How do science and the media interact, what is the relationship between scientists and journalists, what’s the role of the media, the future of the news business and science news reporting?
The video of this very interesting discussion / Q&A on 3 June 2009 with Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, and Sir Roy Anderson, top epidemiologist and Rector of Imperial College London, is now available on a general page of online videos of Imperial public lectures; this particular video is available by streaming (best, probably), or as a downloadable M4V file (198 MB).
Below are some selected random highlights. Not verbatim, not 100% in chronological order, from notes only so not necessarily 100% accurate! - for the complete details please watch the video.
Sir Roy Anderson
There should be compulsory communications skills training for undergrad science students. A relationship with the media is not optional.
You should be able to explain your field in words of 1 syllable.
Scientists need to understand the factors dictating pressures on journalists, who are competing to get their article into journals, TV programmes etc, and what journalists need from scientists.
Attitudes to media are changing now with the rise of the Web, it’s not just TV, radio, print; something could get onto the BBC site or Twitter etc if not broadsheets, Today Programme etc.
Scientists should get to know journalists well, it can be very beneficial e.g. off the record discussions, ultimately the relationship is good for both sides.
The BBC site is the best source of quantitative information about swine flu!
It’s a delicate balance - being accurate and clear, and not playing to controversy.
Henry Porter nagged for years before civil liberties got on the radar.
The role of the media is as an interpretive layer between people who do things and people who may be interested in understanding them – to analyse, comment, explain the complexities and allow the widest possible debate. But it’s difficult to do that with complex areas.
The economics of the news business – apart from the BBC, extremely challenged because the internet is destroying the ability to charge for information, and the recession has delivered a triple whammy.
The Guardian’s trust status allows it to lose money but other serious news organisations like the New York Times, Washington Post etc, who see it as their duty to reflect complex subjects, will find it harder.
Technology has changed things; it’s no longer a 1 way process where they [journalists] tell us and there’s no comeback. Just text is not enough, it’s multimedia. The Guardian’s podcast has 100,000 listeners a week.
The Guardian have a series of deep sites, and a staff of 15 just covering science & the environment.
Smarter journalists are inventing new models, realising that the experts are out there – with skills of aggregating and reporting, tapping into people out there. [Example mentioned later in the session – on the Oracle / Sun takeover a technology journalist in the Guardian asked people to help on a chart; they did it in 2 hours and it was as good as the New York Times’ professionally produced one!]
Comment Is Free site – start with 1000 people interested in science, etc, and open it up to them. About 260 comment pieces are published a week with 85,000 contributors ? each month.
The Guardian’s site is just behind the New York Times’ in terms of English language newspaper sites.
The media no longer have the sole right to report / interpret debate.
There needs to be a partnership between old model and new media.
Sir Roy: swine flu will explode here and be a serious economic issue in the autumn, but the media haven’t picked that up. The vaccines won’t be ready.
Watch the money! eg for a Radio 4 discussion on climate change they brought over a US scientist who was paid for by oil companies.
The media have a responsibility. Scientists should help the media but the first person to call the media does not necessarily have the most accurate opinion. Other scientists have a role too.
Journalists can collaborate with scientists to hype things e.g. MMR.
Some editors are more interested in controversy than accuracy.
Alan Rusbridger: Libel is being used to close down science reporting. [The Simon Singh / chiropractic case.]
Audience member: The idea that everything has to be covered somehow is not healthy. Should help readers understand that science is a process – but there’s no sense of that in the way that science is reported.
Sir Roy: we still hugely rely on the media to distil information we don’t know about.
Alan Rusbridger: Charging won’t work as people are used to “free”. Advertising won’t work in a recession. Maybe there are too many newspapers. Local newspapers will start dying.
We may get to the point where for the first time since the Enlightenment we have to live without verifiable sources of news, and people won’t realise what they’ve lost until it’s gone.
Maybe a membership subscription model? Like national public radio [?] where people value information from one organisation enough to subscribe. The Times are considering a subscription based popular science product competing with New Scientist etc and also with New York Times science pages subscription.
Reporting conflicting versions? e.g. food / health news. Good science journalists will try to find opposing views too. Quality journalists will look into the background. But tabloids…