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Science Communication in Theory and Practice

Reaching the Public – Communicating the Vision (Stocklmayer)

Science Journalism – the Inside Story (Spinks)

Presenting a Radio Science Program: Engaging the Public Interest (Cohen)

Science Communication via Television and the World Wide Web (Allen)

By: Cameron A. Straughan

August 19, 2002

This week’s readings expanded further on the science communication foundation that I’ve been building. The readings examined the types of media used as interfaces between science and the public. With papers on science journalism, radio, television, and the World Wide Web, the readings tied in nicely with my past employment experiences, hobbies, and future projects. As usual, I’m also finding that tips and techniques for any type of media are easily transferable to my documentary project.

Stocklmayer’s article Reaching the Public – Communicating the Vision revolved around a 2000 report from the British House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Society. The report recommended that all scientists have training in communications and understand the social context of their work. I thought this was amazing. The status quo in Britain is actually accepting some changes to the old science paradigm. This is also in line with my emphasis on teaching aspiring scientists about communications early-on in their schooling or career.

However, I think the report recommendations are weak, since they emphasize the use of workshops as opposed to a more organized, systemic change via educational courses. However, I’m glad that there is some commitment out there. Again, I wonder why there is a lack of similar reports and recommendations within Canada. Is this omission due to the limits of the researchers, the limits of my own readings to date (Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk would be an exception) , or is science communication being seriously discussed in Canada at all?

I found it interesting that, according to Stocklmayer, scientists blame schools for not teaching science better. However, didn’t scientists pass through the same school system? Along these lines, I suspect that the quality of high school in Ontario has deteriorated since I graduated. So I wonder – will the number and/or quality of scientists diminish over time? Apparently, according to the beliefs of the scientific community, it will.

Aside from the educational system, another favourite target of scientists is the general public. I’ve seen that trend again and again. As Stocklmayer points out, scientists find fault with the notion of “public understanding” of science. Yet, Stocklmayer counters (and correctly, I believe) that “understanding” used in this context is a negative term, implying a monologue between scientists and the public. That is, scientists stand up on their pulpit and dictate information to the public and they are supposed to absorb and “understand” it, through some miracle. Instead of using the term “public understanding”, Stocklmayer prefers to use “public awareness”.

By increasing “public awareness” of science, Stocklmayer is promoting a constructivist methodology, by which the public learns by building on their past experiences and knowledge. Their “awareness” is enhanced by ownership of problems, access to information, personal experiences, and individual exploration. I agree with her approach. It’s very democratic and it’s similarity to Action Learning practices and principles is uncanny. This is also in line with a research strategy I’ve always wanted to try out.

Instead of surveying a watershed, for example, based on unanswered questions from previous research, or some researcher’s hypothesis, I’d consult with the public who live around and/or use the watershed. Through participatory research, I’d pinpoint what they think the issues and concerns are and then build my research, and subsequent management plans, on that foundation.

In this manner, the process optimizes public input throughout the project. In addition, this process would optimize the amount of press coverage the project generates, since a large portion of the community is involved. This may lead to further research dollars being granted for future work. After all, it’s very difficult for politicians, or media outlets, to ignore the findings of a project if a large portion of the community was involved.

Stocklmayer’s article also resonated since it related well to my Wolf Ecology readings. Stocklmayer states that scientists have a cynical view of fellow scientists who talk to the public and/or the media, and most think that communication is detrimental to a career in science. I’ve seen evidence of this when I discuss science and advocacy with my advisor (Tom Nudds, U. of Guelph). I believe his response to John Theberge’s advocacy, regarding Algonquin Park wolves, is a text-book example of the tension between science and communications. Terms like “zealots” and “bad for science” underline the scientific hard-line.

However, my advisor also agrees with me that communication is important, although he is very concerned with media representations of science. I argued that Theberge’s advocacy was necessary, since there appeared to be an immediate threat to wolf populations, and the public deserved to know. As it turned out, a lengthy peer-review analyses of Theberge’s field data yielded the same conclusions he had advocated – the Algonquin Park wolf population appeared to be declining.

Spinks’ article Science Journalism – the Inside Story is a personal account of his years as a science journalist. I found it encouraging and informative; it succinctly highlighted the various pros and cons. I also found it quite similar to points covered in Nelkin’s Selling Science, which Spinks cites.

Spinks’ article was particularly valuable to me since I hope to stray into science journalism, either as a hobby or for supplementary income – or both. Currently, I write for the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto Newsletter. I mainly cover documentary or environment-related cinema. With this in mind, Spinks did provide me with some useful tips and advice to further my knowledge and understanding of journalism. I value this advice, since I have no formal training in journalism.

For example, Spinks provided me with a lot of valuable information about how editors format, block, and position articles for effect. He even gives the details of font size and title size. His advice on story structure was also strong (i.e., the “inverted pyramid” of importance, and the importance of hooking the audience with the first paragraph). Spinks’ ten criteria for how prominently science articles appear in the paper could just as easily be called “ten criteria for a good documentary”. At any rate, now I know what to be wary of, with regards to editorial choices concerning my work.

Curiously, Spinks’ description of editors seemed similar to descriptions of scientists – overly confident in their objectivity, “macho”, and instilling a highly ordered command structure. Now I understand the primary tension between scientists and the media. It seems that journalists are stuck between two extremes of perceived “objectivity” – each with it’s own strong, ingrained idea of how the story should come out. Regardless of how much effort the journalist puts into the piece, he/she may be subject to the editor’s knife and/or ridicule from scientists when the final product is released.

Interestingly, to help avoid conflict with interview subjects, Spinks recommends sending them a final copy of the article for review. This serves two main purposes – it allows scientists to spot mistakes, thus diffusing a potentially volatile situation; and it encourages “cross fertilization” between scientists and science writers, thus encouraging research and debate. It’s a valuable step since scientists have the luxury of an extended peer review period, in which they can make their own corrections and re-submit for further review. I know from personal experience that it can take three years from the point when you finish a “final draft” and publication in a peer-reviewed journal. On the other hand, journalists have only one chance; their editors aren’t going to let them make their own corrections and keep resubmitting them.

Spinks also makes an important distinction when discussing the tension between scientists and the media. As it turns out, scientists generally like science journalists, are satisfied with their work, and often become close colleagues with them. However, it is the more generalized journalists that they don’t like – the so-called “beat reporters”. These journalists tend to highlight drama and sensationalize events.

Unfortunately, it is not encouraging that editors prefer technology and health articles to science. Apparently, science is not seen as a source of advertising revenue. Science also seems like a loosing proposition since apparently editors don’t trust science writers, scientists (often) don’t trust science writers, and the public may think that science writers are blatantly promoting the sciences. Thus, it seems my choosing a career along these lines will be an uphill battle at times – albeit a necessary one.

Cohen’s Presenting a Radio Science Program: Engaging the Public Interest is essentially a letter of support for the use of radio in science communication. Cohen works for BBC radio, so her interest and passion for radio is understandable. I chose to read her paper since I had a radio show at the University of Windsor for over a year – albeit a show that played eighties music. I really enjoyed working in radio and I’ve often thought about getting back into it to do something with an environmental theme. In fact, my friend Adon (who was also in Political Communication and the Environment) has created a Web radio station as his major MES project and I will hopefully be helping him out by putting together a show.

Cohen’s argument for the use of radio is interesting. Firstly, she says that radio dedicates more time to science, technology, and medicine than TV. In addition, radio communicates a “higher density of information”. Secondly, although a picture is worth a thousand words, she thinks that pictures are often not applicable to complicated scientific matters; in fact, they may serve to confuse the public. As a documentary filmmaker, I don’t agree 100% with this, but I do understand her point.

Pictures and footage may be seen as a magic bullet – if you have a visualization, the public has to understand it. It’s also dangerous when documentary filmmakers rely on stock footage to make a point. As I have pointed out in previous writings, the use of stock footage out of proper context, and without qualifiers, may be perceived as a cheat by the audience. A good example would be the Rainham Marsh controversy, which I wrote about back in Political Communication and the Environment.

When a TV station ran a documentary that criticized the MCA marshland development plan, it included stock footage of marshland birds and animals. Rainham locals immediately recognized that the documentary was severely inflating the wildlife numbers. Worst still, much of the wildlife shown was not even from the Rainham area. This glaring error in judgment caused the locals to mistrust not only the TV documentary, but the entire conservation defense.

Another recent example I witnessed was a WWF promotional video based on John and Mary Theberge’s work on Algonquin Park wolves. The video featured very old, black and white, dated stock footage of a gang of hunters shooting a wolf several times. The tone of the video was blatantly anti-hunter from start to finish, so the footage was included with the sole intent of demonizing hunters even further. While the footage had a short narrative qualifier, it was not enough to overcome the shock of the imagery. Needless to say, the footage does not accurately portray how hunters deal with wolves in modern times. In addition, I have seen the same footage previously in old NFB documentaries, so it is well past its expiration date.

I thought it was interesting when Cohen pointed out that Radio 4’s science programming audience particularly liked it when science and religion were mixed together. Cohen figures that this is due to the audience being mainly older (fifties), affluent, educated women. This points to the importance of cultural analysis, including subcultures, when considering how to increase audience appeal.

Allen’s article Science Communication via Television and the World Wide Web is a succinct, critical overview of digital convergence, the consumer-broadcaster gap, and the politics of broadcasting. In this regard, it was reminiscent of some of the material covered in Political Communication and the Environment.

While reading the article, I began to appreciate the infiltration of digital specialty channels. While it’s been argued that they are too numerous – and too specialized! – to find audiences, I support them because they are wrenching control away from mainstream broadcasters.

As a filmmaker myself, I know how difficult it is to get a film made, let alone aired on TV. The big, mainstream broadcasters act like gatekeepers, controlling what gets seen and, by proxy, what gets made. If an independent filmmaker can’t get support from a broadcaster up front, then they might not be able to film – period. Then there is the risk that financial commitment up front does not necessarily mean the finished product will be aired. I’ve heard many heart breaking stories of filmmakers partnering with a studio or a broadcaster because the production money was there in abundance, but the post-production commitment wasn’t and the finished film got shelved for years. Nothing’s worst than being denied an audience, after all your hard work, because of legal red tape!

On the other hand, with the rise in low-cost digital filmmaking, filmmakers can make quick, relatively cheap productions for specialized audiences and find a good home for them on a specialized digital channel. In this manner, digital specialty channels are usurpers of democracy. Of course, the smaller digital channels wouldn’t pay as much, and the audience would be smaller, but some audience and exposure is better than none.

Allen points out several good reasons why the Web should be used for science communication. Having maintained my own Web site for three years now, I have a few good reasons as well. For example, polling and surveying is relatively easy via counters. The counter I use not only tells me how many people are visiting my site, and what time of day, but where they are from, what search terms they are using, what browser they are using, and what screen resolution they have. Information like that can help improve the design of the Web site, making it more user-friendly and accessible.

I also have an e-group that ties into my site. In this manner, or via my guest book, I can encourage input and continued correspondence from visitors. In addition to sharing links, this leads to effective community building and a more democratic model, in comparison to the closed TV broadcasting model.

In conclusion, this week’s readings both verified and consolidated my Plan of Study – Communicating via Environmental Productions. “Productions” is the umbrella term I chose to describe the variety of means by which I’d like to form a communications interface between science and the general public. This week’s readings touched on some of those means. All three types of media described will also inform my documentary filmmaking – the written word, radio (sound), Web and TV (convergence of text, sound, and images).

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