Category Archives for Media

D’oh! How Science Communicators Can Responsibly Deal with Mistakes

I’ve written before about what to do when a journalist gets something wrong. But what about when a researcher or an institution is the one at fault? Mistakes happen, after all, from transposed figures to inaccurate press releases to the research itself getting corrected or – oof – retracted.

In such cases, science communicators should be transparent, thorough and quick to respond. It’s the right thing to do and copping to mistakes and working with journalists to correct them can actually enhance a source’s credibility over the long haul.

Take Responsibility for Corrections and Act Quickly

As a long-time NASA media staffer and former journalist once told me, when he has bad news, he wants to be the one to tell it. I think that maxim holds true for corrections. If someone else catches a mistake and starts complaining about it to journalists via comments, emails or on Twitter, a science communicator might feel like they’re on the defensive. A failure to respond quickly can even look suspicious to journalists.

When someone finds a mistake, science communicators should let journalists know as quickly as possible so they can correct it. Check to see if news aggregators and bloggers picked up the same mistake and contact them, too. Be thorough. Don’t leave a journalist out and put them in the position of having to explain to an editor why another outlet issued a correction and they didn’t.

In some cases, a mistake might warrant a more thorough review. Perhaps a key researcher got left off the press release approval email chain and now they’re going through it with a fine-toothed comb. If that’s going to take a while, it’s worth letting journalists know what’s been found so far while giving them a time by which you expect to have a fuller assessment.

It may be the case that only some of the journalists who covered a story conveyed the incorrect information. Communications staffers in damage-control mode may be tempted to just contact them and avoid having to tell other journalists who dodged the bullet that something went wrong. Don’t do it! Contact everyone who covered the story or expressed interest in it. If it looks like a journalist doesn’t need to update their story, let them know they’re probably in the clear up front: “I don’t think your reporting reflected this error or was based on it in any substantive way, but I wanted to let you know…”

If an institution blasted out a press release with an inaccuracy, they should also send a corrective note. Yes, it sucks! But they should do it anyway. Science communicators have to hold themselves to a very high standard.

This can be a messy process, for sure, but given how rapidly news spreads online and how quickly mistakes can get propagated through secondary and tertiary sources – especially partisan ones – it’s worth the effort.

Figure Out an Internal Review Process Ahead of Time

People have very different reactions when it’s time to correcting errors. It’s worth taking the time now – not when people are panicked about a potentially embarrassing or simply annoying error – to come up with a process for responding.

Save panic for the real emergencies. This is just a correction!

Assign a lead and backup in the communications team to handle corrections. Have a similar plan for how the scientific team should be engaged. Ask executives to lay out a process for when they should get a heads up and when they need to be at the table for decision-making. In short: have a plan now so the team doesn’t have to waste precious time figuring out who needs to be on a conference call or an email chain in the moment.

Everyone at an institution should agree on principles of transparency, thoroughness and speed in advance of an error. When a real correction comes along, that’ll make it easier for everyone to focus on upholding those principles rather than pointing fingers.

The truth is that corrections can hurt. Some people will react with initial denial. Our brains beg us to explain away mistakes instead of copping to them. Others may want to rush to correct the record, imagining worst-case scenarios and ruined relationships with reporters. Still others may use a correction to undermine someone internally or even try to throw them under the bus to a reporter (yuck!). More commonly, a junior staffer may find a mistake that obviously came from a superior who has sway over their placement and salary, so they hesitate to bring it up.

In science communication, everyone should feel like surfacing and responsibly correcting errors is an important, if unpleasant, part of their jobs.

Be Clear About Corrections on the Web

Along with having a ready plan with your team, it’s important to have a consistent policy for issuing corrections on an organization’s website. Consider posting a correction policy for public consumption. It’s worth being transparent.

Many media outlets, of course, are grappling with the same issues. Slate was an early adopter among news sites for using the limitless publishing format of the web to make corrections not only more transparent, but also a regular weekly feature.

Slate is relatively transparent about its corrections and even compiles them in a round-up.

Institutions do themselves a disservice when they try to bury corrections. Quietly updating web copy after a mistake has been discovered is routine. Sometimes people don’t notice. Other times they screengrab the before and after and make fun of the institution on Twitter. The Internet has a long memory and journalists have copies of original press releases in their inboxes. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. We can’t pretend it wasn’t.

So what to do? Annotations, strikethroughs and footnotes with anchor tags are my preferred method for issuing – and consuming – corrections. They allow the reader to see what was there originally and what changed and why. In extreme cases, where multiple corrections are required, it may be worth creating a corrected copy and an original copy to preserve readability, but for almost all other instances, these context-heavy systems are sufficient and respect the audience in a way that opaque updates do not.

What else?

I seriously hope I didn’t make any mistakes in this post, of course. But if I made an error of omission, let me know! I’d love to hear more about what works and doesn’t work when we have to – gulp – make a correction.

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Zombie Myths, like John McClane, Die Hard

Right before the Christmas break, I posted about climate scientists’ experiences combating zombie myths for Poynter. As we know, some myths seem to defy factchecking, particularly conspiracy theories. I argued that journalists (and scientists!) need to do more to illustrate the dangers of basing policymaking on misinformation:

“…fact-checking is based on the unstated premises that facts themselves matter and that reliable evidence is necessary to make sound policy. Climate denial challenges these very premises….If there is a main lesson we can draw from climate change coverage it is this: Explicitly stating the facts is not enough; we have to be clear about what happens when they lose out to lies.

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Q+A from Water Quality Webinar: ​Using the Right Tools to Develop Effective Messages

Last month, I did a webinar with the National Water Quality Monitoring Council on how to develop effective messages in science communication, with my last post on this topic written as a companion piece. Of course, I was talking to water quality folks, so I emphasized that message development is all about “distillation,” not oversimplification.

The presentation is available on Youtube and you can download the slides here. We had a number of questions we couldn’t get to before the webinar ended, so I’ve answered them below.

Big thanks to Candice Hopkins, the NWQMC’s executive secretary and a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey for pulling it together. And hat tip to my old colleague Melissa Varga, who runs the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Science Network, for connecting us.

As I told my mom, this was a really special opportunity. Her father – that is to say my grandfather – was also a hydrologist and spent his entire career with the USGS, so it’s an institution that’s close to my my heart as well as my head.

Please see my answers to the questions below.

We’ve talked about things to do – any tips on what not to do?

Story Collider’s Liz Neely put it well when she said that scientists tend to underestimate how smart their audiences are while overestimating how much specific knowledge they have about a given topic. That fundamental ability to assess where an audience is at and where they can go with you is at the heart of a lot of mistakes scientists make when we talk about things like avoiding some types of jargon, establishing baselines, and accounting for cultural differences with audiences.

Would the message structure need to be adjusted if you want to highlight a benefit to a specific congressional district rather than trying to appeal to a funder on the broader public good?

Absolutely. Legislators are parochial and for good reason; they are serving the people of a specific district and we all have what social scientists would call a “proximity bias” for our own communities. Unfortunately, gerrymandered legislative districts don’t make a lot of geographic or scientific sense, so when we’re looking at data, it can be helpful to focus on things like metro areas, water basins or county-level information to put things in a useful geographic context for policymakers. At a minimum, state-based data is something that members of Congress and their staff are always eager to see and hear about.

In any case, it’s important to be able to communicate about these things to multiple audiences. So if you’re working with a message template that has a slot for talking about the potential benefits of a project, you’d have multiple versions of that message you could slot in and out depending on the audience.

Does the advice change when talking to skeptical electeds?

Yes. If you’re dealing with a policymaker who has some friction with an agency or who distrusts scientists who study a certain topic, it’s often the case that scientists are not the people they want to hear from. Instead, you might consider partnering with a stakeholder who the elected official does trust and who can explain to them in their shared language why a scientific topic or research project might be important. It’s that tension that often has to be resolved first before we can get to the scientific information and why it matters.

Is it ever appropriate to build credentials or consensus of science into the message?

I think it’s crucial, but we often don’t do a good job doing so. One’s credentials shouldn’t come across as elitist. Where scientists went to school or how many awards they’ve received is the kind of thing we’re used to seeing on a CV, but it makes more sense to put that in the context of why a scientist became curious about something in the first place. They didn’t go to Elite University X because it was elite; they went because they were fascinated by a subject that they wanted to study it with other like-minded scientists. They went where their curiosity led them, not their desire to come across as better than somebody else (usually, of course!).

I also don’t think people understand what consensus means in science. In everyday life, it sounds like the process we go through to pick a movie to watch with our family or friends. We kind of agree on the least objectionable thing for the most number of people. Scientific consensus is broader than that, so I think courtroom terms like “weight of the evidence” are better for conveying what scientists know about things like vaccine safety and well-established climate science.

It’s also important to emphasize what the consensus is as a baseline before delving into the uncertainties a scientist is exploring in their own work. Leaping ahead too quickly to the cutting edge stuff can sometimes make it sound like scientists know less than they actually do!

Finally, when attributing statements to elite institutions, such as universities, national academies or various agency or interagency panels, it’s also helpful to emphasize the public service nature of these institutions. As taxpayers, we are supporting these scientific enterprises to inform policymaking and personal and business decision-making. It’s not scientists issuing pronouncements from on high; it’s scientists producing useful information because we all asked them to.

Your presentation about effective messaging has been great. What do you recommend to get people to adopt your perspective and increase participation? 

Thank you! Bring me in for a workshop! Or hit up the other folks I mentioned, including Randy Olson.

Bigger picture, this gets to internal persuasion within the scientific community. Despite my own enthusiasm for science communication, I’m actually okay with the fact that a lot of scientists…just don’t like communicating. That’s okay. Not everybody has to be on board the ol’ #scicomm bandwagon, but I agree that more scientists communicating is a very good thing. And I’ve also written previously about how scientists and communications staffers can do more to work effectively together.

A couple thoughts:

First, there are scientific rockstars who are great communicators in every field. They should be bringing other people up with them, whether its peers or grad students. That can include referrals for speaking opportunities, sending media requests to a peer or co-developing communications projects with earlier career researchers. In the old media world, the spotlight was limited and there was a strong incentive to defend your place in it when you succeeded. In the new media world, bringing new people into the spotlight with you makes the spotlight bigger. So the rockstars and the people around them should recognize that dynamic and help build a community of increasingly better science communicators.

Second, I’d like to see managers devote some portion of project budgets to communications. It might only be 1 percent or 5 percent – and it should be more for pressing topics with significant public interest – but until an institution puts money on the table, communications will almost always be an afterthought. My thinking on that subject also extends to grant applications. Communications plans and goals should be part of the grading process. Certainly not a huge part of it – the work must remain the work and I’d rather see great science with bad communication supported over questionable science with great communication – but communications should count. (And this is an area where I’m very open to counter-arguments and alternative structures, too.)

Finally, I’d say the biggest thing individual scientists can do is share their successes and their lessons learned with peers. We all learn from each other and the more other scientists see their peers discussing how to approach communications, they more likely they’ll be to see it as part of their work, too.

P.S. – I think there is a big generational shift underway in science as digital natives take on more leadership roles. The discussions we have about science are increasingly public and accessible – hey, Twitter! – and that is baking science communication into a lot more of the activities scientists do. So many of the conversations that used to happen just among peers are now happening with peers, on blogs, in the media, and with the public and science-engaged nerds like me in real time every day. It’s exciting, a little overwhelming at times, and very different from what many scientific institutions are used to, so we’re all adapting in real time, too.

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When it comes to news writing, do scientists “say” or “conclude”?

Adam Siegel, a security analyst, management consultant, and blogger, made an interesting point on Twitter in response to a Washington Post headline about a sea-level rise study.

Indeed, people say all manner of things that may or may not be based on data and expertise. The verb “say” is ubiquitous in news writing and is perhaps uniquely democratic: it can describe statements from the proverbial “man on the street” just as easily as a speech from the president of the United States.

So do scientists and other analysts deserve different verbs when we’re talking about their research? I think there’s a case to be made that verbs like “conclude” or”find” are more precise for describing how scientists conduct analysis and…well, find things out and draw conclusions.

Naturally, if scientists are expressing an opinion – about a peer’s work or a matter of public dispute, for example – they might be “saying” something just like anybody else.

There’s a another way to think about this, too. Data and evidence can also do things like “show” and “demonstrate.” Writers might also attribute analytic findings to a paper, a research project or a scientific enterprise rather than to researchers themselves. Of course, that sometimes removes the human element from the equation, something scientists are used to doing in passive-voice academic writing.

These might seem like minor points at first blush, but I think Siegel is onto something. Certainly, in my own writing, I tend to use those more precise verbs, but then again, I’m used to scientists editing my prose!

It also reminds me of some other discussions I’ve had about people “believing” in climate change or evolution, a word that can easily conflate matters of fact with matters of opinion and faith. [Edit: Siegel just pointed me to one of his own posts on this very point.]

I do wonder, in the aggregate, if these small language choices are more powerful than we think. For now, I’ll have to file this under “topics I wish I could test in social science.”

Update 3/3/2016:

On Twitter, Beth R. also suggests the verbs: measure, examine, analyze, observe, find, determine, conclude.

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Transparency and Protecting Scientists from Harassment Both Serve the Public Interest

What you’re getting into: 1200 words, a 4 to 6 minute read.

Paul Thacker argues in the New York Times that scientists should cough up their emails when politicians, advocacy groups and investigators request them. It’s an interesting thought experiment, but Thacker’s op-ed downplays the value of preventing scientific harassment and fails to make the case that disclosure is actually suffering as scientists defend themselves from various attacks on their work and reputations.

Disclosure exemptions exist for a reason, the argument is over how broad they should be

Thacker writes:

When research is paid for by the public, the public has a right to demand transparency and to have access to documents related to the research.

That’s true, but figuring out what constitutes “documents related to the research” gets to the heart of political and legal disputes on this topic. Unfortunately, Thacker’s piece doesn’t delve into these distinctions, despite a growing body of legal rulings on this topic.

(Source and copyright: UCS/Morgan Swofford)

(Source and copyright: UCS/Morgan Swofford)

For instance, it’s hard to think of any reason taxpayer-funded data and research shouldn’t be public, except for narrow cases like protecting patient privacy or national security. There’s also broad agreement among scientists, advocates and journalists, that correspondence with a funder about the scope and nature of a project should be subject to disclosure.

But a public university scientist’s correspondence with a colleague in which they criticize a peer’s ideas or rate the quality of a grad student’s work, for instance, should not be disclosed, scientists and academic groups have argued. Making such correspondence public, they say, harms researchers’ ability to freely bat around ideas, thus infringing on their ability to do their jobs and their right to free inquiry.

For these reasons, among others, the Virginia Supreme Court blocked a fossil fuel funded non-profit from accessing years of scientific correspondence among climate researchers. The Court said that these exemptions would prevent “harm to university-wide research efforts…and impairment of free thought and expression.”

Exemptions to disclosure laws vary greatly by state, of course – Texas specifically exempts scientific data related to oil exploration – so what gets fairly exempted in one state might not in another, or at the federal level. But it’s clear that courts recognize that there’s significant public interest in preventing harassment and protecting academic freedom at public universities.

Scientists have argued for narrow exemptions that would not interfere with public interest disclosure

Thacker writes that:

the harassment argument should not be used as an excuse to bar access to scientific research that the public is paying for and has a legitimate interest in seeing.

I can’t think of any scientific or academic society or group that has attempted to bar access to taxpayer-funded “scientific research.” We need to be clear here: these arguments are very rarely about access to things like scientific data. They are usually about things like funding and email correspondence.

Of course, we should sympathize with watchdog groups and journalists who already have far too tough a time getting public agencies to comply with FOIA requests. The Society of Professional Journalists, for instance, has a guide to helping reporters rebuff the many silly excuses they get, including from universities, that don’t want to disclose information which should obviously be public. But those problems with FOIA compliance are far broader than the narrow circumstances under which scientific societies and academic groups have asked for exemptions.

Further, it’s not clear that these narrow exemptions are causing the problems Thacker worries about. For instance, Thacker links to a recent freedom of information request that was rejected by a university on harassment grounds. Fair enough, but the rejection is from a British university, where freedom of information (and libel) laws are quite a bit different than they are in the United States. Further, the example involves a dispute among researchers for access to a data set, not an attempt by a politician, watchdog group or media outlet to get access to scientists’ inboxes.

Thacker also cites many examples of disclosure requests revealing corporate interference in science. Again, fair enough, but he doesn’t make the case that the narrow academic freedom exemptions scientists have asked for would have prevented any of those investigations from succeeding. Maybe they could, but there’s at least one high-profile example of an academic who tried to hide suspect financial ties by appealing to such exemptions and lost.

Protecting scientific inquiry from outside interference is consistent, not contradictory

Thacker says that scientists contradict themselves when they embrace transparency on one front, but not another. For instance, scientists have objected to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) demanding correspondence from NOAA scientists who authored a study that torpedoed a climate contrarian talking point. Thacker’s strongest argument is to point to another notable set of Congressional and FOIA-based inquiries targeting NOAA:

About 10 years ago, the agency released emails showing that officials in the administration of George W. Bush squashed a NOAA statement and that Bush political appointees were selecting which NOAA scientists could speak to the media based on their willingness to deny connections between climate change and hurricane activity.

Is this really a contradiction, though? Those investigations targeted political appointees in the administration who were silencing scientists. Disclosure of that political interference was clearly in the public interest. Rep. Smith’s investigation, by contrast, is much more muddled, especially since it started with questioning the validity of scientific research itself. In each case, scientists have supported efforts that prevent political interference in the scientific process.

Results of the climate science paper that have prompted Rep. Smith's investigation. (Via the Guardian. Click for a blog on the study.)

Results of the climate science paper that have prompted Rep. Smith’s investigation. (Via the Guardian. Click for a blog on the study.)

Scientific institutions still need to be more transparent

These issues are complex and it makes sense that watchdogs like Thacker want to draw a hard line on disclosure laws. In fact, they absolutely should. We benefit when transparency advocates push for more sunlight. But trying to paint scientists as hypocritical on these issues does little to advance transparency. For his part, Thacker concludes his piece with this admonition:

Scientists who profess agreement with transparency only when it is on their terms are really not for transparency at all. The public should be alarmed.

Scientists would argue that the public should be alarmed when politicians and advocates attempt to stymie scientific research they don’t like. The argument scientists and scientific societies have made, repeatedly, is that there is a public interest in disclosure and a public interest in protecting scientists from political interference and harassment. Thacker only acknowledges the former point, arguing that harassment is the price worth paying for fuller transparency.

Transparency advocates could do more to recognize that scientists are right to stand up against political interference in their work. The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund detailed some of the costs of dealing with harassing requests in response to Thacker’s oped, too.

At the same time, scientists can do more to be transparent, too. As the public demands greater transparency from legacy institutions  – including government agencies and universities – scientists are in a position to push their institutions toward proactive disclosure, including data, methods, funding sources and funding agreements.

Regardless, these disputes over harassment, funding and email disclosure won’t stop any time soon. The best way for scientists – and the public – to enjoy the benefits of transparency and freedom from political interference is to embrace proactive disclosure. If everyone in science was more transparent, the outliers would stick out like sore thumbs, and scientists would be smart to get out ahead of public demands for more transparency.

(I wrote about these issues last year when I was working at – and blogging for – the Union of Concerned Scientists.)

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Scientists and Journalists Aren’t on the Same Side, But They’re Often Heading in the Same Direction

What you’re getting into: about 3500 words, a 12-18 minute read

Scientists often assume that journalists are on their side when it comes to educating the public about scientific topics. That’s true for a lot of basic science, like, say, when journalists write about the discovery of a new exoplanet or explain the work of a scientist who just won a major prize. Those typically aren’t controversial topics, so scientists and journalists alike are simply trying their best to explain some cool science.

The second we start talking about anything perceived as controversial outside the lab, though, the rules of engagement can dramatically shift. It’s incredibly easy for scientists, science communicators and journalists to talk past one other when we’re dealing with topics like climate change, vaccines, evolution and genetic engineering, as well as science funding. And it can happen when journalists hold scientists and scientific institutions accountable, too.

The good news, I think, is that we can do better. And doing so requires being clearer about when we’re talking about science and when we’re talking about competing values and how science fits into societal debates.

Below, I offer a story, some observations and suggestions. I‘d love to hear more.

Policy, politics and cultural coverage isn’t pure science coverage

I talked past a reporter pretty badly back in 2011. Members of Congress had invited several scientists to testify about whether or not the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to reduce heat-trapping emissions were justified. One member — a lawyer by training — used his time to pepper scientists with loaded questions while demanding simple yes or no answers, a standard tactic at such hearings. Of course, that’s anathema to any scientist.

Here’s how a major news outlet ended an article about the hearing:

Mr. Griffith also wanted to know why the ice caps on Mars were melting and why he had been taught 40 years ago in middle school that Earth was entering a cooling period.

“What is the optimum temperature for man?” he asked. “Have we looked at that? These are questions that, believe it or not, I lay awake at night trying to figure out.”

The scientists promised to provide written answers.

Like a lot of folks working on climate science communication at the time, I thought this was a problematic ending. To a reader unfamiliar with these issues, it could sound like these were mysterious questions for which science had no good answers. (Briefly, here are answers on Mars, 1970s climate science, and why rates of change are more worrisome than absolute temperature.)

I fired off an email to the reporter, arguing — quite well I thought — that his reporting was unfair to the scientists who testified and detrimental to public understanding of science.

He told me, in so many words, that edifying the public about Martian climate variance wasn’t the point of his article.

First of all, I hadn’t been the first person to contact him, so he felt like he was getting pressured (reporters hate that) and his reporting on the hearing was accurate. That was, in fact, what happened at the hearing and an informed reader, he argued, would know exactly where the politicians and scientists stood in relation to one another. Further, his story also focused on an exchange in which a representative made it clear that climate science — and risks from industrially driven climate change — were well-established in the scientific literature.

I realized that in his mind, my complaint wasn’t really about science; my complaint was that he hadn’t beaten up a member of Congress for giving scientists a hard time. 

House.gov image edited by the author

We also had different audiences in mind. My complaint was based on the assumption that the article’s audience would be otherwise uninformed about climate science or policy. He assumed that readers would be well-armed enough to draw their own conclusions.

Maybe I was right, but that and $3.25 will get you a Chai Latte at Starbucks. The point is that I was telling him to do science communication and he was reminding me that he was doing political reporting. In the ensuing years, I think journalists have done a better job reminding readers where climate science stands when politicians challenge or reject the evidence, but the exchange taught me a broader lesson: just because a story has a lot of science in it doesn’t mean it’s going to get treated like a science story.

Journalists and scientists are both committed to accuracy

Journalists and scientists do both care deeply about accuracy and credibility. It’s tempting to say that it’s because the noble ideals of both professions rest on uncovering the truth and boldly going where the facts lead, regardless of one’s beliefs or biases. And, yeah, okay that’s true, but the day-to-day is a lot more brass tacks: in both professions, credibility is currency and too many errors over time can sink a career.

Real errors are a problem, of course. And scientists and journalists are both sometimes guilty of intransigence when people point out errors in their work. Regardless, both professions benefit from the self-correcting nature of the larger enterprises around them. A bad story will get factchecked by other outlets in ways that are similar to how a bunktastic scientific paper will fail replication by other scientists.

The problem I’m writing about isn’t really about factual errors, though; it’s about what happens when science-related stories move out of the lab, into the world, and yes, into the political arena. We need to be careful about how we think and talk about accuracy in that context, because it’s easy to talk past each other based on assumptions about what audiences know and what role journalism is playing in a given debate.

This is important to get right because science is still the best tool we have for learning about the world and journalism is still the best tool we have for informing the public about what those scientific tools have uncovered.

Journalists and scientists have different audiences and jobs

Scientists care deeply about what policymakers and the public think about their fields, especially on issues that are perceived as controversial. When politicians and interest groups seek to highlight, inflate and manufacture controversies, scientists’ desire for accuracy often puts them in the position of wanting journalists to downplay or actively challenge those outside attempts at influencing the public and focus on what is well-established among scientists.

But when those same outside interests groups focus on controversies, it’s journalists’ job to report on them. Their commitment to fairness means bringing in all the stakeholders in a debate and reporting what they believe and why, even when it cuts against the science.

So sometimes, when scientists are demanding accurate reporting, what they’re really asking is for journalists to critically assess inaccurate views from outside the scientific community. Journalists can’t always do that, especially on deadline when they’re covering noisy policy fights. I‘d argue that this often puts the onus — rightly or wrongly — on scientists to repeatedly make their views clear to journalists and media outlets. That means consistently reminding journalists what scientists have to say about these topics and why prevalent misinformation is wrong.

Factcheck.org added a science feature in early 2015 specifically to grapple with scientific claims in the political sphere.

Arguing about whose side science is on has gotten so popular, Factcheck.org added a science feature in early 2015 specifically to grapple with scientific claims in the political sphere.

Of course, journalists have a responsibility, too. They can’t pass on inaccurate information simply because there are quote marks around it. Journalism professor Jay Rosen, for instance, describes several ways reporters can handle political disputes about established climate science ranging from explaining the ideological roots of rejecting climate science to simply noting what the science does say in their own journalistic voice. Additionally, media outlets have a special responsibility to report on industry attempts to influence the public and policymaking, whether on climate change or toxic chemicals.

The bottom line is that scientists and science communicators shouldn’t conflate their disappointment with some media reporting with their deeper disappointment in a society that is often simply out of step with scientists on a host of topics. It’s journalists’ job to report on science-related societal controversies accurately, but it’s not journalists’ job to actively push the public toward established science. That also means that science communicators and scientists need to think more about how they can help journalists do effective, accurate reporting around contentious societal debates.

Journalists aren’t here to help anyone’s cause, including scientists’

There’s another type of complaint scientists often have with reporting on and around science: the story is going to be abused by people who want to attack the broader scientific field.

For instance, scientists understandably gripe about the “Darwin was wrong” trope that regularly pops up in biology reporting. In 2009, New Scientist even used it as the title for a cover story. Scientists bemoaned the choice, noting that creationists quickly hopped on the article as “evidence” that mainstream biology was in shambles.

Of course, anyone motivated enough to pick up a copy of New Scientist probably already has their mind made up about the theory of evolution, but scientists rightfully worry about how groups outside the scientific mainstream will use — and more often, abuse — reporting on scientific topics. It can happen with any scientific finding, even seemingly routine ones, on vaccination, industrial agriculture, dietary and nutrition choices, and anything anyone wants to pick a fight about for reasons that usually have nothing at all to do with actual science. Because scientists enjoy so much public trust, advocates always want to have science on their side, so they’ll comb through literature, trade reports, and science-related press releases and media coverage hunting for anything they can use (and dismissing what they can’t).

Ideally, media outlets should anticipate this sort of thing.

Here’s that New Scientist cover.

NewScientistDarwinWrong

And here’s how National Geographic arguably handled it better with a clear message for people who bothered to crack the magazine open.

Evolution_not_wrong

Of course, science communicators and scientists would probably much rather see something like this.

DarwinDay

To which a science journalist might say: love the Warhol thing, but where’s the conflict for a good story?

Ice, Ice, Maybe

Scientists and journalists had to artfully deal with a rather odd combination of substance and perception recently when a NASA-sponsored study — by accounts, an outlier — found that Antarctica is gaining ice mass overall even as the West Antarctic ice sheet continues to melt, as sea levels continue to rise, and as global warming goes on broadly in line with what scientists have been saying about it for decades.

At first blush, the study’s findings are a head-turner that runs counter to the simple main message the public has heard from scientists for decades: global warming melts ice and raises sea levels pretty much everywhere. Of course, there are a lot of nuances under that statement, which scientists have talked about repeatedly, especially when it comes to the rate of melting and the geographic differences between places like Greenland and Antarctica, but at the headline level or broad public awareness, this was surprising news.

figure-dmdt-mapPredictably, ideological media outlets that routinely criticize mainstream climate science used the study to try to throw cold water on climate science. Here’s an opinion writer taking a fat, sloppy swing at it in the UK’s Express:

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Nothing like ALL CAPS to make the CREDIBILITY OF YOUR ARGUMENT clear.

Some mainstream outlets jumped on it as a surprising study. From their perspective, it wasn’t their main job to beat the public over the head with the basic science on global warming and melting ice sheets or to correct what those ideological sources have said: it was their main job to report on a new and interesting “man bites dog” science story.

USA Today, with its incredibly broad audience, probably captured that reaction best:

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Other journalists and outlets, notably Chris Mooney at the Washington Post went out of their way to put the study in deep scientific and policy context. They and their editors even used valuable headline space to address potential misinformation about the study, something that almost never happens when outlier studies get big coverage.

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Andrew Freedman at Mashable took a similar approach in his reporting, while the headline took on the inaccurate narrative about the study directly.

Mashable

Of course, Mooney and Frbeedman are well-versed beat reporters with arguably more engaged audiences. That’s the exception, not the norm, and the onus is still on scientists and scientific institutions to anticipate inaccurate takes on new research and plan their communications accordingly.

For it’s part, NASA’s social media account tried to squeeze as much nuance as it could into 140 characters:

Still the agency’s press release might have done more to emphasize what is known about long-term ice loss and sea-level rise globally. Interestingly, the study’s lead author was pretty blunt about how people outside the scientific community would misrepresent his research in an interview with Nature.

“I know some of the climate deniers will jump on this, and say this means we don’t have to worry as much as some people have been making out,” he says. “It should not take away from the concern about climate warming.” As global temperatures rise, Antarctica is expected to contribute more to sea-level rise, though when exactly that effect will kick in, and to what extent, remains unclear.

Such awareness is common among scientists working in controversial fields and they should be open about it, just as public health researchers devote plenty of time and thought to how their own studies are received. It’s all about helping audiences — and reporters — enjoy an accurate view of the science.

Journalists also have to hold scientists and institutions accountable

Buzzfeed’s Brooke Borel recently wrote about controversies surrounding biologist Kevin Folta and communications work he did related to GMOs, some of which was done in coordination with biotech companies running anti-labeling campaigns. Naturally, pro-and-anti GMO forces attempted to assign ideological positions to Borel’s article, but there was another thread of more interesting criticism (at least for me). Some scientists complained that the article would 1) provide more ammo for anti-GMO groups attacking Folta and other scientists and 2) discourage other researchers from doing science communication.

Borel’s response was straightforward and sensible. In a series of Twitter messages she wrote: “As science writers/journalists/etc, we hold a strange position sometimes. I love science. I admire scientists. But it’s also my job to think about both critically. My job as a science journalist is not to advocate for science and scientists at all times, no matter what.”

Indeed, scientists are often public figures who can and should face public criticism from time to time: many enjoy taxpayer support and they are often trusted, powerful figures in society. So even while scientists and science communicators rightfully condemn politicized attacks on researchers, they should also expect and even welcome journalistic scrutiny. Another journalist, Rose Eveleth, put it well, too:

When scientists get involved — or unwillingly find themselves involved — in public communication on controversial science-related issues, we’re not in the world of pure science reporting any more. In these debates, scientists are just one of many actors pushing for their voices to be heard above the democratic din.

Even science education and science funding choices aren’t purely about science. As climate scientist Gavin Schmidt has argued, any societal debate that involves science also involves value judgments.  

Science gets inserted into these debates in perfectly accurate as well as questionable ways all the time. It can be tough for journalists and scientists to figure out how to best respond. But I think we can all do better.

A series of hopefully helpful, but not exhaustive suggestions

Far be it from me to pontificate about a host of complex problems without at least suggesting some solutions. Here are a few ideas for how scientists, journalists and media outlets, as well as press officers at scientific institutions can help address these issues. (I’d love to hear feedback and talk about additional ideas.)

For scientists

  • Anticipate misunderstanding of your work — both intentional and not — and insist that public information officers and reporters anticipate it, too.
  • Demand accuracy, but understand when journalists aren’t just reporting on the science.
  • If you have a problem with a story, be direct, clear and forthright about it. Journalists are used to criticism and it’s easy for them to write you off as a hater if you come across as griping. (With exceptions for hacks and fabulists, of course.)
  • If you think a piece was missing context, but wasn’t expressly inaccurate, ask for an update, a chance to do a guest post (if possible, depending on the outlet), or just blog about it on your own.
  • If a reporter won’t correct a real error and you think it’s important enough, you can go over their heads to an editor or, if that doesn’t work, call them out online, but before you do that, ask someone with an outside perspective, preferably a press officer at your institution or a fellow scientist with lots of media experience, how strong your case really is. Ask them to think about it purely on the merits — as if they were reading about it online instead of chatting with someone they known and respect.

For journalists (and media outlets)

  • Build and link to explainers on controversial topics so audiences who are new to an issue or need a refresher can go back to that content when something new breaks. You have no idea how much scientists would love to see this and well-done explainers are often evergreen traffic sources. It’s also a great way to not have to reinvent the wheel when a new controversy erupts.
  • Understand the prevalent misinformation around a scientific topic and anticipate how scientists will see work as feeding into or pushing back against it. If you’re relatively new to a topic, ask scientists you’re interviewing what sort of inaccuracies they would want you to avoid in reporting. They’ll have plenty to share, believe me.
  • If you a know a piece will be received as controversial, take a look at how Brooke Borel quickly, openly and non-defensively responded to such criticism. Do that. Your storytelling is incomplete without responding to your audience.
  • Be open with scientists about what you’re looking for and where their work fits in, especially if it’s a controversial topic. Scientists worry a lot about their media coverage and much of that anxiety can come from unnecessarily fearing the worst.
  • If a scientist perceives missing context outside of pure scientific facts as a type of error, explain the distinctions as you see them and consider offering to update the story with more commentary from the scientist or about the science. It’s painless and can enhance the story.
  • You can and will tick off scientists even if your work is accurate. The mere act of not using jargon and keeping things short can create explanatory gaps from a scientist’s perspective. Give them a break. If you get a critical email from a scientist, use it as an excuse to help them understand your work. If they’re still grumpy, offer to buy them a coffee or beer.
  • Similarly, if an editor tells you to oversimplify some cool, complex topic you discussed with a scientist, stand up to that editor and stand up for your audience. I’m a big believer that people who are wiling to read entire stories are also wiling to understand and think about them, too. (Yeah, I know, I’m an optimist.)

For institutions and press officers

  • Don’t over-hype outlier findings, especially on controversial topics. Yeah, I know, this is tough one, but that’s why it’s important to give scientists the last-right-of-review on press materials. A university press officer looking to get attention for a study will often present it as “overturning” mainstream findings, for instance, and everyone involved should know that that usually leads to inaccurate reporting.
  • If a scientist seems worried about how some of their work will be received, listen. Pause. Tell your boss that the story is complex and needs to be handled carefully. Meet with the researchers and talk through some if-then scenarios you might run into when you release their new study.
  • If a scientist produces an outlier finding, point back to the mainstream science in the headline, subheadline and first paragraph of a press release. It’s hard to mistakenly overemphasize what is well-established. Figure out the 140-character version of the accurate takeaway for social media, too.
  • Non-jerkishly, but aggressively follow up on scientists’ behalf to correct inaccuracies. You’re allowed to be the bad cop sometimes. As Randy Olson has argued, if science communicators were 10 percent as aggressive as Hollywood publicists, mainstream reporting on scientific topics would be a lot more accurate.

A few additional thoughts based on some feedback from Lexi Shultz, director of public affairs at the American Geophysical Union (and a former colleague):

  • For scientists: Don’t disengage and don’t let the fear of being misunderstood prevent you from trying to communicate. The long-term benefits of working with the media outweigh any drawbacks you might see over the course of your career. I’d add that it’s up to scientists to tell their own stories, otherwise other people will tell those stories without them.
  • Scientific societies are also a great resource for members interested in sharing their work. For it’s part, AGU has launched a whole new “Sharing Science” initiative well worth checking out, especially if you’re into the geosciences.
  • Societies are also a solid resource for journalists who want to connect with independent scientific experts on literally every scientific topic.

On climate specifically, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research curated a lot of great resources as part of their Climate Voices initiative. If you’re interested in helping audiences sort through how their values relate to scientific findings, I strongly recommend this presentation by Jeff Kiehl, who not only has degrees in natural science, but who is also a licensed analyst. (Pretty cool, huh!)

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