, so does the world of journalism. The intertwining of the two, in the form of ‘science journalism’, has brought with it a bone of contention wherein journalists are sometimes blamed for writing ‘scientifically inaccurate stories’. The irony of science is that while it is inaccessible for most people, it is largely funded by public monies.
It is becoming apparent that journalism training schools must develop science reporting curricula that respond to the needs of existing and emerging journalists. Unfortunately, science journalism is still nascent as a subject of study in most journalism training institutions. This can be attributed to a lack of awareness, and in some cases, even a lack of available expertise.
Currently, journalism departments primarily teach students how to write diverse news beats, which sometimes may include science-related topics. The reality is that science journalism is a special field of journalism, just like business or financial reporting, wherein a good business reporter is one who understands what they are writing about.
Dear Journalists, ask the right questions!
Science journalism can often be perceived to be ‘difficult’, and so instructors have a duty to demystify the field and offer guidance on how the practice can be enhanced.
The million-dollar question often seems to be “where should we go, in order to report on science”? It is a difficult question because reporters usually get wind of their stories from press releases or major events. For those in pursuit of the latest scientific developments, academic journals and conferences are a useful starting point. But having access to these resources is not enough; it is imperative that students are equipped with the necessary skills to help them read scientific literature efficiently.
A good science journalist is one who can write in ways that transcend the ivory towers built around the sciences by using the ‘public idiom’ and ‘oral translation’. More important than breaking the news is the value a journalist places on the news’ significance and proximity to the reader.
Having said that, simplifying science should not lead to its oversimplification and trivialisation. When reading a scientific report, journalists should always seek to answer a few questions: What is the report about? What was most important about the methods? What are the key findings of the paper?
After understanding these key aspects, reporters should begin to place themselves in the shoes of their audiences to answer another set of questions that can help readers make sense of the news in simple but meaningful ways. Why should I care about this scientific report? What is the meaning of the findings for a lay news consumer? How can these results enhance scientific knowledge and practice?
Asking these questions helps a journalist gauge the ‘newsworthiness’ of the story and helps decide how the story should be written in order to strike a chord with the targeted audiences.
Science itself is not free of biases, and scientists do not exist in social, political, and economic vacuums. One must acknowledge that scientific positions are not sacred and that they ought to be adequately debated. Beyond researching for themselves, it is important for journalists to ask for commentary from other scientists, authors, and significant voices within the scientific domain. This process of engaging multiple sources allows for scientific critique and ensures that audiences are given a chance to decide who to believe for themselves.
Effective science journalism demands strong ethics
Journalists should always remember that what matters in a news story is not their opinion, but the truth. While ‘objectivity’ can be a slippery slope for journalists, avoiding bias requires one to report accurately and ensure that all actors are afforded equal representational powers.
In the area of climate change, for example, journalists have begun to avoid using skeptics as sources because these voices are seen to delegitimise science. While newsrooms can adopt these vices, the ethical question is: Who decides the “truth” for the public? Are journalists appropriate scientific arbiters? Doesn’t blocking out other voices go against the ethos of reporting objectively and giving all voices fair representation? These are some of the ethical questions that remain debatable today.
In my view, journalists should always strive to maintain credibility and trust in their profession. This can only happen where partisanal biases in science coverage are avoided. In addition, using one-dimensional sources will inevitably limit possibilities for scientific debate.
As journalists, citing sources who ideologically agree with our worldview only makes us ideological mouthpieces who serve the interests of a few, and not the public. For journalists to truly serve society through effective science journalism and communication, they still have to swear allegiance to the unwritten ethics of fairness, inclusivity, and objectivity.