Science Gets Spun or Spoon-Fed?

By Keith Kloor | July 10, 2013 11:24 am

Depending on whom you ask, Fiona Fox is either saving science journalism or destroying it.

That’s the lead in a Nature story on the person who heads up Britain’s Science Media center, which

believes that scientists can have a huge impact on the way the media cover scientific issues, by engaging more quickly and more effectively with the stories that are influencing public debate and attitudes to science.

In theory, this seems like a no-brainer. But as the Nature story points out, the Science Media Center has

attracted some vehement critics, who say that they foster uncritical media coverage by spoon-feeding information to reporters, that they promote science too aggressively — the SMC has been called ‘science’s PR agency’ — and that they sometimes advance the views of industry.

Personally, I like to spoon-feed from multiple sources, so nobody feels they own me outright.

Seriously, I don’t get this criticism of the Science Media Center. Reporters get fed information all the time–from government officials, industry hacks, agenda-driven NGO’s, etc. (And yes, every reporter has a stable of go-to sources that he can turn to for a catchy quote reliably emailed before deadline.) Good reporters seek out information from multiple venues and learn to trust some more than others, based on numerous factors.

Still, good reporters writing about climate change, for example, will not be overly reliant on Greenpeace or James Hansen or the Science Media Center.

Speaking of climate change, I seem to recall two much applauded initiatives rolled out several years ago, the objective being

to provide high-quality information to the media and the public.

Do any journalists that have used the Climate Science Rapid Response Team believe they were spoon-fed information? And even if they were, no self-respecting reporter would rely unduly on just one source.

Ditto for the relationship between journalists and the Science Media Center. So if you’re worried about a science-advocacy organization influencing how science is covered in the media, are you also worried about Greenpeace and the Climate Science Rapid Response Team influencing climate change coverage?

If you are, your beef shouldn’t be with them. You should only care how a reporter uses the various information streams at his or her disposal. If one source is being favored over others, that’s not the source’s fault.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: media, science, science journalism, select
  • mem_somerville

    I have been really pleased with what I’ve seen from the SMC efforts. There are a lot of stories that would only have quotes from the activist groups if it weren’t for the quick responses of SMC.

    Scientists have not been good at getting their voices out there for various reasons. We’ve had no grasp of how traditional media could access the qualified folks to speak to important science issues. We needed some conduit. Greenpeace already knew exactly how to get their voice out. But individual researchers in labs, not so much.

    And if some of the critics of this include certain NGOs who are used to having their way with the media, then I’d say it’s working as designed.

    • kellylatta

      However, setting activists aside, how does the SMC choose which scientists/viewpoints to promote? Legitimate scientists don’t always agree.

  • Kevin Bonham

    Many scientists think that data should speak for itself, and anyone that engages with reporters are needlessly muddling the issue.

    I think those scientists are deluded, but…

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Really? That attitude is so 20th century. Hard to believe many still hold that view.

      • mem_somerville

        Well, it’s not the younger scientists. But consider the ones who sit on the tenure committees and the grant reviews.

        I think it’s beginning to change, but not all that fast.

        • Kevin Bonham

          Precisely.

    • jh

      It does speak for itself. That’s why most people still get their vaccinations. That’s why GMO crops are in the ground. That’s why little has been done to “protect” us from climate change.

  • Buddy199

    From The Guardian link: Scientists have a duty to engage with the public on climate change. Scientists have not been effective communitcators but it’s time we made the effort to fight bad information

    ————-

    These people just don’t get it. For the past three decades they have overwhelmingly dominated the media and political conversation on climate change yet can’t figure out why public opinion is headed in the opposite direction. How could the comparatively miniscule amount of “bad information” coming from conservative media jujitsu the entire AGW messaging monopoly? It’s not that the public hasn’t heard the AGW message, it’s more like they’re going deaf from it. The message isn’t taking root because of lack of credibility, for multiple reasons. The overt scientific message has been subverted by the noxious underlying political / policy message the public has come to associate with it.

  • jh

    It’s good to see that the SMC has a variety of funding sources.

    But it’s kind of interesting to see who the industry sources are – and aren’t. We see Boeing, Abbot, Sanofi, P&G, L’Oreal, GSK, Coke, Bayer, BASF – many of the worlds largest companies. But no oil/gas/coal or other FF co’s. Suppose SMC reported that there is no link between GW and hurricanes. Imagine the howls from the Greens if they reported such a thing while Exxon or BP was funding them. I notice though that Conoco is a former contributer.

    It’s also interesting that they report modest support from “Central Government”, but when you look at the pie chart and see the proportion of funding from taxpayers as a whole – including universities, research councils, “arms length agencies” and central governments – it’s a solid 1/3 of their revenue.

    No major green orgs as contributors, though, which is also interesting.

    • kellylatta

      But as the Lancet says, conflicts of interest are not just financial. Ideology can also play a role as can conflicting points of view both of which have scientific backing.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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