The Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases — including “fetus” and “transgender” — in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
The New America Foundation, a prominent think tank in DC, is facing scrutiny over its decision to sever ties with a program that was critical of a major funder, in this case Google.
Libby Watson, writing for SplinterNews, notes that the exposure and fallout is all too typical of how corporate money influences think tank research in Washington. As someone who has followed the fossil fuel lobby’s funding of climate denial think tanks, in particular, I couldn’t agree more.
Unfortunately, when public interest think tanks (and advocacy groups) have undisclosed conflicts of interest exposed, they tend to react defensively rather than constructively. In New America’s case, the organization compared the New York Times’s initial report to “fake news” and questioned the behavior and motivations of Barry Lynn, the head of the team of scholars who were fired.
New America’s president and CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter doubled down on some of these assertions on Friday. Interestingly, Slaughter shared more details about a process of pre-screening and advanced notice for Google that she sought to impose on Lynn, in this case for a public statement he issued praising an EU anti-monopoly ruling against Google. Slaughter says she had no intention to censor Lynn, but pre-screening and advance notice policies are often used to censor researchers, including at federal science agencies. Similarly, such advance notice processes have come under scrutiny when fossil fuel companies have funded research, too. Even under the best circumstances, including when the people involved have good intentions and feel they’re working in the public interest, such reviews encourage researchers to self-censor.
So instead of responding defensively, public interest think tanks should realize they have a problem and try to solve it. They surely can’t stop the influence corporate money has on politics. Many also feel they can’t afford to do their work at the scale they’d like to without taking corporate money. But for think tanks that do take corporate money, what they can do is make those funding relationships more transparent and free of conflict.
So here’s an idea for how the New America Foundation should have responded:
“The New York Times has raised serious questions about our organization’s funding from Google and how we treated scholars who are critical of the company’s actions. As a public interest institution that influences policymaking, we understand that responding to this scrutiny is part of our job.
“Think tanks and other groups that seek to influence policy haven’t done enough to examine the implications that corporate sponsorship has for our work. This is an increasingly fraught area and we need to do more. As public funding for independent scholarship has shrunk, companies have stepped in to fill the gap. In many cases, this has led to companies exerting undue influence on research and public communication from scholars. While we stand by our work and our decisions, we have to recognize that organizations that take corporate money to sponsor scholarship, including think tanks, advocacy groups and universities, risk losing public trust. We need to do better.
“In the coming months, the New America Foundation will create a set of conflict of interest and transparency policies that will govern all of our funding relationships. We’ll publish those policies in draft form online and solicit feedback and comments all along the way from subject matter experts, journalists, our peers, and the public. We hope that in doing so, we can begin to identify and implement a new set of best practices in our field. Our ability to serve the public and to continue to do good work demands it.”
Maybe the New America Foundation will get there. Maybe another think tank or advocacy group will first. But this definitely won’t be the last story I read about a corporate conflict of interest at a DC think tank.Continue reading
Yesterday, I posted a quick series of Tweets in response to Bret Stephens’s latest climate column for the New York Times. I was surprised to see my musings get so much traction, including shares from journalists, editors, scholars and thoughtful, passionate people who are fed up with our society’s inability to address climate change.
So, why did my little rant resonate? I think it’s because I don’t make the mistake of treating Stephens’s arguments seriously. After all, he doesn’t treat the topic I’ve worked on for more than a decade seriously. For instance, when he was at the Wall Street Journal, he published conspiracy theories about climate scientists. His move to the Times simply means that he’s had to clean up his arguments a bit, justifying climate inaction for other reasons.
Anyone who’s worked on climate policy for more than a few years has heard every iteration of Stephens’s arguments. But he doesn’t seem to care. For instance, instead of responding to substantive criticisms of his track record from climate experts, Stephens complained about the tone of a Tweet from someone named Jay with a dog and cat avatar and 289 followers. Later, after scientists thoroughly and sometimes hilariously factchecked his first climate column, he left Twitter. Not exactly the paragon of #NeverTrump conservative intellectual courage he bills himself as.
Tellingly, Stephens only responded to his climate critics obliquely when fellow columnist Gail Collins asked him about what kind of climate policy he actually supports. He made a hand-waving call for more research, something policy experts would be happy to tell him is wholly insufficient for reducing the heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change.
Stephens also plays the refs, trying to appeal to journalists, think tankers and other columnists, eagerly pointing to incivility in response to his bad ideas as evidence that his ideas aren’t bad. But this sort of discourse-policing doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t slow the rise of the seas, help a community recover from a storm or put an electron of clean energy on the grid. All it does is make people with bad ideas feel better about themselves.
As law professor David Kaye put it in response to this point:
this is really the key point. stephens reflects not some idealized 'diversity of views' but instead a lack of rigor & honesty. https://t.co/PPS9zfWReP
— David Kaye (@davidakaye) August 31, 2017
Alas, that’s not Bret Stephens. He cares more about people being polite to him online than he does about addressing climate change. But Stephens’s writings are an object lesson for other issues. When we run into people like this in public debates, yes, science advocates and policy wonks should factcheck their claims. But we should also integrity-check their actions. When we ask ourselves what a constructive person with integrity would do in their shoes, it makes their lack of intellectual honesty all the more clear.
Climate scientists, science communicators and journalists have been doing a great job responding to Hurricane Harvey. This is the result of many years of hard work and lessons we’ve learned about being heard clearly amidst a disaster.
There’s always discussion about climate change after a major weather event. Scientists can participate in that discussion or cede ground to climate deniers. This time around, I heard almost no one in my field say that we needed to wait days or weeks to talk about the long-term changes to our planet that are making storms like Harvey worse. The accelerated news cycle has probably contributed to that, but it’s also a strategic choice and a good one.
For years, journalists would ask scientists, “Can we blame this storm on global warming?” It’s a natural instinct and “blame game” style questions are often an outgrowth of how media outlets tend to cover politics. For scientists, research on attributing single events to climate change is not that far along. By contrast, the science linking long-term trends in sea level rise and heavier precipitation to making ALL coastal storms worse is quite clear. And importantly, it’s the latter science that is best suited to informing rebuilding and planning decisions.
Unfortunately, when scientists would answer “blame game” question by saying, “No, but…” journalists would naturally write stories downplaying climate links to storms. Scientists have learned their lesson. Now they say, “Here’s what we do know…” and talk about the long-term trends. Many journalists, too, have invested more time and energy in climate coverage, putting today’s storms in deeper context.
It’s impossible to separate politics from discussions of disasters. Harvey shows us how civic planning, long-term climate adaptation and community resilience intersect. ProPublica’s in-depth reporting on Houston’s infrastructure is a must-read. Hopefully, other cities will take heed before the next disaster strikes. And hopefully Houston can rebuild in ways that offer more protection to people. Disasters also remind us that our neighbors are often our best source of protection. Deep community organizing isn’t just something we need to strengthen our politics – it’s something we need to strengthen our relationship to one another as neighbors.
Every once in a while, someone in media or communications will declare the press release is dead. But the truth is that it just keeps evolving. And if you need to send information to a whole bunch of journalists at once…well, you need to write a press release. Understanding what goes into a good science press release is critical not just for scientists who have to write one on their own, but also for scientists who need to make sure they’re on the same page as their institutional communication staffers.
So here are seven guidelines to keep in mind when writing a release. BUT first – make sure you have your main messages done. Those need to get reflected in a release as well as any other communication you’re doing.
We should also define our terms before we dive in because I often hear the terms “press release” and “statement” used interchangeably, but they are definitely two different things. A press release is about something new and is written like a news story. A “statement” is a reaction to something else happening in the news and includes a quote from a credible source. In many ways, the purpose of a press release is to advertise a possible story to a journalist. By contrast, the purpose of a statement is to give a journalist a quote they can drop into a story they are already writing.
Okay, let’s get into it!
It feels odd to have to say this, but press releases should be written for journalists first and foremost. Too often, I see releases loaded up with attempts to market a university, sell a product, or propagate some political spin. Journalists don’t want that kind of fluff. They need hard news, facts and figures, and quotes that help put research in context for their audience. Using a press release as a conduit for other types of communication is a recipe for having reporters ignore the message. Further, doing so dilutes journalists’ impression of a source as relevant and useful, making them less likely to respond to future releases.
So the main thing I ask when editing a press release is this: Does it help a journalist do their job? If not, it probably doesn’t belong in the release.
Of course, we often face institutional pressure to include a lot of extra information in press releases. People want to toot their own horns, promote their pet projects and put in more and more information. A good press officer will push back, reminding everyone that a press release’s main audience is journalists. Additionally, we have plenty of other outlets where we can post things that aren’t immediately relevant for journalists, including blogs and social media accounts.
If you can wait to promote your research, offering an embargoed copy of a press release and the research itself to a targeted list of reporters is the best way to go. An “embargo” simply means that the reporters agree not to publish until a set time and date, usually a few days in the future. It gives them time to plan on coverage, dig into the research, interview scientists, and, importantly, pitch editors on a story. Usually, only a subset of reporters who regularly cover a topic get an embargoed copy. And note that an embargo is not an “exclusive.” That latter term means that one and only one outlet gets the story.
The alternative – blasting something out “for immediate release” – can wind up hitting reporters’ inboxes while they’re working on something else and usually results in less coverage or no coverage at all.
Do reporters break embargoes? Very rarely, in my experience. And if they do…well, that means someone covered your story, so it’s not a totally bad thing! If anyone ever breaks an embargo – intentionally or not – you can ask them to take a story down, but you probably won’t have much luck. Instead, you’ll have to alert everyone else who has the story that the embargo has been “lifted.”
When to lift an embargo? Earlier in the day is almost always better, especially since so many news outlets produce morning newsletters. A 6AM embargo is common and some organizations even say 12AM as a way of saying, “really, any old time in the morning is fine by us.” And, of course, don’t break your own embargo by publishing the research on your site before stories hit.
Don’t use quotes for expository purposes. Use them to say something about why the research matters, what was interesting about how it was done, or what scientists recommend in response to their research, e.g. personal recommendations for the reader of an eventual news story, policy recommendations, or avenues for future research.
For examples, here’s an unnecessary, expository quote: “The eclipse will last for about two minutes and forty seconds and will cover more than 88 percent of the sun locally.”
These are objective facts that can be conveyed on their own and attributed to a source without them reflecting someone’s perspective.
Now here’s an example of a quote a reporter would find more useful: “If you stay home, you’re still going to see a really amazing astronomical event, but the total eclipse is worth the trip.”
It helps answer an obvious question a journalist would ask: “So…is it worth it to drive to where people can see the totality?” And it’s the type of quote a local TV or radio reporter would want to use to help their audience figure out their plans for eclipse viewing.
Institutions should also be wary of loading up a release with quotes. If too many spokespeople try to get involved in a release, it can quickly turn into a wall of text and disembodied voices that just isn’t very useful for journalists. If other people want to be on call to help answer inquiries, great, but adding too many additional voices to a release just makes it harder for journalists to sift through it and find the information they need. And in a lot of cases, journalists are only going to quote one person from an organization, anyway.
Finally, reporters are almost never going to use fluff quotes in which one speaker thanks someone else for funding or their hard work or partnerships. Unless the contribution someone made is truly newsworthy to someone outside an institution, save those quotes for a blog post or social media.
Journalists’ inboxes and newsfeeds are full of press releases. What gets a journalist to open an email? A subject line and headline that feels timely, interesting and relevant to their beat. (And, although this should go without saying, the research has to actually back up the headline!)
So a good headline for a study might be: “New study finds NYC subways could face more Sandy-like flooding.”
It’s new! It’s local. It gives the reader the most striking finding right away. Heck yeah, they’re opening that. Doubly so if they’re a local reporter in New York City. A TV or radio reporter who doesn’t cover science stories often might even pick up on that given local interest in the subway system.
A less compelling headline would be: “Researchers find coastal flooding growing more extreme.” This is more generic and doesn’t tell the reader anything unique about the research. Importantly, it’s missing what’s new! A beat reporter who covers science and coastal regions might be interested, but the TV or radio reporter is not going to notice it.
Of course, a big study about coastal flooding might have lots of compelling findings for different locations, which brings me to my next point…
It’s more work, but modular releases can really pay off. If a scientific study has findings related to all 50 states, it can be worth doing 50 versions of a release, or at least version for where findings are of possible significant interest. Similarly, changing up releases based on beat can be useful. A press release about a medical device might be of interest to a policy beat reporter, a consumer reporter and a business reporter. They’ll each be looking for a different angle and might even benefit from different headlines, different lead paragraph, and different lead quotes.
Of course, that all takes more time. And there’s no way around it, good media relations work is definitely time consuming.
Press releases should have email addresses, phone numbers and relevant handles for a press officer and / or lead researcher, not just a generic contact. Importantly, releases should have a link to where the press release lives or will live online – this is critical for making news easy to share on social media, especially for journalists who may be interested, but can’t do a whole story.
Press releases should end with “boilerplate,” giving journalists additional information about a researcher, lab, or institution, including relevant links to sites and social accounts that may be useful to their work.
The news is also increasingly visual. If there are any relevant images, charts or even videos from a study, it’s good to put them online and link to them in a release. Even if there aren’t visuals to draw from, consider generating an image with a few key takeaways about the research that’s sized for Facebook and Twitter. Journalists can share those images while appending their own commentary and reporting.
Journalists are understandably weary of PR people sending them irrelevant press releases and myriad follow ups. Over the years, I’ve seen the efficacy of blasting out press releases to big lists of journalists plummet. Strong results come from newsworthy, targeted pitches that are based on understanding a reporter’s beat, their outlet’s audience and their interest in a given topic. And that, of course, requires time and people power. The bottom line is that the more widely a researcher or organization wants to get coverage, the more work they need to put into making that happen.Continue reading
Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical climate scientist who’s one of the best science communicators out there, just did an excellent interview with the America Adapts podcast. I’m a long-time fan of Dr. Hayhoe’s work and hearing her talk shop with an adaptation professional like host Doug Parsons was excellent.
Some key takeaways:
Give it a listen – I always come away from Dr. Hayhoe’s work feeling inspired, grounded and yes – optimistic.
Parsons’ podcast is also a rich resource of people talking about the climate realities we’re dealing with right now. Those conversations are so important for understanding the stakes of the choices we face when it comes to future climate change.Continue reading
I wrote a post-Science March opinion piece for Undark.org. The bottom line? We need to do more to help people see the public service role science plays and the tangible benefits it provides in our lives. Scientists also need to take on new advocacy tasks that they’ve previously figured might be someone else’s job, like making sure people get out and vote. Enjoy!Continue reading
I’m writing a series of posts on science communication and policy for Sigma Xi, the country’s leading scientific honors society.
The first installment covers how scientists think and talk about advocacy, including some social science reviews and advice from one of my old professors and a long-time Hill staffer who recently did a stint at the Food and Drug Administration.Continue reading
The March for Science went viral last week and the scientific community is trying to figure out what it means. In my mind, it’s a major opportunity for scientists to become more engaged. Those of us who have worked in science policy and science communication for years should welcome new colleagues and friends aboard, share what we know, and help make the marches and associated events a success.
It’s also a good time for us to get real about the relationship between science and politics as well as each of our individual and institutional takes on what engagement, advocacy, and political action really mean.
Here are a few more thoughts:
The marches are part of a growing suite of engagement options for scientists. Scientists are increasingly interested in getting involved in policy and politics. The institutions that serve them have invested a lot of new resources on this front, but many scientists seem to be wondering if that’s enough. Indeed, part of the reason we’re seeing viral responses to efforts like 500 Women Scientists, Indivisible, Rise, the Women’s March, 314 Action, and now the March for Science is that people are looking for answers through new channels. They feel major urgency and they aren’t seeing that reflected wholly by the leaders in their community. Scientific societies and advocacy groups should be excited to see so many new efforts popping up and should find ways to channel some of this great energy into concrete, effective action. At the same time, there’s no singular or perfect way to be a scientist in public life. Some scientists will want to march. Some will want to Tweet. Some will want to meet with members of Congress. Some will want to work to make their universities more welcoming for everyone who wants to do science. Some will run for office. Scientists are human, after all, and importantly, they are also citizens who will interpret what citizenship means differently. The key is being clear about our values and what sort of public engagement we think is effective and why.
Scientists have marched before and it’s been super cool. In 2012, Canadian scientists marched on Parliament to protest cuts and censorship. By all accounts it was a successful event that helped highlight the valuable role science plays in public life. Similarly, when 500 Women Scientists participated in the Women’s March, I think everyone felt great about it, including other marchers who yelled, “Yay science!” when they saw researchers in lab coats. A scientists’ rally outside the American Geophysical Union last year was similarly well-received. Bottom line: this is not unprecedented, though the size and scope of this march may be a new thing for the scientific community.
We can improve the relationship between science and politics, but we can’t wish it away. American politics has radically changed in the past 10 years and the prospect of returning to the post-War, bipartisan political order seems dim. But regardless, when we say we want to “keep politics out of science,” we’re engaging in what I would bluntly call a form of politics-denial. Politicians and ideologues will always try to interfere with and disparage science they don’t like and use science and scientists they do like in service of political arguments. At the same time, political choices influence the types of science that get funded. We should also remember that the politicization of science is not new, at all. Robert Oppenheimer had his security clearance stripped because of his political beliefs, including his skepticism about nuclear weapons policy. Even Einstein found his work attacked by reactionary anti-Semites, writing to a friend in 1920: “This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.” Fast forward to today and censorship and immigration bans are having concrete, material effects on science and the scientific community’s ability to serve the public. Of course this is political and therefore “politicized.” As I wrote after the election, scientists have to do a better job grappling with their relationship to power. So many parts of our community have been sheltered from politics, but we’re really in a different spot now. Scientists have also lost a lot of power and getting it back will involve both more effective engagement on the civic, education and policy front as well as direct engagement in the political process. We have to make the case for science and thankfully, we can, because science, done well, fundamentally serves the public interest and makes people lives materially better.
Marches are open and democratic; get creative. Some scientists wonder if a march is effective. Most people who participate in marches wonder the same thing! I would say to them: find a way to participate that’s effective for you and your audience. If you’re coming to DC for the march, do you want to meet with your member of Congress or the folks who represent your field to Congress at a scientific society? If you’re hosting or participating in a sister march, can you marry that with a teach-in on a local issue you care about? That’s the beautiful thing about big, democratic events. They are what we make of them! So let’s get creative and have a good time. This is new and it’s worth figuring out what we want it to be, together.
Given the above, you can see why I view negativity about the march as premature and unhelpful. Dr. Robert Young’s essay in the NYT expressing concerns about the march, for instance, presented it as if it’s a trade-off with doing in-person civic engagement at the local level. It simply isn’t, but those sort of responses are typical of some of the negativity we often see and hear in our community when someone tries something new. Slate’s Eric Holthaus has a good rejoinder, including links to other scientists’ commentary. Bottom line: if you don’t think the march is a good idea, come up with a better one and do that. It’s a big world out there and as Katharine Hayhoe once told me, we need to do a better job building each other up instead of tearing each other down.Continue reading
This is such an exciting time for science communication. In my ten years working in this field, I’ve never seen such an outpouring of interest for engaging with policymakers and taking political action from American scientists.
Last week, I was happy to march with 500 Women Scientists and was even happier to hear other marchers yell, “Yay science!” as they saw fellow marchers in lab coats walking by.
I also wrote an op-ed for ArsTechnia about why more scientists should run for public office. 314 Action, which is taking the lead on this work, has more than 400 researchers who say they’re ready to take the ultimate public engagement step and run. (I’ve pointed my site RunForScience.org their way and look forward to working with them!)
It’s also interesting to think back to my time working in science policy during the George W. Bush administration. It’s slightly hard to remember, but that was before Twitter became such an important conduit for the science and political press. Back then, leaks and alternative means of speaking out were a bit more cumbersome. Today, in response to the Trump administration putting a freeze on agency Twitter accounts, more than 40 “alternative” science agency accounts have popped up. And memos about new agency policies are showing up on sites as far-ranging as Gizmodo and the Washington Post.
You can delete a Tweet, but you can’t delete the truth.
As disappointing as the election results surely were for many of us in the scientific community, it’s heartening to see researchers respond with grace, humor, and a deeper commitment to public service.
Of course, some scientists will say that political advocacy or action aren’t warranted or that scientists should stay out of politics. They’re free to think that, of course, but politics has way of failing to stay out of science and scientists’ attitudes toward advocacy are on a spectrum, from scientists that keep their heads down all the way to researchers like Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), who run for public office.
What we’re seeing right now is massive growth in the number of scientists who are finding that advocacy and political action aren’t just optional – they’re necessary to ensure that science and democracy continue to flourish.Continue reading