Event Re-Cap: A Lively Day in DC
Journalists, scientists and policymakers convene for a timely, candid and open forum
By Renee Morad, August 19, 2016
With increasingly complex science matters looming today, from the possibility of a Zika virus outbreak and concerns tied to planetary sustainability to questions around GMOs and still-lingering doubts about childhood immunization, journalists share a responsibility to cut through political rhetoric and misinformation to identify and communicate weighty issues rooted in sound science. For many of society’s most pressing issues, a news headline is a first step toward raising public awareness and summoning innovative solutions. Yet despite journalists’ best intentions, sometimes there are underlying factors at play that can complicate or oversimplify, confuse or misguide a message.
Is science explained fairly in the media? This question was the very centerpiece for a public forum at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on March 31, 2016, where a panel of leading science journalists, policy makers and scientists candidly revealed their thoughts, objectives and biggest challenges in the face of science communication. The forum, hosted by Scientific American Custom Media and sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Innovation and GMO Answers, opened the floor to provocative and transparent discussion about how science information is conveyed.
Jeremy Abbate, vice president and publisher of Scientific American, kicked off the event, which was also live streamed and tweeted by participants (#reportingsci), by emphasizing that “scientific information is the currency of our time.” Indeed, with scientific information retaining such potential value and promise for future advancement, it must be protected and held to the highest standard of best practice when communicated. To illustrate the complexities around “accurate” information, Abbate shared an anecdote from a routine checkup in which his doctor showed him copies of two headlines that appeared in two national daily papers on the very same day. One headline, from the New York Times, read, “Extra Vitamin D and Calcium Aren’t Necessary, Report Says.” The other, from the Wall Street Journal, urged: “Triple That Vitamin D Intake, Panel Prescribes.” These conflicting headlines represent the juxtaposing messages that the public too often receives. In one case, a randomized clinical trial, which compares an intervention against a placebo, suggested that vitamin D levels for most Americans were adequate. For other researchers, epidemiological studies, which compared the health of populations who take vitamin D supplements with those who do not, showed a benefit to higher levels of vitamin D. (Abbate said the doctor ultimately displayed both articles, with their identical dates highlighted, on a wall in his office as a “silent homage to the absurd.”)
Panel moderator John Rennie, former editor-in-chief of Scientific American and adjunct professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, invited a panel of journalists and scientists to discuss how scientists, the media and the public grapple with problems of understanding, attention and credibility. Rennie explained that years ago, science journalists’ main concern was that they were not writing stories “vulnerable to accusations that the science had been dumbed down.” Today, however, while writers are still concerned about dumbing down— “nobody wants to make mistakes; people want to get the science right,” he assured—there’s also attention on a growing number of concerns, from challenges tied to overcoming bias and spin to questions about a study or source’s credibility and the declination of traditional news media.
Washington Post columnist and panel member Tamar Haspel admitted that “the bias that keeps me up at night is, of course, my own,” explaining that while others’ bias tends to be more obvious, personal bias is elusive. Haspel said she believes bias should stop being “a dirty word or accusation” and should instead be recognized as part of the human condition and discussed openly. To break through bias, she suggested finding the smartest person in the room with an opposing view and hearing his or her opinions, as well as spending time in integrated rooms filled diverse views and reaching across the aisle.
Science reporter Keith Kloor, who is also an instructor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU, said he sometimes worries that the sources that he chooses reflects his own biases, while Julia Belluz, health reporter for Vox.com, said the biases of the people conducting studies can also be cause for concern, citing beverage industry-funded energy-balance studies as an example.
Now, when science issues lead to controversy—which certainly isn’t a rare occurrence—journalists are also tasked with the challenge of deeply understanding both sides of the debate. “It’s not irrational for parents of young children to feel squeamish about injecting their otherwise healthy babies [with vaccines], but if you see people who end up getting these diseases, it makes a lot of sense to prevent them,” Belluz said about the anti-vaccination or delayed immunization movement. Kloor added that journalists who cover touchy issues—from vaccines to GMOs or man-made climate change—should be empathetic and talk to people with opposing views to understand the underlying factors. Haspel agreed, explaining that “most people are sharing their perception of the truth and have picked facts, studies or people that jive with their worldviews.” She added: “It’s important if you’re going to travel this landscape to not treat those people as though they are liars and charlatans but people who have the same problems at the end of the day as you do.”
So if journalists have trouble trusting sources and studies, and ultimately, their ability—and their readers’ abilities—to remain neutral despite their own worldviews, what exactly can be done? “You can’t present a story that is accurate unless you have an understanding of what accuracy is,” Haspel stated. David Brancaccio, host and senior editor of the MarketPlace Morning Report on American Public Media, said he anticipates which questions will arise in the minds of a very diverse audience and assesses whether the piece touches on all of those questions.
Donna Nelson, president of the American Chemical Society and science advisor to AMC’s Emmy Award-winning Breaking Bad, noted that the scientist-media relationship historically has had its fair share of trust issues. Scientists, who are generally “fanatical about getting things right” and very “data-driven,” are nowadays more inclined to take a leap of faith and communicate their ideas to the public. She encourages writers to seek out scientists who feel a sense of responsibility to inform the public about their work, and to question whether their views align with peer-reviewed literature. Belluz quipped that the latter invites another set of issues: Which peer-reviewed literature are funded? What science gets done?
The forum also touched on instances when a breaking news stories, particularly about public health, is quickly overshadowed by anxiety and panic. For example, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at The National Institutes of Health, said the very conditions that could lead to a Zika outbreak do exist in some parts of the U.S., but as expected, misinformation or a lack of interpretation of correct information could soon lead to widespread anxiety. “We have to be crystal clear in articulating what the risks are and what the risks are not,” Fauci warned, citing similar situations clouded with panic like Ebola and Anthrax. He explained that a lot of it comes down to human nature. For the most part, when people have been taking on a risk everyday for a number of years, they live with that risk and it doesn’t bother them, he explained. But when you superimpose upon that a new risk, even if that risk is much, much less than the risk they’ve been living with for some time, they have trouble integrating the concept of relative risk— “immediately you consider that the most important risk in your life,” he said. Fauci said the best prospects for tackling the Zika virus involve an immediate approach of mosquito control and then ultimately, a vaccine.
The forum transitioned to Seema Kumar, vice president of innovation, global public health and science policy communication at Johnson & Johnson, who shared her thoughts about the benefits and risks of the declination of traditional media and the rise of social media. She said that regardless of the medium, the science ultimately shines through and that social media facilitates access to information—adding that tweets and visuals hold the keys to engaging members of the younger generation who may be contemplating STEM-related careers.
A panel of leading scientists—Nina V. Fedoroff, emeritus professor of biology at Penn State University, James E. Hansen, professor in the climate science awareness and solutions program at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—then took the stage to share the lessons they’ve learned while navigating some of the hottest science topics of our time. Fedoroff spoke about breaking through the challenges of fear tied to important topics like GMOs and that the peer-reviewed process, “as flawed as it is, stands us in good stead.” When it comes down to which study to believe, she encouraged people to consider “the weight of the evidence.” Offit discussed the anti-vaccination movement and raised concerns about which voices deserve a platform to be heard. He also shared his belief that in the end, “good science does prevail,” mentioning studies that have proven that the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine does not lead to autism. Hansen shared his personal challenges communicating the impact of man-made climate change, particularly when the impacts might be more dangerous than what the public is aware of.
Kate Hall, managing director for the Council for Biotechnology Information, then emphasized that open and honest discussion and communication “is part of the scientific process and a critical part of finding a path toward common ground.” She encouraged the forum’s attendees to embrace skepticism and engagement in sometimes difficult dialogues in order to further the discussion about important science matters.
Indeed, many issues about the way science is communicated were brought to light during this unique forum and will continue to be explored over time. As Abbate assured in his closing remarks, “this is not the end of the discussion, but just the beginning.”
The Lost in Translation series was created by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from its board of editors, working in partnership with Johnson & Johnson Innovation and GMO Answers.