If the media can provide “citizens with the information necessary to make informed political evaluations, hold elected officials accountable, and understand contemporary policy debates,” why can’t the media do the same for science? (Cook, 2005)
Why can’t the media help citizens to make informed decisions on science policy, funding, and where we go next as far as practical scientific innovations? Hold scientists accountable for communicating their work to the public? Help citizens to understand scientific and science policy debates, so that science policy and funding is not at the whim of a few non-scientific politicians with institutional agendas?
It is my firm belief that we need more scientists in the media. We need more scientists to reach out to the media, instead of waiting for the media to reach out to them. The media often reach out to scientists only when something is wrong – scientists should not wait until disaster strikes to make their research, and their voices of scientific reason, heard.
Just as it would be difficult to imagine governmental bodies communicating political processes and decisions to the public without the avenue of media (Cook, 2005), it is difficult to imagine scientists reaching (meaningfully) out to the public without access to that same avenue. Although recent efforts to encourage scientists to reach out to their local communities, and efforts to encourage communities to contact their local scientists are to be applauded, both local and national media would provide these scientific communications with far greater impact. This media outreach should not only include social media (in which, unfortunately, messages sent out over networks formed by scientists reach many other scientists, but not as many uninformed citizens), but also the major outlets including radio and TV. Yes, an overwhelming number of people still treat television as their PRIMARY source of (scientific) information.
Those of us in the media who are impassioned about seeing the communication of science to the public, and the interface between science and media, improved, need to ensure that scientists feel comfortable and safe in their interactions with the media. Journalists need to take time to understand where scientists are coming from, and to get the facts right. Although the uncertainty and non-linear mode of progression inherent in the scientific research process should be communicated to the public (indeed public understanding of the scientific process is key), hard science is hard science because hard facts DO exist. The public should not be deluded by the media into thinking that scientific facts, such as many aspects of climate change, are religious beliefs or governmental propaganda. Climate change, for example, enjoys wide scientific consensus, the facts and supporting data having been tested in the fires of rigorous scientific experimentation, at the hand of scientists who are also citizens. Journalists with educational backgrounds in science, or even with scientific research experience, are and will be a huge boon to improving the interface between science and the media over the next few decades.
However, scientists are not off the hook. We (I speak as a part scientist, part journalist myself) also have an obligation to reach out to the media – the more active role scientists take in making sure that the information journalists get is scientifically accurate, the better the interactions between scientists and journalists may become over time.
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Cook, T. E., 2005. Governing with the news: the news media as a political institution. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Science – Social Media Graphic – Credited to Throbgoblins International
Science and the Media (Bookcover)
Bruce Alberts (2010). Policy-Making Needs Science Science, 330 (6009) : 10.1126/science.1200613