Scientists and media: failure to communicate

A panel discusses how to clearly communicate science to the public

The panel listens as David Secko speaks of translating science information to the public. From left to right, Jay Ingram, Pauline Dakin, David Secko, and Mary-Anne White. Photo: Michelle Hampson

The panel listens as David Secko speaks of translating science information to the public. From left to right, Jay Ingram, Pauline Dakin, David Secko, and Mary-Anne White. Photo: Michelle Hampson

Nearly every seat in King's Alumni Hall was filled last night for a Science and Public series lecture. Curious students, faculty and community members battled the rain to attend Science and the Media: Lost in Translation.

Science broadcaster, Jay Ingram of the television show Daily Planet was moderator of the panel discussion that examined the difficulties of translating science knowledge to the public through the media.

Pauline Dakin, national health reporter for CBC, provided the journalism perspective. Dr. Mary-Anne White, a professor of chemistry and physics at Dalhousie University, represented the science and research perspective. Dr. David Secko, a journalism professor at Concordia University who also has a doctorate in science was also a part of the panel.

In less than two hours, these four people identified a lot of reasons why translating science to the public is difficult, and offered useful suggestions.

The journalism perspective

Audience members listen to the panel discuss problems with modern science communication. Photo: Michelle Hampson

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Audience members listen to the panel discuss problems with modern science communication. Photo: Michelle Hampson

Dakin began by saying that nine out of 10 Canadians say they have changed their behaviour based on media health stories.

"We (journalists) have the power to actually cause harm if we don't get it right. So it is a big responsibility and it does matter how we report."

Time constraints in producing a story can be a problem. She has a few hours to learn the context of the topic and gather research.

Then there's preparing the actual story. For radio and television, Dakin noted that her stories are usually about a minute-and-a-half long, making it a challenge to sum up complex issues.

It is also difficult to sift through the large volume of people clamouring to have their story heard, particularly public relations people vying for attention. How do you know a "story" is really a story?

The science perspective

White, who has dealt with the media often, noted that researchers and scientists don't always have to speak to the media when approached. First ask yourself: is there something to actually talk about?

She said, "I can use some examples where there hasn't been anything to talk about, but people have talked to the media anyway and that doesn't really reflect very well on anybody. There's no harm in saying no, and there's also the possibility of passing it on to somebody who might be a better person to talk about this."

Then there is the scenario of a researcher approaching the media. White expressed frustration over researchers who hype their research before anything has been accomplished. She suggested that research be peer-reviewed before the media is contacted, not after simply receiving a grant.

Another tip she had for scientists is to learn how to boil it down, since sound clips are about 15 seconds on the radio.

Ingram asked, "So what's the difference between boiling it down and dumbing it down?"

"First off, jargon," she said. "Get rid of the jargon so that you can actually talk in everyday language.... and I don't think you have to dumb it down."

Dakin added, "I think that the scientists who are best at boiling it down, or being concise but still pithy, are people who can give you good examples in everyday life... similes."

Social media and science

One audience member asked about the importance of a science background before becoming a journalist. Secko believes it's not crucial to have a science background, but instead to be a good reporter.

There was also discussion about social media - is it making the translation of knowledge even more brief than the 15-second radio clip?

Secko pointed out that a medium like Twitter is only meant to alert peoples' attention to something, rather than provide details. He also says that increasingly the idea that stories need to be self-contained is disappearing. "Instead we get to link stories together in a way so that people can follow science instead of just get the quick hits."

The event, Science and the Media: Lost in Translation was put on by the Science Media Centre of Canada, a non-profit organization that provides general journalists with science information in order to communicate science knowledge better to the public.

The Science and Public lecture series, is also hosted by the Situating Science Knowledge Cluster, a seven-year project promoting science communication and collaboration, and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs.

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