Saving Science Journalism

July 8, 2010

By Kate Johnson

I always love to see a journalist speaking into a microphone rather than holding one – especially in the context of a scientific meeting. That’s why science journalist Steve Silberman fuelled my delight earlier this week with his address to the very cool-sounding “Raz Lab” workshop.

The Raz Lab, run by Dr. Amir (– you-guessed it) Raz, is part of the Institute for Community and Family Psychiatry and Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. I didn’t attend the workshop – which was intended for international researchers with expertise in the placebo effect – but Silberman’s address was open to the public and it’s been on my calendar for weeks.

Silberman made a splash last fall with an article about the placebo effect that he wrote for Wired. That alone would have been enough to get me out, despite the Montreal heatwave. But what really piqued my curiosity was that he had been chosen to speak to a caste of scientists, AND in addition to talking about his research on placebos he was also going to tell them about the importance of science writing.

“Science writers are the mouthpiece of the field,” proclaimed Dr. Raz in his introduction – confessing a soft spot for science journalism, which he had once considered as a career. That attitude is a light on the horizon in my field of work.

Silberman’s placebo article caught Dr. Raz’s eye because it is “by far one of the better” popular accounts of an intricate scientific subject, he said. Indeed, as Silberman told us, the article took four months of research during which he estimates he read about 400 journal articles. You just don’t find that depth and thoroughness much in science writing these days – there are no resources for it – and many editors feel there is no public appetite. In fact, facing the flak for what the magazine’s managing editor felt was a bad choice, Silberman lost his fulltime job and was relegated to freelance status, and his editor was fired.

That was before any of them knew that the article would generate such interest. Yet Silberman remains on the freelance list, fighting to retain good science and thorough research in his articles.

Such journalism is deeply threatened, Silberman told the audience. Newspapers and magazines are dropping their science sections, or folding completely. The public’s reading habits are changing. Introducing nuanced, subtle, multi-layered scientific information is getting harder to do – and, as a freelancer myself I know that getting paid for that kind of writing is even harder.

That’s why Dr. Raz’s comment about science journalists being the mouthpiece of the medical field was so heartening – because I do think he is right.

I’ve blogged before about how scientists, despite their brilliance, may not always have the gift of good communication skills. Lab-work may be their forte but writing might not. As I wrote for the American Medical Writers Association, journalists who are specifically trained to understand scientific language, place it in context, and “translate” it into more digestible forms are an essential link in the chain of communication.

And as science becomes more “arcane” – as Silberman put it – such translation will become even more important.

That’s not to say all scientists are incapable of translating their work for the general public. Far from it. In fact, more and more they are being urged to consider this communication as one of their essential roles. People like Dr. David Colman, head of the Montreal Neurological Institute, do it profoundly well, which is evident when you read his monthly musings – yet Dr. Colman also recognizes the value of science/journalism collaborations, as I discovered when he invited me to spend a day with him and his colleagues at the Neuro last month.

Silberman’s invitation to speak at the Raz Lab workshop is another good example of such collaboration – and just last month The American Academy of Arts and Sciences published a report in the same vein. Written by science journalist Chris Mooney, the report entitled “Do Scientists Understand the Public?”discusses four workshops organized by the academy which examined “ways to improve engagement between the scientific and public communities.”

Chris Mooney was an excellent choice to write this account – he also wrote a great piece about it in the Washington Post. I’ve blogged before about Unscientific America, the book he wrote with Sheril Kirshenbaum about “How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.”

Mooney and Kirshenbaum examine “the science-media divide” – the clash in which scientists criticize journalists for bad reporting and journalists criticize scientists for poor communication. It’s a great book that ultimately offers insight into how science journalists and scientists can work together.

And that’s what is desperately needed right now.

On a bitterly cold day this past January I came home from a ski on Mount Royal and wrote about the blind instinct that takes over when you hurtle down the slope with icy crystals in your eyes.

It made me think of what I, and many other journalists are doing every day. Steve Silberman spoke about “the perfect storm” that science journalists are weathering right now, but later he told me that he does have hope: “Evolution required”, he told me on Twitter. Scientists like Dr. Amir Raz are part of that evolution.

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