Part of the project features a journal with articles related to the topic of science communication. The newest one just came out.
After reading some of the articles, I must say, the content seems to be thinner than the paper it's printed on. There's a cute article on The Ten Commandments for Presentations. There's nothing in that that's not covered (at length) in a basic public speaking course. Nor is it anything I've not heard from professors assigning presentations.
There's a Guide to Free Desktop Planetarium Software that has a nice list, but doesn't give much information on ease of use or potential functionality for communication. It assumes that the person interested in them will already know what they want to do with it. This is like a journal that's supposed to be about how to build a house for people that may have only used a screwdriver to open their computer case, featuring reviews of miter saws. That's all well and good, but they still won't know how to build a house.
But the article that really bugged me was How Can We Make a Friend Out of an Enemy? How astronomers and journalists can get along better. I think it's the most disingenuous piece of tripe I've ever come across.
The reason? It makes me damn well never want to speak to a journalist again. The entire article is a poor justification on why journalists screw up the science so badly and tries to make the point that if we want to interact with journalists, it should be entirely on their self-serving terms:
The science journalist is supposed to write critically about science; about the process that creates theories and, of course, about the theories themselves. The science journalist, in other words, is not someone who creates acceptance. Just as the political reporter is not the mouthpiece of the government, the business writer is not the mouthpiece of business, the restaurant critic the mouthpiece of food industry, the science writer is not the mouthpiece of the scientific community.OK. Fine. You can't simply repeat what scientists tell you. A bit of critical analysis is perfectly fine with us. After all, peer review is our bread and butter. A bit more isn't really a lot of skin off our backs. But if journalists are going to do the reporting, can you at least (1) get the facts right and (2) know what you're talking about enough to make intelligent "criticism"?
“Although scientists often speak of a ‘necessary’ cooperation with journalists, a ‘distance’ between them is essential to my mind. A distance that guarantees the independence of and critical analysis by the media that is necessary if the general public are to be able to form their own opinion.
The article answers that, "no". Journalists can't do that and they shouldn't be expected to do it.
The mass media do not portray science in an exact manner; they do not even consider this as their task.Excuse me?! You want to come use our data, and don't even want to represent it accurately? Why the hell should we talk to you at all?
The frequent complaints of science about ‘incorrect’ or ‘distorted’ reports or about a seemingly ‘wrong’ selection of news therefore miss the mark. It is not possible to achieve an ‘adequate’ media representation of research that will also satisfy the research scientists themselves.
Can the journalist be an ally for the scientist? No, or at best only to a certain extent, as journalism has to be independent of astronomy, its object of study. But does this mean that the journalist is inevitably an opponent who works in a world that is incompatible with the scientist’s realm? No, not at all, as many excellent reports, films or radio documentaries have been shown that have reached huge audiences and have had a positive impact on the discipline. Labelling journalists as either friend or foe does not fit reality. But just because an unquestioning alliance is impossible, this does not mean we need to renounce a good and trusting relationship between the two professions.Haven't I heard this defense before?
"We've done some good things, so let's overlook all the absolutely asinine and horrible things we've done wrong."
Sorry. It doesn't work for me. Sure the mass media has done some great documentaries. But look at what else it does: It perpetuates anti-science under the banner of "telling both sides of the story." And this article goes so far as to try to justify that too!
A good journalist can be recognised by the fact that he does not take sides in an issue, even when the cause is good.And here I thought journalists were supposed to report the facts and interpret them; Not to take fantasy and report on that while misinterpreting reality. That serves no ones interests except the journalists' own pocketbooks.
So what's the justification for that?
The journalist’s duty is to the consumer, the reader or viewer — not to politics, not to the powerful and not to science.That's all well and good to say, but misrepresenting an entire field that you're relied on for accurate commentary doesn't serve the consumer. Hollowing out a story so to the point its a strawman by simply stating a conclusion without any supporting evidence and tossing in a few sound bites doesn't serve the consumers interest of learning something about science. Inflating absolute nonsense to create controversy, although it may entertain the consumer doesn't serve their interests. At least not if you're a journalist. If you're a comedian, sure. But then you're in the wrong profession.
The article goes on to try to explain the bizarre logic of journalists:
In journalism, only a story that reaches the recipient is a good story.How do journalists decide what to write for consumers? Good stories. How do you know if it's good? Consumers receive it.
This is circular logic plain and simple.
The article makes it clear that journalists are blind to their own distortions:
It is not about hyping and distorting a topic. It is about developing a feeling for processing it in such a way that people from outside the profession will be interested.Sadly, journalists, in their "processing" of information must frequently rely on "hyping and distorting a topic." The first half of the sentence says it's not their goal, but the second half justifies doing it anyway.
Additionally, they try to justify another pet peeve of scientists:
Sometimes journalists might prefer to interview the best communicator rather than talk to the best researcher.A scientists that's deemed "not suitable for mass media" does some great research. But the journalist can't write a story without their soundbites which the scientist in question can't give. So they go to their pet scientist who may or may not know anything about the research in question and ask him for quotes to mine.
A scientist, who is not able to convey in a few sentences what his or her research is about, is not suitable for the mass media.
Again, this doesn't serve the interest of the readers. Sure it's "digestible", but they've lost the actual story and in doing so, science journalists have missed the point.
So what's their conclusion from all of this?
Articles, radio documentaries or films could all be improved if astronomers and space scientists were to extend their knowledge about the media so that they can cooperate with them on a basis that is reliable and constructive for both sides.I think the first part of this is good. Scientists should learn more about media. This article has certainly taught me a lot after all. It's taught me they're a bunch of untrustworthy bastards and we should kick their sorry asses out of the ivory towers.
This article makes it perfectly clear that they're not wanting to "cooperate ... on a basis that is reliable and constructive for both sides." They're wanting us to kowtow to their standards. Yet nowhere in the article does it suggest that journalists should learn the science well enough to know which facts its ok to omit and still have an accurate story. Oh wait.... they don't care if it's accurate. Only if its well received by consumers.
If the author of this paper wants something that's constructive for both sides, then they need to realize they need to realize that the door swings both ways. Scientists need to better understand what makes a story "newsworthy":
any information that journalists publish has to meet certain criteria, which are fundamentally different from those in science: news has to come from a serious source and also be new, which means that it is not previously known. Journalists speak of news factors if a topic affects many people, if it takes place in their spatial vicinity or social proximity, if it is of consequence, if it is dealing with a conflict, if people hold strong opinions on the topic, rouses emotions, is entertaining or has anything to do with celebrities.Journalists need to understand that many of those things that they just listed as "fundamentally different from ... science" are in science. Many major cities have prestigious universities that are doing great research. That's "in their spatial vicinity". These discoveries are the things that allow us to understand how the universe works which lets us better protect ourselves from disasters (both natural and man made). This is "of consequence". There are legitimate disagreements in science (I'm not talking about, Intelligent Design/Creationism, Plasma Cosmology, Astrology, Anti-Vaxxers, Climate Change denialists, etc....). Journalists don't need to inflate these delusions to make a story that "deals with a conflict." Astronomy lets us explore the vastness of the universe which any astronomer will tell you "rouses emotions."
So this article is really nothing but a long winded, arrogant justification for the failures of science journalists. Not that they see it as failures. They're doing their job. But their job isn't to communicate science. It's to report on science and whether or not they represent it faithfully is less important than keeping consumers happy. In short, scientists need to stop thinking that journalists have any role or intention in communicating science. I suggest not wasting your time with them unless the journalist in question has a good track record of actually forming that constructive basis for both sides.
But what really needs to be done, is to explore new outlets for science communication; To develop a network of reporter-scientists instead of science reporters, who realize that, when the consumer is interested in getting news about science, giving them good science is in their best interest.
(Note: many of the quotes I cited are not from the author of the paper, but are quotes used in the paper. I did not distinguish between them and did not feel a reason to do so given that at times, the author uses so many quotes that she has little material of her own and she allows the quotes to speak for her.
If anyone wants to see the actual author of individual passages, feel free to read the original article.)