Recently, I was speaking to an ecologist and researcher who has dedicated his life to successfully protecting ecosystems throughout the United States. The conversation shifted to media coverage of his efforts. He told me about a reporter who had contacted him to ask about one of his projects and how he had instructed the reporter to “educate himself” on the topic before an interview could take place. He followed up by sending the reporter reams of documentation including scientific reports and journal articles. Needless to say, the reporter never called back. A lost opportunity.
Unfortunately, the ecologist/researcher did not see it this way. He did not understand why the reporter did not appreciate the additional information he sent. Or why a reporter would call for an interview without a full understanding of the topic first. There was a note of frustration in his voice, which perfectly captures the divide between scientists and the media.
I think a better understanding of how the media works might have helped significantly in this situation. First, it’s important to understand that most journalists work under severe deadlines — perhaps they have a few hours to complete the story. Or a couple of days, if they’re lucky. There is little to no possibility that the journalist would have had time to slog through reports, articles, and web sites. Particularly technical materials, which will be filled with terminology, acronyms, and other information with which the journalist is unfamiliar.
Second, journalists typically have a broad range of topics that they cover. So even the “science” journalist may cover many topics ranging from nanoparticles to medicine to ecology. There is simply no way that any journalist could be completely knowledgeable about so many fields — no more than any researcher could be.
Finally, the journalist wants to be able to explain to his or her readers the “so what?” about the research. Why should the reader be interested in this research? How does it affect their lives? Often, that information is not captured clearly in any report or article. That information can only come from the researcher.
In this case, a bit more understanding and patience would have gone a long way. At a time when science seems to be playing a rapidly diminishing role in decision-making, I think we need to take every opportunity to bring science to the public as possible.