A Case for Science Reporting

Nov 9, 2012

A few years ago, when I was still a public radio journalist, I got into a friendly debate with a trainer at a news production workshop.  The trainer—I’ll call him Frank—said our job was to tell interesting stories.

I saw it a little differently, believing our mission was to tell important stories and make them interesting. This was more than a matter of semantics. For me, the overriding criterion for a story should be its importance; and if it’s important, there must be something inherently interesting about it. Besides, if we searched exclusively for stories that are obviously interesting, we might ignore something more worthwhile.

In my role as science press officer at the University of Rochester, I find myself thinking about those same questions, but from a slightly different perspective.

There’s no doubt that science is important. It’s at the heart of mobile communications, space exploration, agriculture, and medicine. Plus it’s a tremendous driving force for our economy.

Science is also interesting. Researchers have developed molecule-thin membranes for lab-on-a-chip devices that can test DNA in remote settings; they can detect faraway planetary systems using techniques that would make any crime scene investigator jealous; and they’ve used a beam of neutrinos to communicate a message through solid rock.

The problem is that science can be very difficult to explain to the general public. Most reporters wait till the research leads to a culminating breakthrough or an actual device—then the science story becomes a business or tech story. That’s not, in and of itself, a bad thing; it’s just that the science usually gets lost, and that does have consequences.

Science research is increasingly under attack. We’ve had political leaders criticize research into fruit flies, climate studies, and ATMs—though in this last instance, the offending congressman was presumably surprised to find out that ATM actually referred to asynchronous transfer mode, the fundamental technology behind the Internet, not automatic teller machine. (Oops!)

Science research is an easy political target simply because it’s complicated. And because it’s difficult to grasp, many reporters shy away from science stories, which, in turn, makes it all-the-more confusing to the public. The cycle is, indeed, vicious.

There is too much at stake to not pursue science with gusto, or at least have honest discussions about research priorities (see paragraph three). If news directors, editors, and reporters would commit to covering just a few science stories per year, it’s possible to make a real impact nationwide in the public’s understanding of—and appreciation for—science. And, fortunately, journalists do not have to navigate the complex world of science by themselves.

Many reporters have networks of experts to help them get background on economic and political stories. Why not take the same approach with science? There are teachers, professors, and, yes, even university press officers, who can make up your own “kitchen cabinet” of science experts, helping you sort out muons from OLEDs from  messenger RNA—or even ATMs.

In the end, you’d have something that Frank, my news production trainer, might agree is not only important, but also interesting.

Peter Iglinski served as PRNDI President from 1996 to 2002. He is now Senior Press Officer for Science and Public Media at the University of Rochester.