Will the U.S. Get a Science Media Center? Maybe.

19 February 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

In case you're puzzled, this image has nothing to do with the post. But I liked it. Read on. (Photo credit: ortonesque/stock.xchng)

When a big news event happens, reporters are left scrambling to cover it. And when the big news event raises significant science questions, reporters are scrambling to find scientists who can answer them. For example, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, reporters with little or no previous experience covering science stories found themselves searching for experts on earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear power and the health effects of radiation exposure, among much else.

There’s a concerted effort under way to address one aspect of this problem in the United States through the creation of a Science Media Center (SMC). However, it faces a number of challenges and questions. Here’s an overview of the subject, including where things stand now for a potential SMC in the U.S.

Background

I co-moderated a panel with Emily Willingham at the 2013 ScienceOnline conference that addressed the challenges of incorporating sound science into breaking news coverage. During that discussion, Mark Henderson of the Wellcome Trust mentioned the SMC in the U.K. (though they spell "center" as "centre," naturally) as a good example of a resource that served both scientists and reporters well.

Established in 2002, the SMC serves as a kind of dating service, connecting reporters who have questions about specific scientific topics with scientists who are experts in the relevant fields. But that’s not all it does. The SMC also tries to identify significant news stories before they hit the headlines and to pass relevant information on to journalists. To do this, the SMC web site explains, “we send out quotes from experts, statistical analyses of scientific studies and factsheets, in addition to running regular press briefings on the latest hot topic.”

Since 2002, similar centers have been created in Japan, Canada and Australia, among other countries. However, the U.S. does not have one.

Less than a week after Henderson mentioned the SMC in the U.K., I found out that there is a committee exploring the possibility of creating an SMC for the U.S. Exciting, right? Not so fast.

Obstacles

In March 2012, science writer and editor Colin Macilwain wrote a piece for Nature laying out why he thought the SMC paradigm simply wouldn’t work in the U.S. For one thing, Macilwain wrote, science communication in the U.S. is plagued by “bitter social and political division over stem-cell research, global warming, creationism and much else besides. A US Science Media Centre would either avoid these highly partisan issues — and face irrelevance — or step right into them, and take a level of heat that the UK SMC has never experienced.”

Furthermore, Macilwain argues, “US journalists, justifiably or not, have higher self-regard than their British counterparts and are likely to take strong issue with the ‘churnalism’ aspects of the SMC. Under pressure as US reporters may be, they don’t want to share ‘pooled’ quotes.”

Those are good arguments. But not necessarily fatal ones.

Counterpoint

Julia Moore, a former director of legislative and public affairs for the National Science Foundation, is a member of the exploratory committee for an SMC in the U.S. In April of last year, Moore wrote a rebuttal to Macilwain’s piece, which was posted on the exploratory committee’s web site.

“It is precisely because of the bitter contention in the United States over issues such as climate change, stem-cell research and evolution that we need a science media centre now more than ever,” Moore argued. “Successful science media centres in other countries have demonstrated that they improve civic discourse, because journalists are better informed about the science behind the controversies. Policy-makers can make decisions based on the best available science, and citizens can make smarter personal life choices and engage in serious political dialogue.”

I hope that’s true. Anything that facilitates good coverage of science issues is welcome, in my opinion. But a lot of time has passed since April 2012, so I contacted Moore – who, like all members of the exploratory committee, serves in a purely voluntary capacity – to gauge the prospects of an SMC in the States.

Where Things Stand Now

I think it’s fair to say that the exploratory committee is currently trying to address two fundamental questions: 1). How an SMC in the U.S. might work; and 2). How to pay for it.

On the latter point, Moore told me that the committee is currently trying to establish the SMC as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and trying to identify potential funding sources for the project.

But, Moore says, “the exploratory committee also is engaged in reaching out—through our various professional networks—to journalists, science leaders, public information officers, government, industry, professional societies, etc.—to determine whether the need exists for a SMC in this country.” Further, Moore notes, the committee is trying to determine how an SMC could “operate as an independent organization whose goal is to help enable and expand quality science reporting.”

What Moore did not say – or even imply – was that a key challenge for the SMC would be to avoid becoming a political football as a result of anything it might say (or not say) in regard to contentious issues such as climate change or genetically modified crops. But, while Moore did not say that, I will. (In fact, I just did.) After ~10 years of covering environmental policy issues as a reporter in DC, I feel comfortable saying that such a center would almost certainly be a political target at some point. However, I think that is simply the cost of doing business, and should not be a barrier to the creation of an SMC. If being a potential target for political mudslinging was a meaningful deterrent, nothing would ever get done.

I would love to see an SMC in the U.S. I think it could be a valuable resource, particularly for “general assignment” reporters who find themselves facing scientific questions and without adequate time to find a bevy of expert sources before their deadline. For dedicated science reporters, it would likely be less useful, since they (hopefully) have an established collection of sources they can turn to. But, alas, most news outlets now employ fewer full-time science reporters (if they still employ any).

So, readers, what do you think? If you’re reading this blog, you presumably have an interest in science communication. Would an SMC work in the U.S.? Would it be useful? Who might be able to pay for it? I want to know what you think. And, presumably, the exploratory committee would too.


9 Responses to “Will the U.S. Get a Science Media Center? Maybe.”

  1. Sarah Boon (@SnowHydro) Reply | Permalink

    We do have an SMC in Canada (SMCC), but it's a bit of an odd entity. A lot of people haven't heard of it, they don't accredit well known science bloggers, and they aren't as dynamic/active as we might hope. Still - it's better than having nothing.
    Comparing the Cdn and UK SMCs, however, it seems the latter is much more active and engaged. That would be the model I'd think is most effective for promoting science expertise in news gathering, and for being pro-active about engaging the media with real science. Given that there are fewer science sections in mainstream media now than there were in the 80s, it's important to explicitly show the relevance of science across news 'beats' to show its relevance on a larger scale.

  2. K. Benson Reply | Permalink

    I just blogged at Reporting on Health about issues when reporting RCTs and EBM and gave as an example a New York Times journalist who went the extra mile to report a controversial issue properly. Unfortunately, the SMC UK was involved in "spinning" this particular RCT, They chose to provide only experts who agreed with the authors. No mention was made of safety concerns or other issues regarding the results. They also failed to provide the relevant conflict of interest information for authors and sources.

    Whether this decision was related to the point of view of a former board member is not known, but transparency regarding the connection and other conflicts of interest, particularly when there is scientific controversy, is critical in order for such a center to be credible for U.S. journalists.

  3. Holly Menninger Reply | Permalink

    To some extent, here in the US, scientific professional societies have created resources/dedicated staff time to link reporters to experts on particularly important scientific (medical, environmental, etc) issues - See for example, the Ecological Society of America's Rapid Response Team: http://www.esa.org/pao/rrt/ - This is a good start, but does not provide across-the-issues coverage like one might get with an SMC.

  4. John Timmer Reply | Permalink

    I actually reached out to them the first time i heard this being discussed - said they needed more people in the online arena, would be happy to help myself and connect them with other people in the field, offered to help out in other ways.

    The response has been complete silence. Maybe they have some issue with me personally, but if they're reaching out, i'd like to know who they're reaching out to.

    • Julia Moore Reply | Permalink

      Dear John,

      I believe we met at last year's AAAS meeting. If you want to talk more about the Science Media Center exploratory committe, please contact me or reach out to other committee members.

      Thanks, Julia Moore
      mooreblaney@gmail.com

  5. Tim Cross Reply | Permalink

    I'm one of the Economist's science reporters. Since we're a weekly rather than a daily there's no pressure to engage in the kind of churnalism that Macilwain is talking about. But I still find the SMC useful now and again, especially when I'm covering a story from a field that I'm personally not very familiar with. They can usually suggest someone with experience of whatever it is you're writing about, and that person can serve as a jumping-off point for your research.

    It does more than simply providing pooled quotes, is what I'm saying.

  6. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Thanks for your input, Tim. It's good to stress that point. I hope I made it clear in the post that one of the SMC's roles is "connecting reporters who have questions about specific scientific topics with scientists who are experts in the relevant fields." That seems, to me, the most useful of their functions.

Leave a Reply


− five = 4