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Pinholster Presents Science Communication Survey at EuroScience 2006
MUNICH, GERMANY—As many U.S. and other newspapers continue to lay off science journalists, reporters still covering technical topics say they increasingly need good-quality images, as well as researchers who can help make science more understandable.
Judging the trustworthiness or integrity of scientific findings while avoiding “hype” also emerged as key concerns for reporters who took part in the survey, sponsored by EurekAlert!, AAAS’s global science-news service.
The survey, released 17 July during the EuroScience Open Forum 2006, reflected the responses of 614 reporters and 445 public information officers.
Survey details were disclosed beginning at 8:30 a.m. in the Forum am Deutschen Museum, Helios Room, Munich, Germany, during a session titled “Myths of science: Glowing monkeys, wonder dogs, and more.” The session, featuring top researchers, as well as reporters from the Washington Post, Financial Times, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, was co-sponsored by EurekAlert! and the Max Planck Society.
Predictably, when asked to rate a series of challenges, reporters said their top concern is to learn about breaking science-news stories before the information reaches either competitors or the public.
Beyond these usual news-reporting concerns, however, finding researchers capable of explaining science in an understandable fashion was the task most frequently cited by reporters as either “very challenging” or “moderately challenging.” Obtaining photographs or other multimedia materials to help convey complex scientific content was the next task most often listed by reporters as either very challenging or moderately challenging. Another of the most vexing concerns for reporters, overall, seemed to be in judging the trustworthiness of research or researchers, followed by the need to convince supervisors to run science-news stories as well as tight reporting budgets. [See related chart here.]
What science-news stories are most interesting to reporters, their supervisors, or news consumers?
Reporters in both the United States and other regions of the world listed the top story interest of their readers or viewers as medicine and health [see related table here]. But U.S. reporters listed stem cells and cloning, followed by psychology and neuroscience, technology and the environment as their readers’ top picks. By comparison, non-U.S. reporters said their audiences were more interested in the environment, climate-change research, natural disasters and animals.
But when asked to list the topics of greatest interest to their editors, producers or other supervisors, reporters said the boss wants to know more about stem cells and cloning. Readers, on the other hand, may be more interested in news about health and medicine, and they enjoy accessible science stories about dinosaurs, whereas editors may be more inclined to take an interest in defense and national security issues. According to reporters who took part in the EurekAlert! survey, non-U.S. editors and producers were more likely than their U.S. counterparts to push for stories on evolution and archeology.
As part of the survey, reporters and public information officers also were asked to rate factors that may negatively affect public trust in the integrity of science. Reporters were most concerned about excessive public-relations hype; scientific uncertainty or ambiguous findings; conflicts between science and social values, morality or politics; and financial conflicts of interest or potential conflicts. Deliberately fraudulent research was identified as the least common problem that negatively affects public trust in science. [See related chart here.]
Reporters’ top pet peeve seems to be press officers or researchers who respond too slowly to media queries. For their part, not surprisingly, public information officers identified their top challenges as convincing reporters to cover stories and learning about forthcoming research.
Beyond these predictable science-communications concerns, however, finding researchers who can explain science in an understandable way, identifying appropriate reporter contacts, and obtaining multimedia materials to help convey scientific concepts were most often identified by press officers as either “very challenging” or “moderately challenging.” Finding researchers capable of handling interviews in multiple languages also was a top challenge—specifically, for 58 percent of non-U.S. press officers and 42 percent of their U.S. counterparts.
The biggest problem that negatively affects public trust in science, according to press officers, is that reporters may hype research findings or make mistakes in coverage. Yet, reporters said press officers or other reporters are more often to blame for excessive hyping of scientific findings. The intersection of science with values, morality or politics also was a top concern for press officers, along with scientific ambiguity. Like reporters, press officers identified deliberate research fraud as a rare problem. [See related chart here.]
Interestingly, some 400 press officers out of 445 said they “strongly agreed” or “somewhat agreed” that researchers should “talk up their research.” But, nearly the same number (about 360) also said researchers must avoid hyping results.
Further, while reporters said they need more photographs, video, and other multimedia materials to cover science, press officers said they are far more likely to e-mail text to reporters, post text-based news releases to EurekAlert!, or post releases to other services.
“While the EurekAlert! survey should not be construed as rigorously scientific, it does offer an interesting snapshot of modern science reporting, which is becoming less print-focused and more multimedia-oriented in many regions of the world,” said Pinholster. “In the United States, the United Kingdom, and some other areas, science is being covered by a growing number of broadcast, online, and general-assignment reporters, in addition to conventional print science journalists. To support this increasingly diverse community of science reporters, EurekAlert! has launched a keyword-searchable multimedia gallery, and we also continue to maintain an experts database and an array of multilanguage portals.”
Slightly less than half of all participating reporters were based in the United States (46 percent), whereas most of the responding public information officers were U.S.-based (70 percent). Most (88 percent) said they visit EurekAlert! at least once per month.
A majority of all respondents (57 percent) were veteran science communicators, with more than 10 years’ experience, but reporters were more experienced than public information officers. Nearly one-third (28 percent) of participating reporters work at large or small newspapers, with an equal number at magazines. Other reporters worked for Web sites, trade publications, TV stations, wire services, radio stations, and other outlets.
The EurekAlert! survey was conducted by the scientific marketing and consulting firm, Cell Associates, under the direction of Catherine O’Malley, former EurekAlert! director.
“We’re going to continue to try and keep pace with the sea changes in science communications,” said Patrick McGinness, current EurekAlert! director. “As the popularity of audio communications continues to grow, for example, we are now preparing to add short but high-quality sound files to our multimedia gallery. In the coming months, we will be inviting short video submissions from press officers, too. Our goal is to help support reporters and press officers alike.”
18 July 2006