Science and the media – Cribb and Sari again

In their book, Open Science, Cribb and Sari consider the need for open science communication (and how to achieve it). It’s a really great book – especially for scientists or journalists (and anyone else involved in the shift from scientific discovery to application of new science…). They describe how better communication can be achieved – in terms of writing style, as previously mentioned, but also in terms of communicating between different sectors of society (scientists / journalists / politicians / industrial or agricultural workers / ‘the public’, etc.).

In their chapter on ‘Communicating with the media’, Cribb and Sari write:

Like science, the media is about ideas. It is a natural forum for the discussion and debate of new scientific findings, and their dissemination and acceptance by society. To the journalist, science is an inexhaustible source of news – not only about discoveries, but also about the application and meaning of science for society, and the inevitable controversies that surround these. In open science, journalists and scientists are thus partners in the sharing of knowledge, although they do not always view themselves in this way.

What hinders the partnership on so many occasions is the retention of stereotypes. To journalists, the scientific archetype is the wire-haired male boffin with the mad gleam, the ratty clothing, the strange equipment and incomprehensible vocabulary. To the researcher, the journalist sometimes appears to be a wolverine, red in tooth and claw, jamming a foot in the lab door preparatory to dragging that scientist’s reputation through the mud before the scandalised gaze of their colleagues and the world at large. Like all stereotypes, these fail the test of genuine experience, yet many in both professions cling to them, and it is the communicator’s job to overcome them.
“Nonetheless, scientists and journalists inhabit very different cultures and observe contrasting imperatives [the authors sum these up in a table form, which I don’t know how to replicate here but which I list below, under the title ‘Differing needs of scientists and journalists’….]” (p.63)

A strong partnership between science and the media is …essential to an advancing society and t open science. / By transmitting new knowledge, or at least the awareness that new knowledge exists, the media helps people to improve their lives more rapidly and effectively. This empowers individuals. It offers a means for tackling poverty, ignorance and disempowerment because it gives people access to the information they can use to take charge of and enhance their own lives. It helps governments, industry and society’s leaders to make better informed decisions and to change behaviour or technology that is found to be damaging to society and the environment.” (p.64)

“Humans are understandably risk averse. We have spent the last 3 or 4 million years in the development of a marvellously sophisticated system for identifying, confronting and limiting the dangers that surround us. It is one of the secrets [of] our evolutionary success. This is the main reason why the media often seems to be full of bad news: not because journalists and editors like it that way, but because readers and audiences demand it and the media who ignore this market imperative soon go out of business. Finding out about danger is a human survival trait. People want to assess the risks so they can set in train the social mechanisms to neutralise them. Scientists are particular beneficiaries of this process: they are often paid by society to do research that reduces risks, and that helps make our world a safer, cleaner, healthier and greener place. However, society also wishes to be reassured that new solutions do not themselves contain graver risks.

Risks generally first come to public attention through the media, and their repeated presence in the media is a clear signal to politicians that it is time to act. The political response is frequently to direct more resources to science (and other areas) in order to minimise the perceived risk. Astute scientists frequently take advantage of this. So, next time you wonder at the media’s apparently insatiable and gruesome appetite for food scares, cancer threats, pollution hazards, accidents, plagues, crime rates, climatic shifts, fires, crashes, floods, mortality rates and daily disasters, one way to view it is as more work for science. Another is as the working of the unquenchable human instinct to survive.” (p.65)

“Differing needs of scientists and journalists” (tabulated in Cribb and Sari, p.64):

“Scientists prefer:

  • detail, data, method
  • to be rational, cool and objective
  • teamwork and shared credit
  • incremental progress
  • to qualify their views
  • too consult peers

Journalists prefer:

  • application; what it means to people
  • emotion and drama
  • heroes, not teams
  • ‘breakthroughs’ (hot news)
  • controversy/conflict
  • clear, crisp comment NOW!”

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Julian Cribb and Tjempaka Sari (2010) Open Science: sharing knowledge in the global century. CSIRO Publishing: Collingwood

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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