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Science's fall from grace.

On January 28, 1986, a longstanding and comfortable partnership between NASA and the press was shattered when the space shuttle Challenger exploded seconds after lift-off, killing all aboard.

The press reaction to the explosion was one of grief, disillusionment, and rage. For many longtime science journalists, the event was a personal tragedy. "Those people were me," wrote a Houston reporter. "The shining star of technology for 30 years has dimmed" The Miami Herald compared the "countdown to disaster" to a "Greek tragedy, peppered with portents of the doom to come" The New York Times wrote of its disillusionment with an agency that "has symbolized all that is best in American technology . . . computerized, at the cutting edge of technology, sophisticated in its public relations strategy, squeaky clean in its integrity."

The space program had been important to the development of science journalism as a profession. The many months at Cape Canaveral had brought together journalists interested in science and technology, attracting new writers to the field. For three decades they had covered the space program as an awesome and pioneering venture, a source of national prestige. The first space shuttle in 1981 assumed symbolic dimensions in the popular press as an affirmation of American faith in science and technology--a "sweet vindication of American know how" The press reports of the early space launches incorporated images that were for years to mark the media coverage of dramatic advances in science and technology. But then the Challenger accident became a watershed event, creating a sense of skepticism among journalists that was to influence their coverage not only of space technology but also of other scientific and technical programs in subsequent years.

Fascinated with space technology, reporters had simply accepted what NASA fed them, reproducing the agency's assertions, promoting the prepackaged information they received, and rarely questioning the premises of the program, the competence of the scientists, or the safety of the operation. After the accident, journalists felt betrayed. Newsweek announced that "the news media and NASA, wedded by mutual interest from the earliest days of the space program, are in the midst of a messy divorce" Having suddenly lost faith in the veracity of NASA, some newspapers even engaged in electronic war games, using high technology interception antennas and experimental laser cameras to get stories that NASA wanted to conceal about the recovery of the shuttle. Journalists were filled with self recrimination, accusing themselves of accepting "spoon fed news," of "treating the shuttle like a running photo opportunity," of letting readers down. More than any other event of that time, the Challenger accident aroused press and public awareness of the importance of probing, skeptical, and critical science journalism.

The Challenger accident was only one of a series of technological debacles during the 1980s that called attention to the cost of media hype. NASA experienced other failures with its much promoted megaprojects, including the $2 billion Hubble telescope and the $1 billion Mars Orbiter. The repair of the Hubble telescope in 1993 was celebrated but did not resurrect NASA's prestige; reporters observed the air of melancholy, the dispiriting sense of unfulfilled promise hovering over the space agency.

Other widely publicized projects have also backfired. Celebrated in 1987 as the "Colossus of Colliders" and "The Biggest Machine Ever," the Superconducting Supercollider became, in 1993, a media metaphor for extravagant technologies. A Japanese accelerator used to kill malignant cells was called "the supercollider of cancer treatments, sapping money from smaller but potentially more valuable projects" The debates over the Supercollider became a way for journalists to call attention to the inefficiency of megascience and the difficul ties scientists have in managing enormous projects.

The same theme recurred in the 1994 coverage of the data falsification in a large scale cancer therapy research program involving 89 hospitals. As the latest in a line of disclosures of fraud, this incident provoked a serious crisis of confidence in the self regulating community of science. The revelation of the Cold War radi ation experiments furthered the growing sense of betrayal. Following up on this event, reporters not only probed government archives at Depart ment of Energy facilities but also looked for similar scandals in old medical records at their local universities. Scientists these days are portrayed in less than awe inspiring terms.

The Media's Role

Science writers, in effect, are brokers, framing social reality for their readers and shaping the public consciousness about science related events. Their selection of news about science and technology sets the agenda for public policy. Their presentation of science news lays the foundation for personal attitudes and public actions. They are often our only source of information about the scientific and technical choices that significantly affect our work, our health, and our lives.

We pay for science and technology and bear their social costs. Public understanding of their social implications, their technical justifications, and their political and economic foundations is in the interest of an informed and involved citi zenry. It is also critical to the future of science and technology themselves. The cost of public naivete regarding science and the nature of scientific evidence has been apparent in many controversies--over the value of animal expert mentation, appropriate precautions to prevent the spread of AIDS, and the teaching of evolu tion in the schools.

The media can play an important role in enhancing public understanding, but they have frequently failed to do so. There are many exam pies of brilliant science reporting, written with analytic clarity, critical insight, and provocative style, but too often science in the press is more a subject for consumption than for public scrutiny, more a source of entertainment than of information. Too often science is presented as an arcane activity outside and above the sphere of normal human understanding, and therefore beyond our control. Too often the coverage is promotional and uncritical, encour aging apathy, a sense of impotence, and the ubiquitous tendency to defer to expertise. Focusing on individual accomplishments and dramatic or controversial events, jour nalists convey little about the sociol ogy of science, the structure of scien tific institutions, or the daily routines of research. We read about the results of research and the stories of success but not about the process, the dead ends, the wrong turns. Who discov ered what is more newsworthy than what was discovered or how. Thus, science in the press becomes a form of sport--a "race" between scientists in different disciplines or between com petitive nations, a rush to the "pub lication finish line"

There is little in this type of reporting to help readers understand the nature of scientific evidence and the difference between science and unverified opinion. Thus, they are ill prepared to deal with scientific information even when it directly affects their interests. Many people, for example, are more confused than illuminated by reports of scientific findings about diet and cancer, or the genetic basis of breast and colon cancer. The persistent fear of catching AIDS by donating blood, despite scien tific evidence to the contrary, is an important case in point.

In their promotional reporting of science and technology, writers still convey their fervent con viction that new technology will create a better world. But the message is increasingly polarized--we read of either promising applications or perilous effects, of triumphant progress or tragic risks. Impending breakthroughs are reported with zeal, technological failures with alarm. But the long term political, economic, and social consequences of technological choices are sel dom explored. Celebrating the development of each new medical technology, journalists failed to question the impact on health care costs until this became a central issue on the national policy agenda. As media oversell turned to the "genetic revolution" and journalists welcomed new gene discoveries and anticipated wonder cures, they gave little attention to the ethical and social implications of predicting genetic disease--the problems of privacy and the possi bilities of genetic discrimination--until scientists themselves began to worry about such issues.

Many of the characteristics of science and technology reporting reflect the nature of the relationship between journalists and their sources. Concerned about their legitimacy in the political arena and anxious to receive support for their work, scientists are sensitive to their image in the press. Hoping to shape that image, they are becoming adept at packaging information for journalists. Like advocates in any field, they are prone to overestimate the benefit of their work and minimize its risks.

For their part, journalists--especially those with limited experience in science reporting--are vulnerable to manipulation by their sources of infor mation. They are concerned about balance and objectivity and accept the ideology of science as a neutral au thority, an objective judge of truth. Some science writers are in awe of scientists, others are intimidated. But most are bewildered by the complexity of technical issues. The difficulty of evaluating a complex and uncertain subject con verges with the day to day constraints of the journalistic profession to reinforce the tendency to rely uncritically on scientific expertise. While political writers often go well beyond press brief ings to probe the stories behind the news, science reporters tend to rely on authoritative researchers, press conferences, and professional journals. The result? Many journalists have adopted the mindset or "frame" of scientists, interpreting science in terms defined by their sources, even when those sources clearly display a special bias.

Thus while art, theater, music, and litera ture are routinely subjected to criticism, science and technology are almost always spared--until outrageous incidents occur. While political writers aim to analyze and criticize, science writers seek to elucidate and explain. There are few outlets for journalists who would serve as critical commentators on, or probing invest) gators of, science and technology. Rare are the Walter Lippmanns or I. F. Stones of science who write regularly in the press. Unaggressive in their reporting and reliant on official sources, science journalists present a narrow range of coverage. Many journalists are, in effect, retail ing science and technology rather than in vestigating them, identifying with their sources rather than challenging them.

Conflict of Norms and Values

The pattern is beginning to change in the 1990s; there is more critical, more skeptical science reporting. But as critical reporting increases, so do the tensions between scientists and jour nalists, reflecting fundamental differences in the norms and values of these two professions.

To begin with, they often differ in their judgments about what is news. To scientists, research results become reliable and therefore newsworthy through replication and endorse ment by professional colleagues. Prior to pub lication in reputable journals, scientific papers are carefully evaluated and approved through the system of peer review. This system of estate fishing reliability has been critical to the struc ture of science, especially to the process of scientific communication. For scientists, then, research findings are tentative, undigested, provisional--and therefore not newsworthy--until certified by peers to fit into the existing framework of knowledge. For journalists, on the other hand, certified and established ideas are "old news"--of far less interest than fresh and dramatic, though possibly tentative, research. Seeking to entertain as well as to inform, they are attracted to nonroutine, nonconventional, and even aberrant events. This difference be tween scientists and journalists becomes a source of contention when overzealous research ers, as in the cold fusion case, seek press coverage of "hot" research prior to the time consuming process of peer review. Such hubris is especially contentious in the 1990s when many scientists fear that changes in science--the increased dependence on industry support and the incidents of misconduct--are undermin ing the peer review and refereeing processes.

Journalists seeking credible views on con troversial issues often rely on the opinions of scientists who have become public figures. Nobel Prife winners, because of their general prestige, are frequently cited in fields well out side their specialized expertise. Scientists suspect such use of unverified opinion. Arnold Relman, former editor of the New England Jour nal of Medicine, expressed the scientists' view:

If a [politician] makes a statement of

what the policy of his government is or

what he thinks or what he is going to

vote, that's news.... News of a new

development in science is coupled with

evidence. Opinion is not important, it's

evidence. Opinion is cheap and can be

misleading in science, but opinion in

politics or public affairs is another


Some journalistic practices conflict with scientific expectations about appropriate styles of communication. While both groups are com misted to communicating truth, journalists must often omit the careful documentation and precautionary qualifications that scientists feel are necessary to present their work accurately. While scientists are socialized to qualify their findings, journalists may see qualifications as protective coloration. Furthermore, readability in the eyes of the journalist may be oversimpli fication to the scientist. Indeed, many accuse tions of inaccuracy are traceable to reporters' efforts to present complex material in a readable and appealing style.

Journalistic conventions intended to en hance audience appeal may also violate scien tific norms. To make abstract technical decisions more concrete, science writers often examine the personal choices of their technical in formants ("Would you live at Love Canal?"), undermining the idea that technical decisions are based on depersonalized evidence. To create a human interest angle, journalists also per sonalize research, writing on the foibles and features of individuals. But the focus on individual accomplishments and the presentation of scientists as stars contradicts communal norms, which favor a collective image of science as an objective and disinterested profession. Similarly, to convince their editors about the newsworthiness of science and technology, jour nalists emphasize the uniqueness of individual events (the "first" discovery, the "breakthrough," the "biggest" collider). Although many scientists actively contabute to the break through syndrome, ideally they prefer to empha size continuity and the cumulative nature of research.

Journalists relate their stories to immediate and familiar social and economic contexts. In the 1990s, they have questioned the high cost of megaprojects and looked to the short term applications of science. Scientists see the need of long term research strategies and are often threatened by the media's focus on immediate economic and social goals.

The journalistic preoccupation with conflict and aberration, intended to attract the reader's interest, is a further source of strain. In covering disputes, journalists tend to create polarities: technologies are either risky or they are safe. The quest for simplicity, drama, and brevity precludes the complex, nuanced positions that scientists prefer. But the polarized presentation of technical disputes also reflects journalists' norms of objectivity--their belief that verity can be established by balancing conflicting claims. This approach further contributes to strain, for to a scientist objectivity is based on the understanding that claims must be verified by empirical means-hardly by balancing opposing views.

Differences in the use of language add to the tension. The language of science is intended to be precise and instrumental. Scientists communicate for a purpose: to indicate regular) ties and aggregate patterns, to provide technical data. In contrast, journalistic language has literary roots. Journalists will choose words for their richness of reference, their suggestiveness, their graphic appeal. They are likely to prefer a toxic dump to a waste disposal facility.

In any discourse, language is organized to address the background and assumptions of the anticipated audience. Scientists direct their pro fessional communication to an audience trained in their discipline. They take for granted that their readers share certain assumptions and therefore will assimilate the information con veyed in predictable ways. Journalists, on the other hand, write for diverse readers whose interpretations will vary with their interests, objectives, and technical sophistication. Thus, while scientists talk of aggregate data, reporters write of the immediate concerns of their readers: "Should I use saccharin? Drink coffee? Take estrogen? Will I be harmed?"

Often words that have a special meaning in a scientific context will be interpreted differently by the lay reader. For example, the word epidemic has both technical and general connotations. Scientists use the word epidemic to describe a cluster of incidents greater than the normal background level of cases. If the background level is zero, then six cases are technically an epidemic. To the public or the journalist, an epidemic implies thousands of cases, a rampantly spreading disease.

Confusion over the definition of evidence occurs among scientists as well as in the press, often confounding the discourse of risk disputes. Biostatisticians use the word evidence as a statistical concept. But for biomedical researchers the critical experiment may also be defined as evidence. Most lay people accept as credible evidence anecdotal in formation or individual cases. So, too, do journalists. Such differences frequently lead to misunderstanding. In reports about the health effects of exposure to toxic chemicals at Love Canal, for example, scientists and journalists held different assumptions about the definition of credible evidence concerning the validity of animal tests, the neighborhood's habitability, and the adequacy of containment of the chemicals. Thus, when scientists described the health effects of dioxin with a cryptic "no evidence" (meaning no statistically significant evidence), journalists interpreted their response as an effort to cover up the problem, since they knew of individual cases.

Perhaps the most important source of strain between scientists and journalists lies in their differing views about the appropriate role of the press. Scientists often talk about the press as a conduit or pipeline, responsible simply for transmitting science to the public in a way that can be easily understood. They expect to control this flow of information to the public as they do within their own domain. Confus ing their special interests with general questions about the responsibility of the press, they are reluctant to tolerate independent analysis of the limits or flaws of science. They assume that the purpose of science journalism is to convey a positive image that will promote science; they see the press as a means of furthering scientific goals.

This view of journalism is reflected in scien fists' complaints about the press and its effects on public attitudes. Scientists tend to attribute negative public attitudes about science and technology to problems of media communica tion. They blame journalists, who, they believe, distort the flow of information from scientists to the public. Problems of scientific communi cation could, however, as easily be attributed to the sources of information--to suppression of facts, to manipulation of conclusions, or to overeager, promotional public relations.

Many science journalists see their mission as one of recording "official history"--of elucidating, amplifying, and even eulogizing science. But others, in recent years, are questioning their role as "serf appointed trumpets" for science and technology. Reacting to techno logical failures, to the economic implications of large and costly scientific endeavors, and to changes taking place within scientific fields that are increasingly tied to corporate interests, many journalists are beginning to suspect promotional hype. They are questioning the authority of science, raising probing questions in their interviews with scientists: Who pays? Who is responsible? What's in it for the public? What are the stakes?

"Gee whiz," "cosmic breakthrough" articles continue to appear in the press coverage of science and technology, but many journalists today are more critical. They believe that "it is not enough for us to report the new discoveries or gadgetries; we must delve deeper into their effects on people and public policy" One reporter I interviewed wants "to take some of the awesomeness out of science." Another hopes "to create a better informed citizenry able to deal with problems." These are among the goals frequently expressed by journalists today.

Networking for the Future

Professional organizations in the field of science journalism constantly work to improve the stan cards of reporting. The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) was founded in 1934 by a dozen veteran science writers to "foster the dissemination of accurate scientific knowledge by the press of the nation in coopera tion with scientific organizations and individ ual scientists" Struggling to convince their editors that science was news, the NASW founders hoped that professionalizing their specialty would enhance its visibility, recogni tion, and prestige.

When press coverage of science and tech nology began to expand after World War II, so, too, did the NASW membership: there were 113 members in 1950; 413 in 1960; 830 in 1970; 1,200 in 1986; and 1,830 in 1993. The NASW newsletter Science Writers disseminates profes signal "gossip" and special articles of interest to the advancement of a growing profession. In 1960, NASW spawned an independent non profit organization, the Council for the Ad vancement of Science Writing (CASW)--a groups of writers, editors, educators, and scien fists who raise funds to support the develop ment of science journalism programs and annual briefings (the "New Horizons in Science" pro gram) in which distinguished scientists talk to journalists about current scientific advances.

Scientists have also initiated efforts to assure that timely and reliable information reaches the press. The Scientists' Institute for Public Information (SIPI) includes a Media Resource Service (MRS) with a computer file of over 25,000 scientists and engineers who have agreed to answer queries from reporters. It receives about 75 telephone inquiries a week from journalists seeking reliable sources on a wide range of subjects. When a crisis such as an earthquake or oil spill occurs, hundreds of reporters call in. If the subject of inquiry is a disputed one, MRS routes journalists to several scientists selected to represent a spectrum of opinion. The organization also brings together scientists and journalists to discuss controver sial issues, such as animal experimentation or the disposal of toxic wastes. The purpose is to enhance both the technical sophistication of journalists and the political sophistication of scientists potentially involved in disputes.

Scientists and journalists are negotiating the public meaning of science and technology. This terrain, today more than ever, is contested as journalists increasingly--and appropriately--probe issues of scientific responsibility and ac countability, questioning the ideologies and social priorities that guide science policy decisions. The tensions between these two communities are inevitable; in deed, maintaining their differences is essential if each community is to fulfill its unique social role.

If the popular press is to act as a watchdog over major social and political institutions, if it is to mediate be tween science and the public and facili tate public discourse about crucial policy issues, both scientists and jour nalists must accept and come to terms with an uneasy and often adversarial relationship. Scientists must restrain the promotional tendencies that lead to controls on information or to over sell, and they must open their doors to more vigorous investigation.

Journalists, for their part, must try to convey understanding as well as in formation. It is not enough merely to react to scientific events, translating and elucidating them for popular consumption. To comprehend science or technology, readers need to know its context: the social, political, and economic im plications of scientific activities; the nature of evidence underlying decisions; and the limits--as well as the power--of science as applied to human affairs.

Dr. Dorothy Nelkin holds a University Professor ship at fI.ew Tork University and teaches in the Department of Sociology and School of Law. This article is adapted from a chapter in her book, Sell ing Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology ([C] 1995 by W. H. Freeman and Company; used with permission).
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Humanist Association
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Author:Nelkin, Dorothy
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Sep 1, 1995
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