FEd August 1995 Newsletter - Scientists and the Media

August 1995



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Scientists and the Media

Those involved in communicating science to the public come from a broad variety of backgrounds. Ivars Peterson, who is profiled elsewhere in this issue

Ben Stein, a science writer for the AIP Public Information office, was an undergraduate physics major at SUNY-Binghamton. He worked in a research lab his junior year and realized that he enjoyed physics, but didn't enjoy the laboratory work as much as he enjoyed writing up the results. He also worked with an undergraduate research journal where he helped writers make their papers accessible to other students. The combination of love of physics and writing made science writing a `mission' for him. Stein received a Master's degree in journalism, with a certificate in science and environmental reporting from New York University. Stein interned at AIP and started as a regular writer in 1991. Stein and Peterson gave their impressions on the roles of the media, physicists and the relationship between the two.

Many of the skills necessary to be a good science writer are similar to those needed to be a good researcher. For example, Peterson believes that the most essential characteristic for a science writer is the ability to distill out the interesting aspects of a story when faced with a massive amount of information. Stein identifies another essential characteristic as not being afraid to ask questions and (like researchers) being able to identify which questions to ask.

If many of the skills necessary to be a good science writer are similar to those needed to be a good researcher, why is there the current perception that physicists are not very good at explaining what they do to the public? Peterson notes that science writing is really very different from the writing a Ph.D. does. For one thing, "(a science writer) has to focus on what elements of the story will be interesting to other people. That's a good skill for a researcher, but it's not essential." Stein notes that the would-be science writer must also be interested in explaining science to non-scientists. There is often a large gap between the vocabulary and culture of the two groups, which complicates effective communication. He believes that the best science writers are those who are both good researchers and good scientists, because "they have how all the science fits together in their head, whereas I have to call up three people to get those same connections."

Stein cites Hans Christian Von Bayer and Robert Park as examples of scientists who have been successful in communicating with the public about science. Robert Park, who writes `What's New' for APS, decries the "narrowness and special vocabulary of the physics profession. We don't think twice about saying that we're going to do something adiabatically -- which is meaningless to someone who doesn't know the jargon." Park continues, "Part of the problem is that the physicist is most concerned with impressing his colleagues. The worst colloquia we ever get are from candidates for assistant professor jobs, because they are intent on showing people how much physics they know -- not how simply they can explain it. That culture is throughout the whole profession." Park adds that sometimes the most respected physicists are at an advantage in communicating with the public because their already-established reputation in physics frees them from having to impress anyone.

Peterson agrees with the necessity for breadth, noting that the best journalists are usually also the best Trivial Pursuit players. Stein believes that breadth includes staying in touch with the public so that you can develop creative analogies that are understandable to your readers. All of the writers mentioned that a good test for a scientist considering a foray into communicating science to the public is for the scientist to first explain their topic to a parent or spouse.

Writing for the public can be frustrating due to the need to be complete and accurate, but not overwhelm the audience, Stein says. "As satisfying as it is to understand all the steps of a complex process, you have to avoid boring the reader to death. As for accuracy, you may come up with a cute analogy or a simplified explanation that reads well, but it may turn out to be incorrect or inappropriate."

With the current difficulty many graduates are having finding employment, the suggestion is made that some of them might be doing a service to the physics community by becoming involved in science writing. After cautioning that "...there isn't a big demand (for science writers)," Peterson emphasizes the value of a formal science writing program. "Journalism is a very specific kind of trade with very specific kinds of constraints and practices," Peterson says, "My experience at the University of Missouri gave me an education in what journalism is about: meeting deadlines, writing quickly and accurately and learning a basic set of formulas you can use when you need them." Science writing programs also offer courses in journalistic ethics and style conventions. The most important aspect of attending a formal science writing program is the opportunity to make contacts: both Peterson and Stein won their present jobs via internships. Stein adds that the programs also force you to write, which is the only way to improve. He also adds, though, that a formal degree is not absolutely necessary -- one way of breaking into the business is through freelancing. Many magazines are interested in 200-300 word pieces from freelancers, he says, and magazines are currently hiring fewer full time employees and using more freelance writers. Peterson goes further to suggest that, if it is your intent to work for a newspaper or magazine, that you get your writing experience in a similar format.

"The tricky thing for Science News is that we have to do things quickly and accurately, so it helps if your experience shows that you can do things under a more journalistic type of deadline."

Both writers remain surprised at how willing scientists are to talk about their research. Contrary to what one might think, some of the best leads come from people who approach them. Peterson relates one particularly relevant story. "I got a call a few months ago from a student at the University of Massachusetts who was doing a research project on Newton's Gravitational constant. She had just heard that the recent measurements disagreed with the standard values given in the textbooks by 0.1% -- and that's a lot. She was trying to track down where the information about this disagreement was and one of her professors suggested that something this important would certainly be in Science News. This student called me and said that her professors had said that this was going to be big news and that it would definitely be covered in Science News. I didn't know anything about it at that point! I checked into it and I ended up suggesting to the APS people that they set up a news conference on this because it sounded good. They did, which made it convenient for me because they got all four people -- two were from Germany and one from New Zealand, which would have been hard for me to reach, or even to catch at the meeting. So I worked with them (APS) -- the disadvantage was that it meant that all the other reporters were looking at the same story. That will be the main story I will do from (the April APS) meeting. It turned out to be very interesting for all kinds of reasons. It was extremely important for physical reasons, but also in terms of how science is done."

Stein also encourages APS members with interesting news to make the APS Public Information Office aware of their findings. As a public relations officer at a scientific organization, "People should be free to contact us when they think they're doing something interesting. We won't know about many of these things because there are so many things going on." Stein welcomes preprints of articles accepted for publication, with a cover letter explaining why the paper may have wider interest. Stein also suggests how physicists can make the writer's job easier:

"(Scientists) should think of everyday analogies to describe their work. They should have simplified pictures or diagrams illustrating their experiments or the basic concepts behind their research. Scientists should avoid jargon, and be receptive to any questions from the writer, no matter how basic they may seem."

Increasing attention is being paid to the importance of communicating the relevance and importance of physics to the government in the post cold-war period. Peterson believes that this attention runs on a cyclical basis, with the most recent cycle spurred by the cancellation of the SSC and other funding cuts. He also notes that professional organizations periodically feel that they are not being adequately represented and engage in public relations campaigns. Stein disagrees with Peterson, believing that that the end of the cold war will force a permanent change in how physicists interact with the media and the public. In his view, the cancellation of the SSC was not a one-time anomaly, but was the wake-up call for physicists that things are going to be different in the future:

"There are some factors which I hope are cyclical: pseudoscience is on the rise, much of the public is suspicious of science and scientists, and Congress is calling for much tighter Federal budgets. But I think that the need to justify scientific funding to the general public won't go away."