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