A Practical Step to Bridge the Divide Between Scientists and Journalists
[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Frank Swain, a freelance science writer who has written for Wired, the Guardian and New Scientist, among other outlets. He also runs the SciencePunk blog. Since October 2011, Swain has also served as national coordinator (in the UK) for the BenchPress Project – which was established to provide reporters with training in science and statistics. I asked him to write this post, in part, because I think the BenchPress Project is very relevant to a forthcoming session at ScienceOnline 2013 on incorporating science into breaking news.]
Have you ever grumbled along with your colleagues about the state of science coverage in the press? Core principles misunderstood, numbers misrepresented? Chances are you have. But have you ever considered there might be something you could do about it?
In 2010, the experts were grumbling too. A report commissioned by the UK government found that while we enjoyed some of the best science journalists in the world, stories often fared less well when handled by generalist news reporters. This was in no small part because science and maths rarely featured on journalism training courses. In fact, many news reporters hadn’t seen a science textbook since secondary school, and most didn’t take to them much back then.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. In his 1959 Rede lecture at Cambridge, the chemist and novelist CP Snow famously lamented the segregation of humanities and science in schools, coining the “Two Cultures” description of Britain’s graduates. In over 50 years, very little has changed in that respect – except perhaps that now science, not humanities, is held up as “hard” study.
Everyone (including representatives of the media) agreed that it was important to offer journalists more in the way of science and maths. And so, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) offered to fund a small project to look at ways to deliver that training, hosted at the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) – where it would complement Getstats, a ten-year campaign to develop public understanding of statistics. This would eventually give rise to the BenchPress Project, a volunteer-led organisation that offers free workshops on science and statistics to journalism schools. Since 2011, I’ve been fortunate enough to head this initiative.
Although the BenchPress Project offers training to working journalists and press officers, the bulk of our sessions are carried out for journalism students. Here in the UK there’s been a strong shift from journalism as a trade learned on the job, to a qualification earned at college. That makes colleges a convenient point to offer science and statistical training, especially as they have the time and motivation to take in a guest lecturer. Most journalism courses are run by experienced journalists who excel in their field, but never received any kind of science or math training. They feel their students ought to know this stuff, but they don’t feel comfortable teaching it themselves.
The obvious solution was to find people who did. I recruited a dozen smart, enthusiastic post-doctoral researchers across the country, largely plucked from the British Science Association’s laudable media fellowship programme. With Dr. David Spiegelhalter (Winton Professor for Public Understanding of Risk and star of BBC 4’s “Tails You Win”) and the RSS’s David Walker (previously of the Guardian), I developed a syllabus of the key points we felt journalists ought to have a handle on, and together developed materials for the volunteers to convey that.
No one has ever turned down a free guest lecture on science and statistics. So far the project has reached over 350 people, including 70 journalists from broadsheet and tabloid press, 100 press offices, and many students, across the entire country (including Northern Ireland). By matching volunteers to nearby schools, I’ve tried to encourage relationships between course directors and scientists that will outlast my own role, so that these sessions can continue year-on-year without me. Already, the tutors are contacting and arranging guest lectures directly with the scientists, which is great. All the materials are freely available online, allowing anyone to replicate the workshops in their own area.
We don’t charge any fee to the colleges and newsrooms, which is important when everyone’s strapped for cash. It’s another reason to match scientists with local schools – it keeps down travel costs and time away from the office. For now, I can cover their expenses and supply them with materials (giant floor maps, dice, etc.) to help things along. But the future of this project lies with those scientists willing to donate their own time and energy to offer journalism students an introduction to science and statistics, outside of the confines of BIS or the RSS. “There is only one way out of all this,” CP Snow declared, “it is, of course, by rethinking our education.” I can only hope that more scientists follow our lead, and find that a helping hand, when extended, can sometimes be enough to bridge the two cultures.