The disciplines of science and journalism both face the challenge of how best to share credible, sound information with the public, so individuals and communities can make decisions based on trustworthy evidence. But while there’s more science-related information available than ever on increasingly pertinent issues, such as climate change and gene editing, newsrooms today have fewer journalists specializing in science and tech reporting to gather, assess, and deliver that information. That’s where SciLine, a service launched in 2017 by AAAS, comes in—and where AAAS members can potentially help.
Freelancers and general-assignment reporters who increasingly cover science beats may be great journalists, says Rick Weiss, SciLine’s director. But in many cases they lack a scientific background or a trusted resource list of science experts to whom they can turn for in-depth information about science-related subjects. SciLine connects journalists on deadline with credible scientists and provides a range of other products and services that make it easy for reporters to put factual, research-based information into their stories.
Created to Connect, Convey
Weiss, an award-winning journalist with decades of experience in journalism and public affairs, says he launched SciLine to address dual concerns: the loss of specialty science, health, and environment reporters form shrinking newsrooms and the huge increase in questionable or erroneous information that is increasingly circulating on the internet and through social media. The goal is not only to disseminate facts, but to provide reporters and the public with the context surrounding those facts: Is a highly touted scientific finding really new? How certain are the findings? What are the implications for people personally or for society?
SciLine’s services are freely available to all journalists, but the program aims primarily to help reporters at small to mid-size news outlets who are working on stories about health, medicine, or the environment with direct relevance to their communities. And because the program is fully supported by philanthropies, everything SciLine does is free for both scientists and journalists.
How SciLine Works
When a reporter needs an expert for a science-related story, they can contact SciLine, which then reaches out to several experts from the program’s database of researchers, who are vetted for both their scientific expertise and their communication skills. “We reach out and describe what they’re looking for and the deadline.” Says Meredith Drosback, SciLine’s associate director for science. SciLine shares with the inquiring reporter the contact information for researchers who respond to SciLine’s outreach, and who confirm they can be available within the reporter’s deadline. The reporter can then contact the referred scientist(s) to arrange interviews.
As an example, SciLine was contacted by a reporter at the Victoria Advocate in Texas about the discovery that some fish off that city’s coast were still contaminated by mercury even though a nearby Superfund site that had been responsible for that contamination had been cleaned up 10 years ago. SciLine connected the writer with experts in ecological remediation, who explained why mercury lingers for years in biological systems. The reporter subsequently found out that local residents were catching and consuming those fish. “We found her toxicology and health experts to explain why they shouldn’t eat those fish,” says Weiss. “It was great public service journalism.”
Other requests (SciLine has fielded more than 700 to date, and referred more than 1200 scientists to reporters) have ranged from whether organic amber flea collars really work to why elephant testicles don’t hang down like those of other mammals.
To build their list of available experts, SciLine has been connecting with scientists from virtually every discipline who are actively conducting research and have an interest in public outreach. To find them, “we reach out directly to scientists and researchers but also to media relations or public information officers,” says Drosback. Before referring a scientist to a reporter, SciLine assesses their level of communications experience and comfort speaking to reporters; some scientists may only be interested in talking on the phone to a print reporter, while others may have experience being interviewed for radio and a few may be skilled in being on camera. Starting in 2020, SciLine also intends to launch a pilot project that will provide media training for experts, says Drosback.
Interviews with reporters are not the only way scientists can help. SciLine also produces easy-to-understand fact sheets for reporters on various science-related subjects (recent ones have focused on such topics as vector-borne diseases and the association between climate change and wildfires), which SciLine submits for review by volunteer experts before they are released. SciLine also hosts periodic web-based media briefings that feature experts on newsworthy science-related topics and multi-day intensive “boot camps” for journalists on science topics.
Importantly, the program is committed to increasing the diversity of experts seen and heard in the news—not only in ethnicity but also gender, academic seniority, geography, and type of institution. “We want to make sure all excellent experts are included,” says Drosback, adding that about two-thirds of the scientists who have participated in SciLine’s media briefings have been women.
SciLine encourages all scientists with an interest in public communication to consider registering with SciLine at https://www.sciline.org/for-scientists