How journalism can hide the truth about science

There is little reporting on the actual process of science Copyright: TDR / Crump

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The process of science is far less linear than the media’s image of a neat series of breakthroughs suggests. Elmien Wolvaardt describes how simplistic reporting can distort.

The problem-solving ‘breakthrough’ science of the media is far from the messy truth. So said Rick Borchelt of the Genetics and Public Policy Center of Johns Hopkins University, United States, to a gathering of scientists and science journalists at the second Euroscience Open Forum in Munich, Germany, in July 2006.

The media’s portrayal of science as objective and self-policing is, said Borchelt, “a narrative of hubris: it perpetuates the view that science is a linear process of steps and breakthroughs, and gives no account of the trials and errors that actually occur along the way.”

Borchelt, a former press officer in the United States’ Clinton administration, expressed concern that this image creates unrealistic expectations that science always gets it right. “When the inevitable errors then occur, confidence in scientific enterprise is eroded, eventually cultivating a cynical public,” he said.

In the narrative of hubris (characterised by arrogance and a lack of insight), the focus is mainly on the products of science: its findings, outcomes and the implications for humanity, said Borchelt. “This means ‘breakthroughs’ appear seemingly out of nowhere.”

But there is another way to present science, he explained: in a narrative of humility. “We must emphasise the fact that science is an incremental process, with many wrong turns and blind alleys — which is why it is important to report negative results.”

Digging deeper

Such journalism, said Borchelt, focuses on the processes, methods and people of science — a crucial element of science reporting.

This way of reporting is especially important in areas of highly uncertain, contested knowledge — think stem cell research and genetically modified foods. “The stakes are high. Would the fake South Korean cloning research have gone as far as it did, had science writers been taking a more critical and involved look at the processes and personalities involved?” Borchelt asked.

But are Borchelt’s suggestions realistic? And why is there so little actual reporting on the process of science?

Senegalese science writer Armand Faye says it’s because the subject matter of science is so complex. “Most of my time is spent on making science understandable and exciting for my audience. I think this is a big distraction from reporting on the process of science.”

For South African broadcaster, journalist and author Christina Scott, airtime and column inches are her main constraint. “In broadcasting and in print, the amount of time or space given is so restricted that I often feel like a Red Cross worker on the battlefield, practising triage,” she says.

“I save what I can, and abandon the rest. And yes, one of the facets of science which often gets abandoned is the rather haphazard nature of research and discovery.”

David Dickson, founder of SciDev.Net and former news editor of Nature has a different explanation. “The processes of science are actually quite boring. Of course, if there is an interesting product or result at the end of the day, the processes by which this was reached can be interesting to read. But I don’t think most people want to read about the average day of the working scientist.”

He adds, “However, it is very important for science journalists to understand the processes of science. This understanding should inform the way we report its products and results – which can include negative results.”

Wolfgang Goede, editor of the successful German popular science magazine PM and co-founder of the World Federation of Science Journalists, says journalists don’t report on the process of science because “very few of us have been trained and, more importantly, encouraged to look at science as if it were a political party or a public enterprise — those things we have been brought up to criticise.”

Mixed metaphors

In a talk at the Euroscience meeting, linguist and metaphor analyst Brigitte Nerlich of Nottingham University argued for more critical awareness of the ‘breakthrough’ metaphors so often used by those reporting on science, which contribute to the persistent hubristic tone.

“In a way they just trip off the tongue, fall off the pen or emerge from the keyboard without the users of these metaphors being aware that they are using them,” she said.

Scott describes the media’s focus on breakthroughs as “both a blessing and a curse”. Although it highlights scientists’ achievements, she says, it also hides the complex process of turning a discovery into a tangible product.

“They hear the story, and want to order the product over the Internet, not understanding that there may be clinical trials still to come.”

American science journalist Jim Cornell feels that Nerlich is only partly correct. Whereas science journalists are increasingly aware of the implications of using ‘breakthrough’ metaphors, non-science specialists may not be.

Non-specialists include “gate-keeper editors, who insist that reporters have ‘story hooks’ that are quick and easy for the public to grasp”.

These editors rely on metaphors, he says, because like clichés, they “make it possible to simplify and shorten complex concepts that can fit the abrupt and abbreviated style of the media.”

But the fault may not lie solely with the journalists or their editors, says Holger Wormer, professor of science journalism at Dortmund University in Germany.

“It is often the scientists who invent and use metaphors that are too strong.”

And he estimates that “only one in fifty reported scientific breakthroughs is a real breakthrough, if ever”.

Clearer communication

Nerlich applauded the efforts of science communicators such as Borchelt, who raise their own and others’ awareness of the tacit metaphors they are tempted to use. She advises writers to try using caveats with dramatic metaphors, or simply use alternative metaphors.

Scott, too, offers practical advice. “It would be useful to journalists if a press release included phrases such as ‘warns that …’ to counteract overly ambitious coverage, ‘pays tribute to …’ to include other members of the team, ‘this is important because …’ to provide a glimmering of context, and ‘the next step is …’ to suggest that science is a process.”

Scott also feels that the focus on breakthroughs indicates very strongly that scientists are not participating fully in the process of disseminating information. “They are often unwilling to communicate at a level which is understood by the majority of citizens in the same society,” she says.

Borchelt agrees: In the United States, at least, he said, the pressure to generate research funding in an increasingly competitive grant environment means scientists have even less time to devote to helping the public or policymakers understand science.

But such obstacles to communication don’t remove the burden of responsibility from scientists, he argues. Journalists, suggested Borchelt, are unlikely to change the way they report unless scientists themselves put a greater priority on engaging with the wider world.