Pressing the matter

Like fries and ice-cream or polka dots with stripes, scientists and the media may seem like strange bed fellows – but put them together and it just makes sense.

 
  Science, the media and the public are tangled up in a complex web – but we’re stronger together.   Randi Hausken/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Science, the media and the public are tangled up in a complex web – but we’re stronger together. Randi Hausken/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

This is an editorial for Issue 3 by Lateral deputy editor-in-chief Nicola McCaskill. As a science journalist, she has a vested interest in believing science and journalism have commonalities.

“Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis… Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence… Do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors.”

“Make observations, ask questions and gather information… make a tentative hypothesis of what’s been observed, and make predictions… analyse the data and draw conclusions, accept or reject the hypothesis or modify the hypothesis if necessary. Reproduce… until there are no discrepancies.”

One of these descriptions comes from the MEAA Journalists’ Code of Ethics. The other is a summary of the scientific method. But for all intents and purposes, they could be interchangeable. 

Journalists and scientists have a lot in common. We’re both obsessed with asking questions about the world around us, with getting to the bottom of things – chipping away until the answers reveal themselves. We start off with an observation: something that seems obvious, or something that seems, just… well, not quite right. We make a hypothesis, delve deep into the research, analyse what we find, and hopefully come out the other side with something we didn’t have before: some new gem of knowledge, a piece of the puzzle, a grain of truth. 

We might share a lot of ground, but often it feels like scientists and journalists are from two different worlds. Scientists are poor communicators, impossible to interview, can’t speak plain English, and never want to talk to the media anyway. Journalists can’t be trusted, they’ll just sensationalise things, or misinterpret the work. There are understandable reasons for people to be wary of each other – but the negative repercussions of not getting along are obvious. 

I have written and spoken before (likely to anyone who’ll listen) about my opinion on this: no one thing is enough. Scientists do need media training – they need to be able to speak to journalists, and even be able to do some of their own communicating. Journalists need a basic level of scientific literacy (so do politicians, and so does everyone). Science communicators can bridge the gaps, but they can’t be doing all the leg work. I do believe if the standard of scientific literacy in this nation was higher, we would see better policies (people would vote differently). That could come through school education, but through better reporting and communicating, too. And that can only happen in collaboration with scientists who are willing to communicate their work with the public, who likely funded it. 

At one point, I did draw a flow-chart to sort out my thoughts on this matter. It didn’t help. The main point is this: we’re all caught in a tangled web indeed, and it can only get better by working together.

October marks the third edition – themed Collaboration – of Lateral. From the beginning, this publication has been a collaborative one, produced through the varied skills and efforts of our editors, writers, artists and funders. In bringing so many talented new and emerging science communicators together, I’m proud that we’ve been able to facilitate the production and publication of some promising science journalism and communication. 

I’m looking forward to seeing what more we can achieve together in 2015 and beyond. I’d also like to take this chance to thank our other collaborators – our readers – for your involvement.