Scientists vs. Journalists: A Fight to Preserve Environmental Journalism

BY MEREDITH MASON

Senior Capstone: December 1, 2013

In a world that determines connectedness based on what IOS software controls a smartphone, many Americans have distanced themselves from their greatest support system. Although people may be closer to one another via technological devices, they have detached themselves from the one resource that provides them with life: nature.  According to Aldo Leopold, “Recreation is not the outdoors… but our reaction to it” (Leopold 173).  Today, Americans do not spend time to react to nature because they hardly spend any time with it.  As a result, many individuals do not even have a basic understanding of science and environmental news. While studies have indicated that the majority of Americans learn about science through the media, science industry professionals have begun to scrutinize journalists on their reporting practices.  Even though the media are trained to cover a variety of topics, the nature of science and environmental reporting creates problems in providing accurate information to the public.

Although many Americans claim to hold basic knowledge in a variety of environmental and scientific topics, current data shows otherwise. “While many people profess interest in science, the unfortunate reality is that two-thirds of even the attentive public cannot pass a relatively minimal test of scientific literacy” (Weigold 175).  As a result of this data, many conclude that a problem has developed in science communication (Weigold 173).  A study conducted by the Pew Research  found that 89 percent of Americans acquire their information about science through various media: “television (44 percent), newspapers (18 percent), magazines (16 percent), the Internet (9 percent) and books (2 percent)” (Crow and Stevens 36).  With the vast majority of Americans obtaining their information about science through the media, many science industry professionals have come to blame journalists and other media professionals for inefficiently covering these issues (Crow and Stevens 37).

According to the study “Local Science Reporting Relies On Generalists, Not Specialists,” scientists have found only 8.8 percent of science and environmental articles to be free of error.  This statistic is significantly lower compared to 40 to 59 percent of error-free articles in other news categories (Crow and Stevens 37).  With such a high rate of reported inaccuracies, many scientists are skeptical of journalists’ practices in relation to covering science news.  “A recent survey of scientists and journalists confirmed that…only 11 percent of scientists have a great deal of confidence in the press, while 22 percent have hardly any confidence” (Weigold 181).  With such a low rate of satisfaction from the science industry, many have begun to question the compatibility of science professionals and the culture of journalism.

While the science industry is run by peer-reviewed journals, numbers and complex time structures,  the world of journalism is dominated by a completely  opposite set of standards. “It is a culture with harsh deadlines, intense pressure to engage the audience, and severe constraints on communicating intricate ideas” (Allen 289).  The writing structure of news stories involves, “simple words, short sentences, and an inverted pyramid for organizing information” (Weigold 184).  Although writing styles vary across media, the general purpose of news writing is to inform the public of information in the most basic language as possible.  This can pose a problem as journalists cover science news stories.

In order to accurately explain science news, an extensive amount of background information must be thoroughly explained (Weigold 166).  This, however, is not a common feature that is practiced in news writing.  “A substantial majority agree that the biggest problem with science reporting is that it only tells a small part of the whole story” (Weigold 180).  By inaccurately providing background information or research in science news, the entire message can become distorted.  In addition to insufficiently providing this background , journalists also over-simplify complex science language.”Such discord is largely the result of a clash of two cultures, science and the newsroom. Framed simply, science is the world of labs, publications, peer review, and acceptance according to the values and norms of science.  Journalism’s task is to inform the public speedily, to detail “history on the run.” Although science thrives on details and precision, journalists generally have to simplify ideas in lay language at the expense of dumping details” (Allen 290).
In the article “Science Communication,” author Michael Weigold explains that, “additions are the most common corrections” in stories related to scientist’s research. “This is consistent with other research suggesting scientists’ major contention with press coverage concerns omissions rather than misstatements” (Weigold 184).  Even though journalists are trained to use simple language in order to reach the majority of the public, this is not compatible with the construction of science and environmental news.  The larger omissions of news content in media publications is known most commonly amongst scholars as the gatekeeping theory.

The gatekeeping theory refers to the idea that the media only distributes a limited amount of news due to a limited amount of space in their publications. In a study conducted by Shoemaker and Reese, they conclude that, “all news organizations rely on “craft norms” for generating news” (Weigold 166).  The “norms” include whether a story contains prominence, human interest, conflict, controversy, the unusual, timeliness or proximity.  “Research has confirmed that these criteria are relevant for a newspaper’s decision about science coverage as well” (Weigold 167).  Science news, however, often has a difficult time fitting into the specific categories of gatekeeping characteristics. According to West: “Media have other agendas, and public education per se is not necessarily primary among them.  Thus, efforts to inform the public about research in advance are unlikely to succeed, because in the absence of controversy, scandal, or – yes – violence, it isn’t considered news” (Weigold 180).This observation provides further support that the nature of science and environmental news is not always considered important in relation to other topics.  For example, a natural disaster that affects millions of people fits into a greater number of the gatekeeping norms than a long-term environmental issue such as global warming. As a result, the disaster receives the greater amount of news coverage than the long-term issue.  Even though news editors make the majority of “gatekeeping” decisions in regards to what stories get published and what stories do not, science industry professionals repeatedly blame reporters for their incapability to accurately report science news.

One of the strongest arguments among scientists is that journalists do not have enough experience with science to accurately report information to the public.  “Few journalists covering science topics possess scientific expertise, primarily because only three percent of journalists with college degrees major in mathematics or science areas, while most major in communication fields” (Crow and Stevens 37). Although journalism programs around the country train students to cover a variety of topics, science professionals argue that general reporters are not specialized enough to fully understand the stories that they are producing.  Scientists are not alone in this argument.  Some journalists also admit that they do not always feel confident reporting in this field. Science Reporter William Allen states, “I live in fear of getting the forest right but failing to identify one of the trees correctly” (Allen 290).  While specialty science and environmental reporters exist in the field of journalism, their numbers have begun to decrease across the United States.

Although specialist reporters have proven to be more effective than general assignment reporters in covering science and environmental news, more news companies are eliminating these positions from their staff.”Recent economic effects have accelerated this problem, for as media organizations tighten their collective belts, “specialty reporting” appears to be one of the first targets for cost reduction. Perhaps no greater exemplar of this trend was the decision in December 2008  by CNN to dissolve its entire science, technology and environment news staff” (Crow and Stevens 38). This trend is common in both print and broadcast media alike. “In 2010, the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW) reported a 10 percent decline in membership from the year before, attributing the change to declining economic conditions” (Crow and Stevens 35).  As a result of the elimination of specialist reporters, more generalists are “now covering science and environment stories more frequently” (Crow and Stevens 44).  This creates a problem in regard to the accuracy of information that is being given to the public.

According to a study by Crow and Stevens, “Reporters with a specialty in science journalism are better equipped than general assignment reporters to provide context and background on the research itself.”  As stated earlier, providing background research is critical to helping audiences comprehend the complexity of science articles.  Without this information, the reader may not be able to understand the high level concerns that are connected with science or environmental news.
“Because of the complex nature of these stories, the frequency with which journalists cover science and environmental stories matters, as does the background and specialty training of journalists. When journalists are asked to report as generalists and only occasionally are asked to cover technical science or environmental stories, it is less likely that they are abreast of the appropriate sources, the context of the story or how to communicate the technical concepts accurately” (Crow and Stevens 42). Although it is unlikely that economic conditions will improve enough to hire back specialty reporters, there are alternative training methods that can change the way that science and environmental news is distributed to the public.

While science industry professionals put a lot of pressure on journalists in regard to accurate scientific reporting, many argue that scientists need to reassess the way that they communicate with the public and media.  “Most working scientists have little responsibility for dealing directly with the public” (Weigold 172).  Scientists rarely act as direct informants of information to communities.  The majority of their research is distributed through peer-reviewed journals and various media sources. According to Dr. Neal Lane, the former head of the National Science Foundation, “We don’t understand our audience well enough – we have not taken the time to put ourselves in the shoes of a neighbor, the brother-in-law, the person who handles our investments- to understand why it’s difficult for them to hear us speak” (Weigold 172).  Just as many journalists have not received advanced training in the fields of science and technology, many scientists are unaware of how to accurately communicate their research to the public.  In a recent survey, “80% of scientists said they were willing to take a course to help them learn to communicate better with journalists,” (Weigold 172).  With the implementation of training courses, the proper skills can be learned to avoid future inaccuracies.

In addition to scientists receiving proper communication training, others suggest that journalists should receive more science training.  “The available resources for specialized coverage is unlikely to change in the future, so providing education and training to journalists who cover science and environmental topics will be increasingly important” ( Crow and Stevens 45).  According to Crow and Stevens, “more experience in the field may produce more accurate stories.”  In an ideal world, the training that journalists receive in their university programs should be enough to provide them with accurate reporting skills for any field. This, however, has been challenged with the emerging data about science communication.

While there may be limitations in the current state of science and environmental journalism, advanced training for both scientists and journalists can provide a solution in working to avoid discrepancies.  Not only is it important for the public to be informed of accurate science news, but it is crucial in order to create environmental awareness among individuals. If private individuals do not receive proper education about the way others treat the planet, they will not be able to formulate opinions of their own.  According to Leopold, nature is important for the values that it teaches us.  Although these values can not be learned by watching a news broadcast or by reading a magazine article, the media can provide us with a reminder that these places are important.  Without the knowledge of the injustices that occur in the environmental community every day, people will never be aware of the injustices that are taking place.

Works Cited

Allen, William. “A News Media Perspective On Environmental Communication.”

Bioscience 51.4 (2001): 289. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.

Crow, Deserai Anderson1, and J. Richard1 Stevens. “Local Science Reporting

Relies On Generalists, Not Specialists.” Newspaper Research Journal

33.3 (2012): 35-48. Education Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 4 Dec. 2013.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press,

1949. Print.

Weigold, Michael F. “Communicating Science: A Review Of The Literature.”

Science Communication 23.2 (2001): 164. Academic Search Complete.

Web. 4 Dec. 2013.

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