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Session spotlights media's science reporting

Two science journalists and two leading MIT scientists shared their perspectives on science reporting and responded to each others' concerns and those of their audience at an IAP panel discussion last week designed to introduce young scientists to how science journalism works and some of the factors that affect its quality.

"Meet the Press" featured Paul Raeburn, science editor for the Associated Press; Cris Russell, a freelance writer formerly with the Washington Post; Professor Phillip Sharp, head of the Department of Biology and winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, and Professor Gerald Fink, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. David Ansley, acting director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships, served as moderator.

Among the issues discussed:

  • ������A perceived lack of in-depth, analytical stories about important research findings.
  • The need for scientists to understand something about what motivates journalists and what they need to do their job.
  • The need for journalists to be better educated about science.
  • The importance of complaining with respect to poor reporting.
  • Journalists' tendency to always include an alternative point of view in a story, which can lead to continuing coverage for a few "professional nudniks" who do not represent the majority.


While Professor Sharp said that "the press is doing a very good job in covering day-to-day activities [in science]," he noted a lack of analytical stories that put research findings into perspective. An article announcing a breakthrough is fine, he said, but it should be followed by an article that "explains exactly what the issues are and gives some in-depth investigation of the circumstances" behind the work.

"Many times I don't feel that a journalist or a newspaper is willing to do the perspective part, to put in the work to try to enrich a story," he said.

Mr. Raeburn agreed that in-depth pieces aren't done often enough, but noted a technical point from a newsperson's perspective that works against such stories. With respect to his own employer, the Associated Press, he explained that newspapers that subscribe to the wire service "are completely free in their choice of which stories they want to pick up, and breaking news stories are always going to be picked up more widely than analytical stories and later pieces. So inevitably, if I went back and did an [analytical] story [on a given news story], many papers that used the first story would pass on the second."

The situation is a little better for reporters who write for individual newspapers and can discuss the option of a second story with their editors, "but even then there's the question of whether that second story will be read. as widely as the first one," Mr. Raeburn said.

Ms. Russell, however, said that "by and large I think the important stories are followed up" by analytical pieces. For an issue like recombinant DNA, she said, the story can "go along year after year." She also noted that other publications, such as the news magazines, are providing more and more outlets for such stories. "If you look at the covers [of magazines like Time and Newsweek] over the last couple of years, you'll see that one in three has something to do with science or medicine."


Professor Sharp, Mr. Raeburn and Ms. Russell all reminded the audience that journalists are not part of the scientific community, and have their own motivations and goals. Learning a little about those motivations can help scientists in working with the press.

"You have to understand something about. [such things as] what journalists need to do their work, and how they seek truth in their context just as you seek truth in your own context in the laboratory," Professor Sharp said.

"We are not part of the great enterprise that you are part of," Mr. Raeburn said. "We observe it, we criticize it, we praise it, but we are separate. I [stress] that only because many scientists seem to take a different view. They approach us as if our job is to get their message out."


The panelists also discussed the need for journalists to be better educated about science.

In the 1970s when Professor Fink and colleagues first discovered how to get DNA safely transferred into baker's yeast, "it was reported in a number of newspapers that this was a very dangerous situation-indeed, that yeast was known to cause many infections that are life-threatening, and therefore that the government should impose restrictions on research with yeast," Professor Fink said.

Baker's yeast is actually perfectly safe. "My main point is that the people who [wrote these stories] had no idea what yeast is," Professor Fink said, with the net result that "important research on yeast was inhibited.

"I think the question here is education," he concluded.

Ms. Russell agreed that journalists need to be better educated, but told the scientists that "it's also important for you all to educate yourselves" about a given reporter's background before beginning an interview. "You have a right to ask who it is you're talking to," she said. "Is it a general-assignment reporter who's never written on the subject and may never write on it again, or is it a science reporter who's been covering [your field] for 20 years? Is the reporter on deadline and they're going to write the story in an hour, or are they working on a long feature?"

By getting down such basic parameters, "you can tailor your comments. You don't have to say the same things to every journalist," Ms. Russell said.

As another tip, Dr. Sharp noted that "if you're uncomfortable with the way the conversation is going, you can typically ask to have your comments read back to you. Most journalists who have the time will be willing to do that."


With respect to poor science reporting, Ms. Russell stressed the importance of complaining. "I'm always struck by scientists [who have] the somewhat fatalistic view that when they're burned, the best strategy is to say `no more.' But I think complaining really has an impact." Editors don't like it when they're asked to print a clarification or correction. And "if no one ever complains. an editor might think that [a sloppy writer] is doing just swimmingly."

Also with respect to poor reporting, however, Ms. Russell urged the audience to avoid "judging all journalists by the bad or shallow works of one journalist or publication. in the same way that I don't think you would want us to judge all scientists by the bad results being presented by one or two scientists."


When Mr. Ansley asked Professors Sharp and Fink to comment on the issue of critics or alternative points of view in science articles, the two responded immediately.

"I'll be blunt about it," Professor Sharp said. "There is a certain tendency to always want to have a critic in the story. So in some cases a minority point of view can be elevated to credibility. It might be one person out of a million that believes [a certain point of view], but that person gets called every time."

And such "professional nudniks," as Professor Fink called them, can be dangerous because they're often people "who don't have complete information about things but represent a point of view just because it's another point of view."

Responding to these concerns Ms. Russell said that although such "gadfly critics" generally lose their credibility over time, articles will get more balanced "if the scientific community fights back, and is willing to speak out and provide commentators and spokesmen for [different] groups."

Meet the Press was sponsored by the MIT Department of Biology, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships, and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

A version of this article appeared in the February 2, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 21).

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