February 24, 2016

Scientists and Journalists: Bridging the Gap

Next in our ongoing discussion about communicating health and science, let’s talk about two different points of view: that of scientists doing the work, and that of the journalists reporting on such research to the public. What we hope to do is to illuminate these different perspectives and to help reconcile potential misunderstandings that can result.

Scientists propose ideas that are formed into theories. Scientists working in a field, for example, collect, measure, and analyze the information they gather until it confirms or denies their original hypotheses. Other scientists evaluate the strength of the results through review and publication. Scientists lay out the concept of what they are testing, explain the methods used, and describe the experiment and the results, building to a conclusion. Most often, the results are not definitive. (They may even raise more questions than they answer.) But each result creates more knowledge about a given question. 

It’s also important to remember that research is usually a collaborative process, with many teams with different points of view engaged in identifying or advancing a theory. Research teams compete with each other, and even within teams, opinions often differ. Team members may explore different aspects independently and challenge each other intellectually. In the end, published papers are stronger and more thoughtful because of this process.

Herein lies the plight of the journalist. It can be hard for the average consumer to understand this complex system of checks and balances because science communicators may not have the time or wherewithal to describe it fully. Stories about scientific research often highlight new findings for their serendipity or surprise, but in reality, every “breakthrough” usually results from a series of deliberate efforts to understand biological and behavioral processes.

The journalist who reports on this work is trained to emphasize the main observation: “What does this mean?” That distilled nugget of information often ends up as the headline of the story. It’s sometimes difficult for scientists to come to terms with the extent to which their nuanced, complicated science has been simplified for public consumption.

Yet scientists must remember that journalism is something of a team process as well. The reporter who did the interview, and who may have understood some of the limitations of the specific results, has editors and staff who edit, write headlines, and do layout. The press is sometimes criticized for “hyping” stories, and in some cases the criticism may be justified. But, more often, tight deadlines and complicated team processes can sometimes lead to some loss of nuance or to unrealistic expectations about what the results may mean.

NIH recently asked journalists about their challenges in communicating health and science information to the public. Some of the responses included: (1) Ensuring that the article content is understandable to readers; (2) conveying levels of risk and uncertainty involved in research; (3) the diminishing size and frequency of science article space; and (4) competing with social media to provide news quickly but accurately. One additional important note the respondents gave us was that readers rank the health and science section of their publications very highly and are looking for good science information.

Over the next few months, we’ll be writing about how scientists and those who communicate about their work can best work together to fairly present expectations about science, about the process of discovery, and various aspects of understanding and presenting results. Next time, we’ll talk about rethinking the way we talk about health and science research.

Please feel free to email the NIH Science, Health and Public Trust Communications working group with your thoughts about this topic. We are looking forward to incorporating some in future posts.