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Can science writers get it right?

The IAP session, "Will Science Journalists Ever Get It Right? Or, How to Cope with the News Media," was a spirited presentation by the Knight Science Fellows on how to improve relations between science reporters and researchers in the future.

A conversation between Knight Fellows and session participants exploring reportorial ethics and researchers' expectations of the media followed the presentation.

The January 28 session was moderated by Boyce Rensberger, director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Among Mr. Rensberger's former positions in journalism is science editor of the Washington Post.

"What scientists and science writers do are interdependent parts of a shared responsibility to the general public. Most research is paid for by taxpayers, and they have a right to know what's being done with their money. But the general public doesn't read scientific journals and probably couldn't understand them. We can help scientists fulfill their obligation to the general public," he said.

A more subtle aspect of the relationship between scientists and the public lies in the interplay of curiosity on the one hand and creation of knowledge for its own sake on the other, Mr. Rensberger said.

"The public is extremely curious about science and technology, but not privileged to do research. They put up the money so you can do the research. Scientists are the agents of public curiosity," he said.

Science writers have two basic roles, he said. One is the "watchdog role, meaning we're supposed to alert the public about things that need attention, such as toxic waste. The other is the teacher role. We educate people who read our material."

Noting that several of the Knight Fellows had, like himself, been interested in science or in becoming scientists, Mr. Rensberger added that the educational function of science writing could also attract young people to careers in science.

Knight Fellow Robin Lloyd suggested that writers and researchers "get a little friendlier, learn about one another's worlds. My daily occupation is trying to get inside engineers' heads." She also noted that, as a wire service reporter completing between four and 10 news stories each day, she was not at all likely to have time to check facts or quotes with researchers.

"Share the glory, get a better story," said Kevin Coughlin, who covers technology for the Star-Ledger in Newark, NJ. "Give reporters access to researchers, grad students and people in your labs who are doing the grunt work. People working in the trenches often give better quotes."

Mr. Rensberger also advised researchers to "prepare for interviews in advance. Spend time to come up with metaphors -- simple ways to describe your work. And you can ask, 'Did you understand what I said?' 'Do you need a diagram?'"

Knight Fellow Andrew Lawler covers federal science policy for Science magazine ("a very peculiar place," he noted). He advised researchers to "develop a relationship with a reporter who is covering your area. Help educate him or her so they'll trust you."

Bruce Schecter, who received the PhD in physics from MIT, is the author of two books: The Path of No Resistance about high-temperature superconductors and My Brain is Open: The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdos about an eccentric Hungarian mathematician.

He recalled that, as a child, he knew no scientists. It was science writers who "inspired me to come to college and to MIT. Science writing humanizes science. Some of my readers may be tomorrow's scientists," he said.

Mr. Schecter works closely with researchers. Thanks to the lengthy book-writing process, "I can afford to show chapters to my sources. The trade-off is, I ask [for] a lot of time, the most valuable thing you have, and the details I'm interested in may seem intrusive: tell me about your childhood; why did you become a scientist?"


Participants had a freewheeling discussion of whether journalistic ethics require or forbid writers to allow scientists -- or other sources -- to review articles before they're published.

"Most science writers do show their stories to sources, asking them to check for factual errors [but] to refrain from editing," Mr. Rensberger said, adding that deadline pressures influenced such practices.

Venkatesh Hariharan, a Knight Fellow from Bombay who covers computers and information technology, said "we all want technical accuracy" but agreed with Mr. Lawler that a "nightmare scenario" of sources' vying for supremacy within a story can easily occur if several researchers are consulted on accuracy.

"I'm on the side of 'Never do it!'" said Mr. Lawler.

Knight Fellow Kerry Fehr-Snyder, technology reporter for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix, warned participants that, even with fact-checking, idiosyncrasies within news organizations mean the final length, the headline or photograph captions for an article won't always appear the way the reporter and the source may have wanted.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 3, 1999.

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