Science journalism in D minor

David Kestenbaum


Science reporting, even good science reporting, can sound to scientists like a familiar song played off-key, NPR reporter David Kestenbaum said at Thursday's physics colloquium, "Life at the Strange Boundary of Science and the News Media."

"You may hear something in the news you're familiar with. But you can't quite figure out what somebody has done to get in the news. It's like hearing a piece of music you know, but the piano is really out of tune," said Kestenbaum, who earned a Ph.D. in high-energy physics from Harvard before going over to the other side. Like a good ambassador, he sympathized with physicists' frustration over science reporting, but couldn't promise to change a thing.

"It's hard talking to the media. And it's hard being the media. You've got to make every sentence interesting," said Kestenbaum, the only man in 10-250 wearing a coat and tie.

He reminded the audience that only about half of the respondents in a National Science Foundation survey a few years ago knew how many suns there are in our solar system. "You forget where the rest of the country is," said Kestenbaum.

When asked if science journalists should aim higher than the lowest common denominator, like sports writers who assume a high degree of sports sophistication for their readers, he said no.

"I think the opposite is true. Business reporters and sports writers should dumb it down a little," he said, complaining that he often can't understand the business section because reporters approach stories as if their readers work on Wall Street.

He brought slides of bad headlines and funny NPR outtakes to exemplify his points, and displayed the same good humor that characterizes his science reporting. "I think humor is a route deep into the brain," he said.

One clip was of NPR reporter John Nielsen trying to get a veterinarian to say why people won't catch the West Nile Virus by going to the zoo. "No, no, no. You've got to do that again," Nielsen said quickly to the scientist. "Pretend I'm a drunk guy down at the end of the bar. I'm really stupid and I'm convinced I'm gonna die if I go to the zoo. What would you tell that guy?" Next take, it was clear the scientist doesn't go to bars.

During the process of simplifying complex science so the public can understand, "errors get introduced in the translation," Kestenbaum said. "The narrative of journalism doesn't match up with the narrative of science. Journalists need to choose one interesting person to tell the story," while science is a collaborative effort.

Other problems: a reporter may exaggerate a story to sell it to his editor or get it on the front page. Example: a Newsweek cover with a Holstein cow plastered on it along with the headlines, "The Slow Deadly Spread of Mad Cow Disease" and "How it Could Become an Epidemic." Kestenbaum said "They sell fear sometimes."

In defense of editors, who make mistakes about the placement of a story or who write misleading headlines, he said, "Editors are dealing with issues of national security and politics. They don't always know as much science as you do." His father is an editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

He also made fun of the clichéd style of much science reporting, and the overuse of certain experts. "I feel like we're always calling MIT and Harvard [looking for experts]. Part of that is because they have good press offices who get back to you really fast."

Kestenbaum recommended that someone put together a physics training session for journalists, similar to those held at Woods Hole in marine biology. And he asked physicists to call him with story ideas.

"None of my former colleagues calls me with story ideas. So here's my phone number. You should call me and leak secret documents, or tell me about trends or the odd little story," said Kestenbaum. "Think of me sometimes."


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