Reporters and scientists have a lot in common, including their relentless commitment to uncovering facts through methodical observation and questioning. At the same time, the two groups can sometimes find themselves with different priorities and perspectives.
Journalists often work on same-day deadlines writing stories intended for broad audiences. When they reach out to interview a scientist, however, they may find that their anticipated source is hesitant to speak, sometimes out of fear of being misquoted, or might offer a response too jargon-laced to use – if they’re even available on such short notice.
SciLine – a program at AAAS founded in 2017 – aims to bridge such professional and cultural differences, facilitating seamless connections between experts and journalists at a time when reliable scientific sources in the media are more important than ever.
“A basic understanding of science is fundamentally important to inform the many decisions we face each day – from our families’ health to our choices at the polls,” says Kathryn Murdoch, whose Quadrivium Foundation provided the core support to launch SciLine and remains its major funder, now joined by several other philanthropies. “By putting scientists who are strong communicators on camera at local news outlets and providing journalists ready access to scientific expertise on deadline, SciLine is building trust in science and scientists and addressing a root cause of misinformation.”
Getting Experts on Camera
Dedicated science journalists are rare in local newsrooms today, which means that general assignment reporters – many with limited scientific backgrounds – are tasked with covering many science-related topics, from local pollution issues to the impacts of climate change.
With the arrival of COVID-19, “suddenly every reporter in the country – whether their usual beat was sports or city hall – had to cover scientific topics” like virology and epidemiology, says Sara Brinda, SciLine’s Local Media Outreach Manager. “Their rolodexes might be empty when it comes to scientists with relevant expertise.”
That was part of the inspiration for SciLine’s Experts on Camera service. Launched last May, the effort, which Brinda spearheads, identifies scientists whose expertise and research complements hot topics in the news, and makes video interviews with them easily available to local reporters.
Brinda prepares each scientist for a series of 15-minute video interviews she pre-schedules with reporters from all across the country, who in turn can use the footage for their stories.
One goal of the program is to identify and media-train new science sources for journalists. “We are trying to create opportunities for scientists to raise their public profiles and shape the public discourse around issues they’re working on,” Brinda says. “Our hope is to increase representation in the media of groups that are not always quoted in the press.”
Soon, Brinda says, the team will start sending “care packages” of sound and lighting equipment to participating scientists to make their clips even more attractive for local TV—a highly trusted news source in many communities and the last bastion of local news in many cities that have lost their local newspapers.
Over the past year, Experts on Camera arranged more than 150 interviews with 30 scientists on topics ranging from teleworking to the impact of coronavirus on various underserved and vulnerable communities.
“I find science to be a very powerful way to help me understand the world and make decisions in my life,” says Brinda. “I want more people to have the opportunity to hear from scientists and understand science.”
Innovating Media Briefings
Another SciLine service – media briefings – provides additional opportunities for scientists and journalists to connect on camera about newsworthy topics. A panel of experts is selected to give short presentations and answer reporter questions via Zoom over the course of an hour—all on the record.
Upcoming programming slated for June promises a new twist: an “Ask a Reporter Anything” event. In what team members said could be thought of as a sort of “reverse media briefing,” scientists will be invited to ask a panel of reporters about the nature of their work.
“It’s an effort to demystify journalistic needs and practices,” says Mohamed Yakub, Ph.D., SciLine’s Scientific Outreach Manager and primary media briefing coordinator. “The goal is really for scientists to better understand the process of journalism and the journalism landscape.”
That can include an understanding of the word “news” itself. Most scientific research isn’t groundbreaking, says Meredith Drosback, Ph.D., SciLine’s Associate Director for Science. The scientific process, she says, relies on a chain of smaller discoveries that eventually build up to a larger conclusion. For example, scientists had experimented with mRNA vaccines for years before COVID-19 arrived. But that technology’s remarkable ability to protect against COVID-19 made mRNA vaccines a story every reporter suddenly had to cover.
“All those incremental steps are interesting and part of the scientific process, but not necessarily newsworthy,” says Drosback. “Understanding that distinction can be helpful.”
Turning to Scientists for Tips
SciLine’s services cater to more than just quote – and context –hungry reporters who have already decided what story to write. A new initiative provides a tip line through which scientists can submit ideas to SciLine for possible pitching to reporters. SciLine staffers follow up with authors of the most newsworthy submissions to help refine the ideas into promising story angles, then share them with reporters, says Sara Whitlock, SciLine’s Senior Program Associate for Science.
“We build a bridge between the scientists we’re working with and the journalists to facilitate understanding at the intersection of science and news,” says Whitlock.
While still a young AAAS initiative, SciLine is already changing the story when it comes to science reporting and communication.
“Promoting evidence-based decision-making is an urgent priority for AAAS, and the stakes have never been higher,” says AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh, Ph.D. “As the foremost gatekeepers separating fact from fiction, journalists have a pivotal role to play, and SciLine has become a go-to resource. We are grateful for Kathryn’s vision in conceiving of the idea and proud of the progress we have made with the support of the Quadrivium Foundation and others.”
Are you a AAAS Member interested in media opportunities with SciLine? Register as an expert, and you may be contacted when someone needs your expertise for a story.