The ‘Serious Scientist’ Myth: Why Do We Think Most Scientists Don’t Talk to Reporters? (They Do.)

26 August 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

This is how I feel when I think about the "Serious Scientist Myth." (Image: LaurMG)

I just read yet another paper that says most scientists actually do engage with reporters, at least once in a while. I’ve written about related findings twice in the past month, and I’m starting to wonder where people have gotten the idea that scientists don’t (or shouldn’t) talk to reporters about their work. (See previous posts here and here.)

At issue is something I’ll call the “Serious Scientist Myth.”

The Serious Scientist Myth is the idea that “serious” scientists don’t talk to reporters, or that scientists who promote their work are not dedicated researchers. I know that this idea exists (and seems to be prevalent), because I have friends and colleagues in academia (at my university and elsewhere) who are hesitant about talking to reporters because they are afraid of what their peers might think.

I am a professional science communicator who specializes in media relations, so the Serious Scientist Myth frustrates me. It also frustrates me because I think researchers should be judged based on their research, not on whether they are willing to talk to journalists. Maybe I have a naïve sense of idealism, but the idea of researchers insulting a colleague solely because the colleague got some media attention really makes me angry. And the more I learn about scientist/media relations on a large scale, the more absurd the Serious Scientist Myth seems.

So, here’s what I want to know: Where did the Serious Scientist Myth come from?

This isn’t a cute narrative trick, where I ask a question at the top of the story and then answer the question for my readers. I have no idea what the answer is. Instead, I’ll explain why I’m asking the question.

On Aug. 12, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published a paper online that is essentially a sweeping review of the literature on relations between scientists and journalists. The paper, “Gap between science and media revisited: Scientists as public communicators,” highlights the fact that there is data dating back to the 1970s showing that the majority of scientists do interact with journalists. (Full citation of the paper is below, and it’s worth reading. For one thing, I won’t be including the staggering number of citations included in the paper.)

For example, the paper notes, “in a survey of faculty members of Ohio State University and Ohio University in 1978, approximately two-thirds of the interviewed scientists reported contacts with journalists.” A 2005-06 survey reported 60-79 percent of researchers from various countries had at least some media experience in the previous three years. A 2009 AAAS survey found that 55 percent of its members had talked with reporters. At the other end of the spectrum: a survey of Italian researchers found that 49 percent of them had worked with media in the previous three years; a 2005 survey found that 23 percent of British scientists and engineers had talked to a newspaper reporter in the previous year; and a survey of Argentine researchers found that only nine percent had spoken to a newspaper reporter in the previous 12 months.

Let's make science a bully free zone. (Image: Eddie~S)

But here’s the thing: the science community often acts as if that nine percent media interaction rate is the norm – and it’s not. “Only for a few scientists are contacts with journalists a routine activity,” the paper says, “but neither are media contacts restricted to a small group of visible scientists.” Thirty years’ worth of surveys show that more than half of scientists (at least in the U.S.) talk to reporters from time to time. In other words, most U.S. scientists (and a lot of European ones) talk to reporters from time to time.

The paper also points to a 2008 article in Science reporting that 46 percent of scientists surveyed felt that media contacts had a “mostly positive” impact on their careers, whereas three percent felt that media contacts had a “mostly negative” impact. (Scientists in the U.S. reported more strongly on both positive and negative impacts: more than 50 percent reported a “mostly positive” impact, while closer to five percent reported a “mostly negative” impact. Citation below.)

That’s not universal, and other studies have found scientists less enthusiastic about media’s impact on their careers. But the positive reviews of media activity clearly outnumber the negative ones.

Further, the PNAS paper points to multiple studies showing that scientists often think media coverage isn’t clearly good or bad – and at least one study (that 2008 Science paper again) found that the majority of scientists (57 percent) were “mostly pleased” with their own interactions with reporters. (Six percent were “mostly dissatisfied.”)

So What?

I do not think that scientists have a moral obligation to talk to reporters about their work. If they can’t make the time or don’t have the inclination, that’s fine with me. But I do have a problem with researchers who denigrate their peers who do choose to interact with journalists. Bullies, as a rule, get my hackles up.

But here’s the thing about bullies: they usually only pick on other people when they’ve got strength or numbers on their side. And the data show that a majority of scientists are willing to work with reporters (regardless of whether they enjoy the experience). That means that the Myth of the Serious Scientist stems from a minority of scientists.

So, scientists who are willing to talk to reporters (even if you don’t look forward to it) – you’ve got the bullies outnumbered. Wherever the Myth of the Serious Scientist comes from (and I am genuinely curious), it appears to be busted.

Note: Citations below.

Gap between science and media revisited: Scientists as public communicators,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online Aug. 12, 2013, Hans Peters Peters. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1212745110

Interactions with the Mass Media,” Science, July 11, 2008, Hans Peters Peters, Dominique Brossard, Suzanne de Cheveigné, Sharon Dunwoody, Monika Kallfass, Steve Miller, and Shoji Tsuchida. DOI: 10.1126/science.1157780


5 Responses to “The ‘Serious Scientist’ Myth: Why Do We Think Most Scientists Don’t Talk to Reporters? (They Do.)”

  1. Sarah Boon Reply | Permalink

    I just wrote a piece where I listed the 2nd rule of academic science as 'talking to the public or media is a waste of time'. Now that I'm reading your article, I'm really questioning where that idea came from. I've heard a lot of anecdotal evidence of scientist 'shaming' for being in the media. But I'm stumped as to where the 'rule' comes from if the data don't support it.

    Perhaps it has something to do with the 'do as I say, not as I do', idea. It could be that scientists who are in the media don't want to share the limelight, while those who aren't in the media see those who are as attention-seekers.

    On a side note - here in Canada we have a relatively small science community, and it is indeed obvious that the media only talks a few of those scientists. When my field comes up in the news, I can practically predict who the media will talk to. Unfortunately, hey often use their 'go to' scientists for topics to which they're not suited.

  2. David Reply | Permalink

    Interesting thoughts, Matt. I edit an internal magazine for a large science research organisation and I'm up against this myth and its consequences all the time. After a few years in the organisation younger scientists and engineers learn to keep their heads down. An appearance in the magazine might require bringing a cake for morning tea, or a slab of beer if they're on the cover - and that's the easy consequences that they can laugh off. The undertones are more serious and it's only those with real self-confidence who are willing to stick their heads up more than once.

  3. Jared Reply | Permalink

    I think the real problem is that not enough reporters are talking to scientists (who'd love there finding to be better known and better uderstood), and few still really listen to scientists when they do talk to them -- and then maybe media outlets prefer to air things like political melodrama in favor of scince.

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