Science and the Media, or How Science Advanced at AAAS 2011: Part I

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Most science conferences are like little in-group parties, where people who know each other’s work intimately get together to discuss their latest results, and query each other about what to do next. Don’t get me wrong – I love them. You meet interesting people, learn A LOT, and come home with new ideas, and great T-shirts or shoulder bags.  Since I am a generalist by nature, I’ve attending lots of different kinds of conferences: the Geological Society of America, the American Physics Society, the European Geophysical Union, the Estuarine Research Federation, and the Coastal Society, to name a few.

The AAAS Annual Meeting, which I attended for the first time this year, was completely different. The raison d’etre of “triple-A-S” is right there in its name: the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  I didn’t really get what that meant until now. Instead of technical talks, where experts talk to their peers about the incremental advances in their area of science, this meeting was all about the big picture. Panels of speakers addressed different aspects of a single topic, speaking broadly about what was known, where the gaps and questions were, and what they’d like to see happen next. Scientists from different fields sat in on each others’ sessions, offering all sorts of interesting and cross-disciplinary questions and comments. The meeting wasn’t only for and about scientists, either. A number of panels focused on the communication of science, and the relevant of science to society. It was amazing. There was also a two-day Family Science Fair, which my son and nephews loved.  I picked up all sorts of great science swag, including posters, bumper stickers, calendars and buttons, which I will start giving away next week.

Over the next few weeks I will report on some of these great sessions in depth, including:

  • Science Without Borders and Media Unbounded: What Comes Next
  • Adapting to a Clear and Present Danger: Climate Change and Ocean Ecosystems (I may have to dedicate two blog posts to this session, which included fabulous talks on coral reefs and ocean acidification by James Brady of MBARI, and Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian).
  • 2050: Will There Be Fish in the Ocean?
  • Comparing National Responses to Climate Change: Networks of Debate and Contention (focusing on the differences between how climate change is viewed in the US and India – the two countries where I do my climate change work).

First up: science and the media.

Media Unbounded

“Science Without Borders and Media Unbounded: What Comes Next,” focused on the impact of the Internet on media, and featured a panel of journalists who focus on science and environmental reporting: Tom Rosenstiel, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, Elizabeth Shogren, reporter for National Public Radio (NPR), and Seth Borenstein, reporter for the Associated Press (AP). Kerry Emanuel, a researcher in the Program of Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) responded to their presentations.

Tom Rosenstiel gave a fascinating overview. The world of media is both shrinking and expanding. The editorial aspects are expanding: there is more commentary and discussion than ever. The reportorial component – where people actually go out to discover and confirm things – is shrinking. As more people get their news online, the print newspaper is fading, but publishers are not: most people still get their news from a handful of trusted sources like the New York Times, Washington Post, and others. However, since they’re not paying for it, newspaper budgets and pressrooms are shrinking. There are more readers, but fewer reporters.  This has led to the loss of specialized beats, like the environment, particularly in local papers. This also means that reporters don’t get into stories in-depth, instead sticking to breaking the news. There are fewer interviews, less follow-up. What has this done to our public square? Perhaps the world we’re exposed to is smaller, our common knowledge pool is shrinking. As readers (and listeners) we’re spending less time learning about the larger world and more time on our particular interests.

Elizabeth Shogren spoke about how the Internet has made her job easier and more interesting. She can spend more time getting the interesting stories (because that is still a priority at NPR), and can do more with them. In addition to a radio report, she can – and is expected – to present a whole multi-media story, complete with online images, and videos. She can include information that didn’t make it into the recording, and give listeners resources for more information. She noted that the Internet makes information more accessible, and has the potential to make governing more transparent. Now, even if she can’t be on Capitol Hill at 1:00 AM to follow the debate on an important bill, she can get all the information – videos and transcripts – online. In theory, this takes away one of the tactics that lawmakers have used to ‘hide’ debates they didn’t want the public to pay attention to – but only if people take advantage of the information that is out there.

The Differences Between Researchers and Reporters

Seth Borenstein spoke about the incredible access that the Internet gives him to scientific data, allowing him to dig through the databases and reports about climate change that researchers routinely put up on their websites or on government and other shared sites. (I took note of these, and you can expect to here more about specific findings and studies in future posts). He used this access to disprove a recent claim of climate change deniers:  that January’s temperature were colder than usual and therefore ‘proved’ that global warming wasn’t happening. Instead, he discovered that for the past 311 months – every month since February 1985 – temperatures have been warmer than the long-term average for that month. He followed with a statement that had all the scientists in the room groaning in disbelief. He said that IF January 2011 had been warmer, THAT would have been a story that his editor would have wanted to hear, but the fact that every month for nearly 26 YEARS had been warmer was not a story!  The facts weren’t interesting – only the controversy.  And this from a reporter who truly gets, and likes reporting on science and climate change.  Is it any wonder that so many scientists are reluctant to speak to the media?

Kerry Emanuel took up this issue in his comments. He opened with a quote from Oscar Wilde to express how many scientists see the media: “In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press.” He noted the dichotomy in the modern media (and one that journalists rarely acknowledge): the media as the fourth estate, with high ideals vs. media as a business. Scientists sometimes get tripped up by this tension. They often assume (perhaps naively) that they and the reporter have the same objective: to get to the truth. Even if languages are different, the end result is usually good. However, that is not always the case – sometimes the journalist just wants to sell the story. Sometimes journalists bend the story into something they think will sell. This makes scientists wary – they have to determine where the journalist coming from. (Shogren’s response was that scientists need to do their homework, and learn more about the journalist who is approaching them. If they don’t like the kind of things he or she writes, the researcher doesn’t have to talk).

Global Warming Deniers: Who’s To Blame?

Shogren complained that she though the global warming debate was settled, but was frustrated to hear it coming up again. Disturbingly, she blamed it on the scientists, saying that they (we) hadn’t done a good enough job explaining it to the public!  There was an immediate outcry: the science has gotten stronger, but the media keeps allowing the debate to be re-opened. She said that if there was controversy, they had to report it. Researchers said: there’s no controversy in the facts, but the media keeps giving the stage to fringe groups with vested interests in undermining the facts. Very interesting.

During the Q & A, I asked all the members of the panel how Twitter and blogs had changed the way they do their reporting, if at all. Surprisingly, there were few comments. (Perhaps they thought those venues were about information, not ‘news’).  Rosenstiel said that the Internet gave any expert access to an audience (unspoken, but implied was the critique that it also gives access to the clueless, as well).

Coming up next: Climate change and Ocean Ecosystems.

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Think that I have a clue about oceans and climate? Want more Brave Blue Words? Tune in next week for more on the latest from AAAS. And stay tuned for information about how you can win some of the great science stuff from AAAS!

Can’t wait until then? Follow @Danielle_Meitiv on Twitter, friend Danielle Meitiv, and like Author Danielle Meitiv on Facebook!

Coral reefs are vulnerable to ocean warming and acidification. Researcher Nancy Knowlton says that there's still time left to save them - but not much.

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