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SciLine Expands Scientific Resources for U.S. Journalists

“Genomics for Journalists” is first in a series of free science boot camps for journalists

A man working in a lab
Journalists test their CRISPR skills in a laboratory training session as part of the SciLine boot camp focused on genomics. | Jillian Nickell/Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology/University of Illinois

SciLine, a free service for journalists, recently launched a series of intensive “boot camp” courses for working journalists on scientific topics, providing reporters an opportunity to explore the world of newsworthy science issues.

The first boot camp held last month, examined the rapidly expanding field of genomics — the study of all aspects of organisms’ genes — and attracted print, radio and television journalists from across the United States. The boot camp initiative is the latest addition to SciLine’s expanding lineup of services and resources designed to enhance communication between journalists and scientists and ultimately impact public understanding of and interaction with science.

Since its founding in October 2017, SciLine, which is hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has been connecting journalists with scientists using its carefully assembled database of nearly 10,000 experts who represent a cross section of disciplines. The goal is to provide context and research-based evidence to journalists working on deadline and in-depth stories.

SciLine soon expanded its services, offering journalists — from bloggers and freelancers to general assignment and science writers — vetted fact sheets on subjects including the implications of concussions on the human brain and the drivers of wildfires across the United States.

It also hosts live, web-based, on-the-record media briefings featuring scientists who field questions on newsworthy issues, such as the health consequences of e-cigarette use, known as vaping. Reporters can participate virtually and access archived videos and transcripts to expand their understanding of issues.

Rick Weiss, director of SciLine, and his team have traveled to more than a dozen states to visit regional and local newspaper offices and radio and television studios, where they spoke to about 150 journalists to establish the interests of their readers and viewers and better understand how to help them incorporate science in their news coverage.

After the newsroom meetings, SciLine regularly hosts a social gathering in a local establishment for reporters and scientists to meet, many for the first time. Participants often emerge with new contacts and a better understanding of the similar goals and professional challenges shared by journalists and scientists. SciLine also sensed a journalistic need.

“We realized from talking to a lot of reporters that what they could really use is some intensive education on some topics that are in the news,” said Weiss. A new project was born.

SciLine team
SciLine Director Rick Weiss, second left, and his colleagues visit regional and local media outlets to better understand how to help journalists incorporate science in their coverage. | Courtesy of SciLine

SciLine partnered with the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to host the first boot camp in late March, a two-and-a-half-day “Genomics for Journalists” workshop. Thirty journalists, representing both local and national outlets and those with and without backgrounds in science, were selected from an overflow applicant pool to attend the course.

Since 2014, the institute has held workshops on genomics for lawyers, judges, state attorney generals, police officers, CEOs, teachers, consumer advocates, and Hollywood writers and producers. SciLine and the institute jointly developed a curriculum for journalists.

The institute tailors workshops to the objectives of each professional group and invites related professional organizations, said Gene Robinson, director of the Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. For instance, the Hollywood writers course featured representatives of the National Academy of Sciences Science & Entertainment Exchange.

“The premise is very simple: It is that the genomic revolution is coming to a neighborhood near you,” said Robinson, noting that each workshop presents scientific fundamentals and shows how genomics applies to specific professional areas of interest.

For journalists, the broad applicability of genomics made it an attractive topic for the inaugural course, Weiss said. Many stories that regional and national journalists pursue intersect with genomics, particularly those based in the nation’s heartland, where agriculture and plant science are dominant topics.

Genomics also factors in to health and medicine, particularly as personalized medicine takes hold. Environmental journalists encounter genetic engineering of plants, and journalists who track criminal justice issues may find themselves covering the use of extracted DNA from cell samples to reveal a suspect’s unique genetic information.

Course and keynote presentations were delivered by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign faculty, outside research scientists, and topical specialists. The course offered multiple perspectives: how genes influence social behavior; technologies like the gene editing tool CRISPR accelerate advances in genome engineering; microbes that populate the human gut microbiome affect health; and genome sequencing raises privacy and security implications as costs drop.

A panel of experts explored the ethical implications of gene drive systems potentially able to alter the genetic structure of entire populations of organisms. Mosquitoes might be rendered incapable of spreading deadly diseases, including malaria. Halting that would deliver substantial human health benefits, yet the process and impacts raise risks. “We want to make sure reporters understand the potential benefits and also potential ethical, legal and social risks that come along with this technology,” Weiss said.

Elizabeth Heitman, an ethics professor at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center who was among authors of the 2016 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine gene drive report, briefed course participants on ethical and governance positions on gene drive research that suggest much still needs to be done before researchers consider introducing organisms containing engineered gene drives into the environment.

Madelyn Beck, a regional Illinois public radio reporter of agriculture, environment and health issues who attended the course, found the gene drive panel particularly relevant to her work for effectively laying out the many “ethical quandaries” posed by gene drives, both its risks and benefits.

Among other course activities, journalists and speakers cited the effectiveness of an icebreaker exercise. It called on two journalists to pair up, find a scientist, question the scientist about his or her research and then share what they understood with the scientist. The trio then found another group and a quartet of journalists explained the research to two scientists.

“This activity was as valuable to faculty as it was to participants because in my experience scientists could all use lessons in how to talk to the press and the public,” said Kavin Senapathy, a Wisconsin-based freelance journalist of science, health, food and parenting. “Given shrinking newsrooms and increased reliance on freelancers for science news, SciLine plays an important role in this new world of science news.”

Journalists also noted being given an opportunity to work in a real laboratory where, alongside scientists, they learned how to work with CRISPR and edit genes. “It showed us how insanely easy it is to use this technology,” said Beck.

SciLine is slated to hold two additional boot camps later this year. First up is a nonpartisan boot camp for political reporters on science-related issues to be held in August in Iowa, home of the Iowa caucuses in early February 2020.

Research and data related to issues expected to dominate the political debate will be discussed, including the implications of U.S. energy trends on climate responses; findings at the intersection of agriculture, water and land use; and perspectives from economic and social science experts on what data say about the impact of immigration and trade policies on communities. The boot camp is scheduled to wrap up the day before the annual Iowa State Fair, a traditional must-stop for presidential candidates.

“It’s going to be a great time to get these political reporters up to speed before things really jump into high gear in Iowa,” Weiss said.

A version of this article was published in AAAS News & Notes in the April 26, 2019 issue of Science.



Anne Q. Hoy

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