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Attention: Science journalists. It’s time to break the mold.

May 25, 2010

Sirens are blazing down on the road near the border of the East Village and the Lower East Side in New York City – music to the ears of a seasoned journalist. The drama, the tension, the race against time. Sirens are a sign of breaking news.

For a journalist like Ferris Jabr, however, the drone of the sirens outside his apartment is just another part of living in the Big Apple. To Jabr, the sound of breaking news is the silent announcement of the journal Science hitting the web every Friday morning.

Jabr is a science journalist in training – one of the few forsaken souls who try to bridge the distinct cultures of art and science.

“Science has always been a presence in my life,” he said in an early morning phone call in April.

“Different personalities are attracted to different things, and I was sort of the kid who would sit down with the encyclopaedia about animals and just pour through that for hours,” he said.

Jabr grew up in California where his father, a physicist, encouraged his curiosity. “He very much liked to sit me and my brothers down and explain things about how the world works,” said Jabr.

“The things I would ask for for Christmas were like: a gemstone collection, or something I could use to collect insects. I was just really interested in the natural world, and I was attracted to science as a way to explain how things work.”

Jabr left home at 17 for university. He wanted to be a scientist – his goal was to get his PhD and do research. In 2009, during his final year at Tufts University where he was studying psychology and English, he started to question his plan.

“I was thinking a lot more seriously about, ‘What do I actually want to do post-graduation?’” he said.

“I obviously want writing or communication to be the centre of my career if possible, but I also don’t want to abandon the psychology and biology that I am interested in and have spent some time studying. So when I looked more into the different science writing programs in the country and internationally, it seemed like a really good way to combine those interests.”

Jabr found his way into the prestigious Science, Health and Environment Reporting program at New York University – where he now spends nights writing under the persistent clamour of emergency sirens.The 16 month program will give Jabr and his peers a Master of Arts in Journalism degree, and an Advanced Certificate in Science, Health, and Environmental reporting.

You would think Jabr and his colleagues in the graduate science writing program would be ideal candidates for the lofty goal of communicating science to the public. And that would be almost entirely true.

His program focuses on reporting science news and exploring science culture. It’s a niche journalism education attracting those who are interested in science writing, and training them to be science translators– bringing science to the masses.

“It’s definitely an emphasis on, “What is happening in the science world?” Everything you write about has to be connected to science somehow,” he said.

NYU’s science writing program does what it sets out to do, and it does it exceptionally well. Students in the program learn to share the marvels and awe-inspiring findings of science with the world – much like one of Jabr’s favourites: author, blogger, and New York Times journalist Carl Zimmer.

Zimmer has secured his role as one of the world’s most trusted and celebrated science writers. Zimmer has won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Kavli Science Journalism award multiple times, he’s the author of several books, and he’s done it all because of a passion for science.

“I see my role as telling stories that have to do with science. As new research comes out, I try to explain, essentially tell the story, in a way that non-scientists can understand,” said Zimmer. “A lot of science is just interesting in and of itself. And it just sort of gives you a richer understanding of the world.”

Popularising, explaining, and translating into every day terms are all methods of transmitting science information that can be swept up as solutions to something called the ‘deficit model.’

The concept was spawned in the 1960’s to explain what to do with the apparent scientific illiteracy of the public.

“The idea of “scientific literacy” builds on a double analogy. Science is part of the cultural stock of knowledge with which everybody ought to be familiar. Scientific education ties in with the quest for “basic literacy” in reading, writing and numeracy,” explained Martin Bauer, Nick Allum and Steve Miller in their study What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research? Liberating and Expanding the Agenda.

“The second analogy is “political literacy.” Here the idea is that in a democracy people take part in political decisions, directly in referenda or indirectly via elections or as voices of public opinion. However, voice can only be effective if people command knowledge of the political process and its institution. The literacy idea attributes a knowledge deficit to an insufficiently literate public. This deficit model serves the education agenda, demanding increased efforts in science education at all stages of the life cycle,” said the study.

The general consensus at the time for solving the science literacy problem was to throw facts at people in the hope that some stuck.

Zimmer isn’t going to work every day trying to solve a theoretical problem. He shares science because he loves science. Research into the field of science communication, however, suggests that this approach isn’t the best way to reach the general public.

“There is little reason to expect that traditional popular science approaches if applied to informing a wider public about science will ever be effective. These initiatives instead tend to reach a small audience of already informed science enthusiasts,” said American University assistant professor Matthew Nisbet in his paper, What’s next for science communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions.

Jay Ingram is the host of an hour-long science and technology television show on Discovery Channel Canada called Daily Planet. He agrees that one of the first steps towards broadening your audience, and the distribution of science information, is to recognize the niche market that is science writing.

“Science may be inherently interesting to a few of us, but that doesn’t mean it holds for the much larger audiences that we’re trying to grab,” said Ingram.

“I think those people who think science is inherently interesting, and you don’t really have to do anything to present it to people, are producing a lot of science that nobody is paying any attention to. I mean it’s one thing if you write for the New York Times science page you can assume that there is a certain number of people who might methodically go through every single piece on the Tuesday science page. But that’s not true of very many people,” said Ingram.

The issue of recognizing and confronting the fact that not everyone is interested in science is where niche journalism programs like the one at NYU can falter. Jabr remembers the awkward, glazed-over eyes he used to find staring back at him when he tried to share his enthusiasm about science to friends and colleagues. But that was during his days as an undergraduate at Tufts, or in high school. When you are surrounded by a tight-knit group of like-minded people, like Jabr is in his science writing program, it is easy to forget how wildly interests can vary.

“Being in this program now, I have never been surrounded by so many people with whom I can so easily talk about these geeky, nerdy things. And we all take great pleasure in it,” said Jabr. “Like it’s not just some intellectual posh party for us, we actually really enjoy talking about these things.”

The big problem is that this tight-knit group expands far beyond the walls of the classroom. People who are interested in science form their own small virtual subcultures.

“I’ve sort of discovered this whole online community of science communicators. And it’s amazing – they’re always talking to each other, and they’re always producing great work, and I love being a part of that community online, or trying to be,” said Jabr.

“But sometimes I do wonder if, I wonder about the other spheres. Are they intersecting with this science communication sphere at all? Or is it just sort of its own bubble. And I hope it’s not, and I don’t think that it entirely is, but at the same time there isn’t a huge effort to reach out to overlap with the other spheres on there,” said Jabr.

To this online group of science communicators, science is inherently interesting, and requires no justification to be discussed. But here is where the ultimate problem lies – the people who are interested and willing to research and report on science have a ready-made audience of people who are already interested in science.

It’s great to have a market, but where is the need to reach outside of it to report, not on scientific breakthroughs, but on the concerns of the rest of society?

One good reason for science journalists to branch out is that they may be in the best position to help make sense of some of society’s biggest issues – issues which are usually poorly handled by TV personalities or pundits making political arguments. When the scientific information that gets distributed is inaccurate, or political agendas get affixed to facts, it is hard for the public to come to understand the issue.

“The biggest issue I think in science journalism is to figure out how, in those controversial topics, to provide people with enough – and the right kind – of information that they can make well informed decisions,” said Ingram, the host of Daily Planet, and the author of The Daily Planet Book of Cool Ideas: Global Warming and What People Are Doing About It, a book about climate change directed at a general audience.

“Climate change – it’s all about the science. What science is out there? How reliable is it? What kinds of decisions can we make based on that science? It’s not about people claiming that other people are being funded by oil companies, or this or that. It’s about the science.”

Since climate change is all about science, then a science journalists should be able to take a decent stab at it. Ed Yong, 28, is the winner of the Association of British Science Writers’ Best Newcomer Award, and a prominent science blogger writing for his site Not Exactly Rocket Science. Yong thinks the media sometimes misrepresents the facts when reporters try their hand at science stories.

“What you typically get is political or lifestyle journalists looking at science news and doing kind of a lay-persons commentary on that,” said Yong.

“And often that’s the source of absolutely abysmal pieces about science, certainly in (the United Kingdom). A lot of uninformed, inaccurate, often scare-mongering editorial pieces. And I think that’s sort of what happens when you get people who are non-specialist reporters deciding to just branch into this area that requires a lot of technical knowledge that they don’t have,” said Yong.

Science journalists have the tools to help the public properly make sense of some really quite complicated and important issues.

But there is another big issue facing the goal of science reporters; most of the audience doesn’t really care. The New York Times science reporterCarl Zimmer has experienced this frustration before. The science is out there, but the public doesn’t go for it.

“I just think that a lot of people don’t take that time, unfortunately,” said Zimmer.

“I can write a 5000 word piece on the evidence for global warming, and then somebody may base their entire judgement on global warming from a few seconds of something they heard on cable news; where somebody said that climate scientists weren’t very nice people, and that’s it. And then they’ve kind of made up their mind and they don’t even bother to read the books or the articles that might show them that really is sort of beside the point.”

So what’s a good science writer to do? It’s not possible to ask the public to dedicate more time to personal education and realistically expect them to comply. The more plausible solution is; writers can adapt, understand their bigger audience, and write for them. This question of going broad may be more important now than ever, Jabr said, because of the recent economic turmoil in the journalism industry.

“That seems particularly pertinent now considering so many newspapers in recent years have folded their science sections, which is basically a way of saying, well, there isn’t enough interest, or this isn’t a priority for us. And that’s a huge problem, and that’s something that isn’t going to be solved by the iPad, or by changing mediums,” said Jabr.

“That lack, that basic lack of interest is much more deeply rooted than anything about how you write or how you communicate is going to solve. And I think that definitely needs to be addressed a lot more than it is,” said Jabr.

What we really need is a new approach. Science popularizing, science translation, science stories – those are for a niche market. Matthew Nisbet, who is an avid researcher into how scientists, journalists, and the public intersect to spread scientific information, said these approaches are unlikely to work for reaching the whole audience.

In the world of science communication research, academics abandoned the ‘deficit’ model long ago.  Rather than trying to make people learn science because it’s”good for them,”researchers like Nisbet emphasize using things people already care about to reach out to them.

“Effective communication will necessitate connecting a scientific topic to something the public already values or prioritizes, conveying personal relevance. And in people’s minds, these links are critical for making sense of scientific information. A number of recent studies examine how values shape the interpretation of scientific information,” said Nisbet in his paper, What’s next for science communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions.

One potential model for helping the public to connect to the issue is to use science to help explain the news of the day. Spending a lot of time involved with science makes it easy for science reporters to forget that most people look at it as a tool, not as its own unique culture. While this is invariably true, science journalists who retain the ability to step back and simply use science as an explanatory tool might be able to relate with and inform the general public.

“A lot of us in the program are interested in how can we use science, particularly data and data visualization, to make more sense of the news of the day,” said Jabr.

Using science to give better context to the news could help keep some of the politics and opinion out, and instead, get the facts in.

“Using science to give better context… I think that’s a really strong way of doing science journalism, and I don’t think that’s really built into the structure of our program and what we’re taught. And I think it should be there more, because certainly some of us students are recognizing that model and we’re definitely interested in it.”

This style of science writing is, to be fair, not practiced much. But NYU, or other schools that offer science writing programs, might be the ideal places for changing reporter’s attitudes about how to approach the craft.

On January 12th, 2010, the Caribbean tectonic plate slipped against the North American plate, leading to a massive magnitude 7.0 earthquake 25 kilometres outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Within minutes, newsrooms around the world were scrambling to find out what happened – a monumental task which was exacerbated by the loss of communication to the region.

The next day, journalists sought out stories to tell to help explain the scale of disaster. Phone calls went out to find anyone with ties to the region; the nightly newscast needed a face for the tragedy. But under all of the chaos and loss of life lay a scientific story.

The editorial team at Daily Planet worked a more-hectic-than-usual day, pulling together seismologists, emergency response workers, engineers and others. They put on an hour-long special which gave the Haiti story some much needed context. It answered the fundamental questions that other journalists may not have been able to cover as well: How did this happen? Why was the loss of life so high? People are talking about the massive emergency crew response – but what does this mean? What supplies are being taken down to Haiti, and how do they work?

This example is important because Daily Planet is typically a popular science show, reporting on science headlines, and displaying enthusiasm for science. But their coverage in the wake of the Haitian earthquake played a different, maybe more important role. It didn’t just report on the disaster, it explained it.

A natural disaster might be easy pickings for this style of reporting, but scientific understanding isn’t limited to things that so obviously fall under the banner of science and technology. This idea of evidence-based news isn’t emphasised in niche journalism schools or elsewhere. But science journalists, who are not afraid of digging into peer-reviewed research, could easily take up the banner. Rather than allowing pundits or personalities to try to explain the events of the day, the stories could be grounded in research.

The idea of using science to explain the news of the day has some supporters, like Jabr and his peers,but science blogger Ed Yong sees at least one potential hole in the model.

“I’m not entirely convinced about its long-term effectiveness,” said Yong.

“So I think in the short term it’s a nice way of sort of sneaking science in through the back door. So you’ve got an obvious hook there that’s topical, and you get people interested in it. But whether they then walk away any more interested in science or in any related field I’m not really sure about; or whether they’ve just sort of dipped their toe in the water, taken it out again, and then that’s it. It’s sort of a hit-and-run tactic,” said Yong.

Yong is right. Current affairs science journalism probably won’t turn the audience into science lovers, but that’s more of an issue for scientists and science enthusiasts than it is for someone who simply wants an accurate and fact-based explanation for the day’s events. For science journalists wondering where to go next, the issue boils down to the question: What is the role of the science journalist?

Many science journalists seem to suggest science journalism is about communicating new science and science culture.

The reinforcing cycle rolls on; those who are interested in science write for those who are interested in science, happy in their own separate sphere. But Jabr, and others like him, are starting to ask new questions.

“We see so many meta questions… about, you know – What are the flaws of science journalism? Or what’s the best way to communicate science news? … And all these questions that are very much specific to science journalism and how best to do it,” said Jabr.

“But not necessarily so much about making it appeal to even more people than before. It’s just sort of like – how do we sustain it? How do we improve it? But not really, how do we make it bigger?”

The systems are in place to train a new generation of science writers; ones who would be ready and willing to put aside their niche status and reach for the general audience. There will always be a market for science enthusiasts, but Jabr is asking the biggest question of all.

“How do we make it something that everyone wants in on?”

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