Why Scientists Fear Journalists

The Society of Environmental Journalists, meeting this year on the Stanford campus in Palo Alto, is once again delving into the issues that compromise science journalism.

At a breakout session this morning, Dr. Pat Conrad of the University of California at Davis, gave one effectively all-encompassing answer: scientists fear journalists because journalists are scary. Although Conrad was slightly more polite than this, journalists are pushy and demanding, often badly informed, sometimes lazy and - for the scientific mind - altogether too willing to talk about things they know nothing about.

Actually, Pat Conrad said her worst experience in dealing with journalists came more as a result of her own (she now thinks inappropriate) fear rather than from any legitimate journalistic threat. Her university had put out a press release on disease in the sea otter population and Conrad was not prepared for the journalistic response. She soon found herself being hounded beyond her ability to respond. And when she couldn't respond in timely fashion, journalists began looking for other potential commentators. The result was a series of stories that went straight sideways - that speculated thoughtlessly on the actual cause of sea otter sickness.

Conrad has since learned that journalists, while potentially frightening, are curious and excitable - quick to engage on scientific issues if only they can find a scientist who will answer the phone and explain their position in an accessible way. She has learned that the problem between journalists and scientists is educational and cultural. Journalists work fast on the basis of the best information available at the moment. Scientists take time - sometimes lots of time - to be as specific as possible about a single supportable issue. Journalists speculate. Scientists validate. If journalists really DO enjoy talking about things beyond their ken, scientists hate it.

The problem (the public relations problem) in this relationship is that journalists and scientists are not alone in their relationship. There are politicians, advocates, corporate campaigners and aggressive think tankers who are only too willing to provide journalists with “scientific” information that is clear, certain and accompanied by a pre-written headline. Even if it is not actually scientific, in any demonstrable way.

So, the journalists and scientists are not alone in blameworthiness - although not entirely without blame - when it comes to sorting out the understanding of science in the public realm. There is work for us all.


She’s right. Journalists are incompetent, ignorant fools. I read a lot of stories and I rarely, if ever, come across good reporting. George Monbiot in a video interview recently said that’s because journalists don’t get how science works. They never have background in science.

Link to Monbiot interview… http://orangehues.com/blog/2007/06/interview-with-george-monbiot.html

The best way to connect the rift between scientists and journalists is to have dialogues such as the current meeting in California, not just the big expensive variety but regular ongoing sessions.

Second, we might want to ask how much environmental journalists are paid? It seems to me that this niche is one of the worst paying around, so is it any wonder that most journalists don’t get science, they don’t stick around long enough to apply what they learn.

That’s a load of judgment to apply uniformly across an entire profession. It’s also an inaccurate characterization of what Conrad was saying.

I know lots of journalists who have done stupid things (the one in the mirror has had some painfully bad days). But I can’t imagine that we are going to advance the conversation by calling them all stupid … 

I think it was in the 1970s that the Calgary Herald had an environment reporter. They haven’t had one for many years now (I think at least one of their editorial staff is a creationist). I doubt that there are many people in Canada at least who are actually paid to report mainly on the environment. And who has time to build up the knowledge?

Richard’s comments. I know a lot of great journalists, they are under tremendous pressure to meet deadlines… the vast majority are highly competent and intelligent. 

Richard and Kevin,

I might have been a bit harsh but the fact is, mainstream media’s everyday coverage of scientific topics is riddled with examples of poor reporting.

Here’s a challenge: How about you send me 10 randomly picked up news stories covering scientific topics from a given date and I will point out at least one instance of significant…

inaccuracy or error,
misrepresentation or watering down

…in the majority of the articles. I hope you personally or DeSmogBlog takes up this challenge because I strongly feel that this is a cause worth highlighting. We would have achieved a public outcry over government policies with regards to climate change over ten years ago if we had a vigilant and responsible media. An Inconvenient Truth wouldn’t have been such a hit if everyone had been aware of the scale of the problem.

This is not just my personal opinion. This is also the conclusion of an analysis by a media watchdog (fair.org) clearly indicting mainstream media.

    Blame the media for climate woes: analysis
    Mainstream U.S. media are to blame for stalled international efforts to reach an agreement to fight climate change, according to a new analysis released by a media watchdog group.

    The report, in the latest edition of a magazine published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, said there are multiple examples of major American media organizations watering down recent warnings from peer-reviewed scientific literature about the consequences of global warming and the human-produced pollution that is causing it.

You wouldn’t see this story in a mainstream U.S. newspaper.
Source: http://tinyurl.com/2e7dmc

A link to my homepage did not appear in my previous comment even though I filled up the field while submitting it.

You can contact me by writing to manu [@] orangehues.com

…and I didn’t intend to imply as much. The mainstream media is expanding its outlets even as it shrinks its staff, leaving its overworked reporters (a minority of whom have specialty science educations) at the mercy of cranks and spin doctors - in science and in many other fields.

As for your challenge, I suspect that you could pick through  “10 randomly picked news stories” on virtually any topic and make reasonable arguments about the presence of “errors,” “omissions” and “misreprentations.” It’s clear from the quality of your commentary (and welcome to the blog, by the way) that you have your own “shotgun;” you should not also need my barrel of fish.

Finally, I appreciate your willingness to acknowledge that you were “a bit harsh” at the outset: that was my point. We need these people and the best among them do a great job. Castigating them all for the sins of the laziest and least competent is not helpful.  

Thanks. I really appreciate the work this blog is doing and hope you continue to hold it to high standards.

While I agree that one may find majority of news stories on other topics making important errors, omissions and misrepresentations as well, none is perhaps as important to the future of humans as climate change. And regardless of how widespread poor reporting is, I refuse to get used to it and accept it as a part of life.

Media today wields enormous influence over our lives and they have a responsibility to ensure that the public is educated about the scale and severity of this problem. They have done a particularly bad job of it over the past two decades and they continue to do a poor job now. This problem is so enormous and so widely implicating that we as a human race ought to

  • take immediate steps that freeze all activities harming the environment
  • pull all our resources without any delay to finding lasting solutions
  • question every assumption upon which we have built our civilisation

Have we really accepted that the world’s best and most conservative scientists have certified beyond doubt that in the space of 150 years, we’ve come close to destroying almost all of human civilisation and most of animal life that took millions and million of years to evolve? This is the likely scenario if go on with business as usual emissions over the next few decades.

I don’t think we have had this realisation yet. Who is most responsible that we understand this, if not the media? Who is going to wake us up from our daze in the cacophony of loud and largely irrelevant messages that are bombarded at us everyday?

If we don’t get the message even months after the Stern report and IPCC scientists issued their dire warnings and continue to plunder the planet, there is something seriously wrong with the messenger.

The twin phenomenon of the Media not doing its job combined with our culture of avoiding anything that’s unpleasant or “inconvenient” as Gore put it, are together leading us into a near certain oblivion. Alas, only a crisis such as Katrina or Tsunami but on global scale can save us from our end.

That, or an engineering miracle. We don’t have time for half solutions.