National journalists give communications tips to Penn State researchers

Nearly 100 people turned out to hear advice on Science Communications in Pike Auditorium last week. Credit: Kelcie GunsAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Journalists recently told an audience of faculty, students and University communicators about the importance of close communication between scientists and reporters in order to create meaningful news articles that educate the public.

The panel discussion was held in Pike auditorium on Oct. 4, as a kick-off for the Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE) science communication training workshop conducted by COMPASS, a nonprofit organization that helps scientists improve their ability to work with journalists in getting their research out to the public.

Members of the panel included Bob Marshall, current op-ed writer on environmental issues for the Times-Picayune and conservation editor for Field and Stream, who has over four decades of experience in journalism; Amanda Paulson, staff writer at the Christian Science Monitor for 17 years, where she currently covers environment, science, energy and climate news; Nancy Shute, an editor and reporter for NPR’s science desk, focusing on breaking news as well as features on public health and the environment; and Ashley Smart, features editor at Physics Today, covering a wide range of topics from astronomy to quantum systems.

Each of the four panelists has a journalism background, excluding Smart, who studied granular systems and complex fluids as a graduate student at Northwestern University before pursuing his career in journalism.

In order to communicate the findings of their research to people, Marshall recommended that scientists look to their local news outlets first. He said that scientists are more likely to have success pitching their research to local organizations and spreading information in their own communities before moving on to larger outlets in the hopes of reaching more people.

“Part of our job as journalists is to explain the scientific process so people don’t get confused by the fact that different studies might say different things,” said Shute. She acknowledged the sheer amount of research available to the public, and the fact that many of these studies contradict each other.

The key to success in spreading science to the public is strong communication between scientists and journalists, said the panelists.

Shute and Paulson noted the importance of scientists’ quick response times, because journalists work on such tight time constraints that they usually need information immediately. Marshall echoed this idea, urging scientists to pick up the phone and respond to emails as quickly as possible.

The panelists also discussed the future of science journalism in terms of the current political climate.

“Science in particular feels increasingly politicized right now. Not all of it, but so much of science now seems to be a political statement and people feel like they can choose who to believe and not to believe in science, the same way they label what journalists are writing as ‘fake news,’” said Paulson.

While Smart said that many scientists are trying to keep their heads down and avoid controversy, Paulson claimed that “I have also seen the flip side, which is that there have been more scientists that now see an imperative to speak out more, and maybe wouldn’t necessarily have before, but are now willing to. It can be very uncomfortable for them to suddenly take on an advocacy position instead of just talking about the research they’re doing.”

Later in the discussion, the panelists confirmed this idea that scientists have recently started to become advocates in addition to their role as researchers. Being in the public eye, however, can have adverse effects on their careers, which is why many are afraid to speak out.

“We are under attack. Journalists are under attack, and scientists are under attack, so we have a lot in common,” said Shute.

According to the panelists, journalism has less credibility now because there is no policing of the internet, where anything can be published. People are able to self-select what they wish to read, or to ignore. This can be frustrating both for scientists and journalists, who are all blamed for the errors of a few.

When asked a question by a member of the audience about how journalists measure impact, each panelist answered differently. While they all agreed that it is definitely exciting to have thousands of hits on certain stories, it is just as important to be producing informative content even when it is not consumed by a large audience.

Thanks to the internet, journalists can now use analytics to track trends across the news. They can see what stories people are clicking on, how long they stay on the site to read those stories, and what they view and listen to. This is helpful in determining what the public is interested in, yet journalists still produce content regardless of these trends because it is their duty to inform people.

Marshall expressed the importance of media literacy, especially in younger generations who mainly get their news from social media. They need to be sure that what they are reading comes from reputable news sources. Scientists can assist journalists in this by only agreeing to work with reputable news sources, and advocating against fake research and false claims on other sites.

During the event, co-sponsored by IEE and the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, a student in the audience noted that the public has a hard time understanding the uncertainty involved in science, and she asked the panelists how they can communicate that uncertainty in their articles.

“Be sure and up-front about your uncertainty,” said Marshall. “If you don’t have it nailed down, don’t talk about it.”

He also addressed the importance of conducting more intensive research before trying to publish it, because this will decrease the level of uncertainty in the research. According to Marshall, the risk of this uncertainty is something that scientists will inevitably face, especially from journalists, and it’s important to know how to explain it.

“Most people don’t understand that journalism is a lot like science,” said Marshall. “We are all in the business of finding the truth and confirming it.”

Last Updated June 08, 2021