J500 Media and the Environment

Notes from an escaped science writer by rarab
January 30, 2008, 12:08 pm
Filed under: Society + Media

WARNING: The following will be longer than 250 words (I have trouble ordering lunch in less than 300!) Besides, if I wanted to keep things to 250 words, I’d write extended pieces for USA Today.

As a means of full disclosure, I should say that going through the assigned readings this week felt like some sort of personal Groundhog Day. For roughly four years (1999-2003) I was the Science Writer here at KU, and so a large portion of my job entailed uncovering and writing about the scientific research being conducted here on campus (and occasionally at the Med Center). I was told to always keep several angles in mind: First and foremost was economic impact to the state economy. Coming in a close second was a tie between benefits to the quality of life and promotion of the university. Sounds like an easy formula…and it could be. But I enjoyed my job the most when I discovered research that, quite frankly, personally fascinated me.

From time to time, I’d get to write about researchers’ attempts to combat greenhouse gases through carbon farming, or I’d meet a researcher who studied the effects of climate change on certain animal populations. I really enjoyed those moments, but that didn’t make it any easier, of course. Science writing, for me, was a fun but challenging process. The technical aspects were tough, no doubt, but that wasn’t the hardest part of it.

It was all of the compromise that went into writing a science piece.

What do I mean…well, for starters, every press release had to be approved by the scientist first, and (inherently) it also had to meet the university’s standards. I couldn’t, for example, write a piece about a scientist here that didn’t fully outline his/her connection to KU or list the amount (and source) of money from his/her grant. I saw how this directly affected local science journalists because they often worked directly off of my news releases, so the story that appeared in the KC Star, for instance, might have huge chunks directly lifted from my press release–or their story would be shaped by the way I chose to frame my story. In many cases, my releases appeared in newspapers verbatim–and listed only as, Source: University Relations–so I really was the foreman in the clearinghouse of local science info.

With all of that in mind, here are some of the things that I discovered, but that weren’t really touched upon in the readings (consume as many grains of salt as you see fit):

Don’t confuse scientists with saints. We have a tendency to put scientists on a pedestal–and they often perpetuate that myth. Science is knowledge and knowledge is power…ergo scientists often feel they know more than the average schmuck (and in some specialized areas they do). But one must never forget that scientists need journalists, too…it is, as scientists themselves would say, a symbiotic relationship. Unfortunately, many scientists don’t know how to communicate their work in very basic terms, terms their grandmothers would understand. Without someone to distill that information into lay terms, they have a much harder time convincing administrators that their science requires support, they have a hard time convincing legislators to secure funding, their spin-off corporations have a hard time getting off the ground…

All of this is simply to say that both sides need to have a competent level of literacy in the other’s field. Be patient when writing about science; scientists, be patient when dealing with reporters. All of my stories were combed over several times by nervous scientists, who insisted on inserting cautionary language at every turn, trampling metaphors in the process. I constantly had to set aside whatever writing ego I had to make sure I was accurate and not overplaying (or underplaying) significance.

Be careful of the media whores. Reporters need to check into scientists’ frames of reference. Sure, maybe they have legitimate funding, but is that funding from, say, an oil company? Wouldn’t that funding influence the researcher’s stance on, say, alternative energy sources? As the readings pointed out, follow the money and consider the source…not every scientist has a purely “objective” agenda.

Reporters: Don’t be lazy. Too many reporters simply took my releases as fact. Sure, I worked hard to be accurate, but I was clearly framing the stories to fit other agendas, too…now that I suggested following the money, also be sure to look beyond the money (confusing, no?)…science is not just important if it has a huge dollar sign attached to it or if it creates X number of jobs (those are great, but basic science is just as important, although much more difficult to explain). Even if you write for a newspaper (as opposed to PR work), send the sections of your story that detail the science back to the scientist and let him/her make sure you reported it accurately. Reporters don’t like handing their work over to the source, but if you send just those excerpts, it can go a long way.

Okay, if my calculations are correct, that should bring me right to 250 words, so I’ll leave it at that. I could easily go on (and probably will at some point in the class discussion) but I just wanted to share some insights from what could be a rewarding–and fun–job. Of course, it could also leave you feeling dumb as a rock…and you’ll constantly hear your mother’s voice saying: “Why didn’t you become a doctor!” But that’s a topic for a later date. Right now, I’m only discussing those matters with Dr. Phil.



9 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I agree that you have to follow the money to see why someone might be saying a certain message. A good site for being a money hound is http://activistcash.com/.

I think there is some reasons to be skeptical. But also remember that even in a false statement, there may be some elements of truth buried in there that have some value.

One thing I would like to see in environmental journalism and communication is a little bit of ethics.

For example one of the board members of the Sierra Club, Paul Watson, takes his passion of the environment too far sometimes and hurts the environmental message. (You can find more about him in activistcash.com and other sites on the net)

Taking the low road in environmental communication is only going to put people at odds. Having people at odds will make the solution slip farther from our finger tips.

Adam B

Comment by Adam Bowman

p.s. if your calculations bring to you 250 words at the end of that, then stick to communication and leave the calculations to the scientists! 😉

Comment by Adam Bowman

Some really useful insights there Ranjit, and as someone from the other side – taking press releases and regurgitating them into a newspaper story or broadcast piece, there is a tendency to take every detail as fact and perhaps use verbatim extracts. In defense of those reporters though, they often operate under immense pressure to make their deadlines, and not being au fait with a highly specialized field, it all become so easy to use the press release as coming from an informed source – to be quoted liberally, and in the process unwittingly lend credence in the eyes of readers, viewers and listeners that the reporter is an “expert” in a particular field.

But yes, there is no excuse too, given ample time that some reporters might have, to check all the facts of the press release before them, and use it as a basic information source, rather than copying the style and content of the author of the report.

Ranjit,another key element that I’d like to have seen you address is the response of scientists AFTER a story has been publicized. We know that space constraints means a reporter is likely to use either a portion of the release and often by omission and interpretation, the story is not framed the way it’s anticipated. The result – an irate scientist who said he or she didn’t say such and such, and why did the reporter alter the story that way and why was something else omitted. I guess that would have also placed you in an awkward position, but yes I can imagine that there must be this constant debate between what ought to be conveyed and what is ultimately publicized. My take though is that with such competing news interests, getting some publicity is not half as bad as getting nothing at all. I could go on here, but let’s leave the rest for further debate in the classroom. But thanks again for some fascinating perspective – ones that, as reporters, we never really privy to.

Denzyl J

Comment by denzylj


I tried leaving this comment earlier, but I don’t think it got through…

Anyway, thanks for the comments–you raise an excellent point: The scientists were rarely ever happy with the results. It was never going to sum up their hard work properly–and I get that–but many of them brought the bad experience on themselves simply by approaching it with the wrong attitude. If they had simply said, “This reporter probably isn’t going to get it right, but I’ll keep trying to steer him/her in the right direction,” they would fare much better. It’s all in what you choose to make it, really.

You’re right about tight deadlines being out of the hands of most reporters. What they can control, though, is their science literacy. I did that by going through entry-level textbooks and reading books aimed at reporters attempting science writing. The best one–at the time–was Science Matters.

Ranjit A

Comment by rarab


I agree that examination of even lies reveals some truth, but I think science has become so politicized lately that it is worth pointing out that a certain faction of scientists makes their money/living by actively contradicting the consensus within the science community…

To me, ethics in environmental reporting would mean reporters felt obligated to disclose the affiliations of the scientists they quote. That’s not a tall order, really. But it does mean, for example, that a local TV news reporter is going to have to do some additional research before/after shooting the story, and, of course, there isn’t time for that when stories have to be filed on a daily turnaround.

Well, what do you know… according to my tally, I managed to respond right at 50 words!

Ranjit A

Comment by rarab

I agree that there should be some better ethics in science, and environmental science in particular, in traditional media outlets.

I wonder though, if as you pointed out, it is possible in broadcast and newspapers.

Maybe that is why so much of the environmental communication is done on the internet. If you have a 45 second bit on the local news about an environmental story that doesn’t get to the meat of the matter, it probably does start debate on the web. I can only hope that enough people start getting involved with the discussions. Because the issues are too big to be condensed into a sound bite.

Here’s a question, is it the scientists, or the media that politicizes science? Or the politicians?

After watching the debate last night, I kind of feel like the politicians aren’t going to be the point people on this.

Like the rest of us, they seem to be trying to figure out how this whole environmental movement fits into their lives.

Ranjit A

Comment by Adam Bowman

I agree with what Adam said about not being able to look to politicans to lead the way with the green movement. It is going to have to be up to the rest of us then to make the changes. And obviously, since we are not the ones in charge of making policy, we are going to have to make a lot of noise so that politicans will listen to us and take our ideas into consideration.

Lindsay C

Comment by lindsaycr

There’s no doubt that environmental journalist have an agenda when reporting. Take the ongoing battle between Greenpeace and Apple for instance. Why would Greenpeace so frequently single out Apple when the computer company has such a small percentage of the market share? A recent Wired article states:

“The reason, according to Hind [Greenpeace], is simple. Apple is seen as a tech leader, especially when it comes to innovation. Even though companies like Dell and HP are much larger and ship many more computers, Greenpeace singles out Apple in order to draw attention to the whole tech industry’s eco policies, Hind says.”

It makes sense. Every tech reporter across the globe wants to be at the Macworld conference. I bet you could find at least one Apple post on prominent tech blogs Gizmodo and Engadget just about every day. It’s no wonder Greenpeace makes it a point to single out Apple.

Bobby G

Comment by bobbygrace

This discussion is brilliant, folks. Ranjit, thank you for highlighting points we should all ponder and consider in our work. Another point: Stop Checking Mother Earth Off the List. Science evolves, but many media outlets don’t have the patience to revisit stories – perhaps because of the glut of news, perhaps because they fear an update will make them look like they didn’t get it right the first time, or perhaps because they think the fill-in-the-blank coverage was sufficient despite the constant evolution of science. That’s where it becomes increasingly important for scientists, folks writing press releases, etc. to keep addressing issues in compelling ways to keep journalists (and their editors) engaged.

Simran Sethi

Comment by j500

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: