Limiting Media Hype – is it the responsibility of the scientist or the journalist?

Illustration by David Parkins, Nature

Science Communication faces stiff challenges. This is partly because of the inherent public distrust of science to begin with, but mainly because it’s not always easy to be both factual AND publicly engaging at the same time.

If I asked you to jot down one of the main shortcomings of the media in general, what would it be?

I’m going to pretend you said sensationalisation. I know that’s what you meant to say after all.

The Nature Commentary, Science Communication Reconsidered (Bubela et. al. 2009) points out that over-dramatising scientific breakthroughs is a cycle and the scientists themselves do in fact play a role.

The ‘Cycle of Hype’

Like most vicious cycles, it is hard to determine where the starting point is. I am going to start with the media.

Journalism is the fasting dying profession in Australia and the situation is no doubt just as dire in the rest of the world. If the media isn’t profit driven, they’re simply not going to survive. The result is an enormous amount of pressure on journalists to present cutting-edge newsworthy events.

But the journalists aren’t the only ones facing pressures. Research Institutions too are compelling scientists to boost their profiles, get recognition for their work and ultimately secure additional funding.

What if their work just doesn’t sound break-through enough for the general public? What if it’s too complex or abstract? 

Photo by Jacquelyn Gill.

As scientists, we know that most research is merely one piece in a very complex jigsaw puzzle. How do you explain that to a journalist?

If there are no immediate implications for their readers, is it newsworthy enough to go to print?

Researchers and journalists need to work together to find a common angle that is interesting to the general public. To do this, the scientist needs to have a very clear idea of who the publication is target at and the journalist needs to understand what the results actually mean without stretching the truth too much.

Lets pretend we live in a world where there is time to do this. Does the responsibility ultimately lie with the scientist or the journalist to ensure that the information is accurately portrayed? Why?

References:

Bubela, T. et al. (2009) Science Communication reconsidered. Nature Biotechnology, 27(6), 514-518

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By djasudasen

3 comments on “Limiting Media Hype – is it the responsibility of the scientist or the journalist?

  1. Hi Diana,
    I like the way you described this notion as a ‘cycle’, when this was said along with the idea of the dying journalist industry, all I could picture was a downwards spiral for science, journalism, and science communication (horrible, horrible thought).

    When you say journalists and scientists need to work together to create an angle I completely agree. not only will this help the industry from doom but I think it will also help with sensationalism and basic honesty. Scientists would be able to prevent unreliable journalism and journalists would be about to prevent confusion and make the audience really see the importance. I guess this is just science communication being a 2 way system- a dialogue.

    In response to your last question I think the responsibility is equal, If there is going to be teamwork to create good science journalism then there should be equal effort from both parties and therefore equal responsibility.

    great post 🙂

  2. Thanks Zoe! I agree that the responsibility falls on both parties shoulders. It is the scientists responsibility to make sure they have accurately communicated what they intended, and that the journalist actually ‘understands’ the context.

    In my opinion that’s where the scientists job ends though (after fact checking should they be so lucky). The onus is now on the journalist to produce an accurate piece of work. Their name is on the line at the end of the day. The buck stops with them.

  3. I agree that scientists need to shoulder some of the responsibility, especially when they are being directly interviewed or writing the media release. The problem arises in cases where the media isn’t creating their own stories, but rather copying from each other. That’s when you get the distortion of statistics that Zoe talked about in an earlier post.

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