The University Record, May 7, 1996

Scientists meet journalists at panel discussion of science news coverage

Scientists and journalists sometimes had opposing views about what should be interpreted for the public and what should be left for scientists to communicate to each other about their research . A panel composed of journalists and scientists discussed the issues at "Scientists are from Mars, Journalists are from Venus," a discussion aimed at bringing som e understanding of the issues to the public.

Photo by Bob Kalmbach

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

To popularize or not to popularize . . . that was the question during a May 2 seminar on how the news media covers scientific research, titled "Scientists are from Mars, Journalists are from Venus."

During the seminar, U-M faculty, administrators, journalists and communications professionals in the audience discussed and often disagreed on answers to such questions as:

Why is it so difficult for many scientists to explain their research to the general public?

Why do journalists oversimplify science and emphasize economic benefits rather than intellectual curiosity?

Is it possible to explain scientific research simply and clearly without using technical jargon or equations?

Why do scientists scorn and ridicule colleagues who attempt to popularize their work?

"We sometimes have difficulty conveying to the public what we do and why it is important," said Homer A. Neal, vice president of research, who discussed his own frustrating experiences as a physicist attempting to explain to a doubting public why it was important to spend millions of dollars to build the Superconducting Super Collider.

Because journalists are communicating to a large, non-professional audience and must work within severe space and time constraints, they focus on the "big picture" and how research could affect people's daily lives. As a result, cover age in print and broadcast media often gives the impression that today's "discovery" is more definitive than it really is.

Scientists, on the other hand, are communicating to a small group of professional colleagues---the same peer group that reviews their grant proposals and articles for publication. As a result, scientists are more concerned about offending their colleagues and tend to focus on the details of how the experiment was done and the context of the result in a larger body of academic work.

Both approaches are "equally coherent, but with a different focus and intended for a different community," said John Swales, professor of linguistics.

Until recently, this communications gap was not so significant, but with current cutbacks in federal research funding, the attitude of the general public toward science has become more important. "Public money comes with public re sponsibility," said panelist Elizabeth Kavetas, a Michigan Journalism Fellow and NBC News "Dateline" producer. Since most scientific research is funded by tax dollars, Kavetas emphasized that journalists have an obligation to keep their science coverage accessible and understandable.

"We have a better sense of what the public cares about than most scientists," said Jack Fischer, a Michigan Journalism Fellow and writer for the San Jose Mercury News. "People want to know how research will affect their daily lives."

U-M scientists didn't dispute the importance of communicating about science to the public, but several complained about oversimplified coverage, attempts to tie every study to the "bottom line," and an ideological slant to what should be objective reporting.

U-M panel participants, in addition to Swales, included John Clark, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering; Jim Teeri, professor of biology and director of the Biological Station and of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens; Charles Eisendrath, director of the Michigan Journalism Fellows Program; and Regent Philip Power. The discussion was moderated by Julie Peterson, director of News and Information Services.