With http://WebMD.com, http://healthline.com, http://DiagKNOWsis.org and numerous medical consumer websites now available, more individuals are relying on them, and the evening network news for the latest media headlines to educate and guide them in their medical decisions. Now more than ever, it is important for scientists and journalists to bridge the communication divide that exists between them . In doing so, scientists will not only be able to assist the public in making better informed decisions about their healthcare, but also personally reap the benefits of increased funding for their research, enhanced career opportunities and improving the chances for further scientific breakthroughs across disciplines.
Many reading this article may have already had an experience working with a journalist covering their research. In the professional communications realm, it is frequent that individuals have had favorable and not so favorable experiences with the media. With scientists, it tends to be the latter for several reasons.
First, because research often has many detailed nuances and the media don't have the time or the space to cover all of those points. The length of the average evening news story is 70 seconds. Print stories can range anywhere from 100 word briefs to 1000 word articles, with the latter becoming more and more scarce. Therefore, the format of much of today's news coverage simply doesn't allow for detailed reporting.
Second, it can be difficult for scientists and journalists to communicate with each other because often they speak in terms the other doesn't understand. More than ever, journalists must know a little about a lot of things. They typically cover a wide variety of topics on very short deadlines. If a topic is too complex, it will simply be lost in the shuffle of the other hundreds of e-mails, phone calls and information they are inundated with on a daily basis.
These issues, coupled with the general public's (the media's readers/viewers/listeners) very limited understanding of basic science, can make it extremely difficult for scientists to get their points across in the media. In fact, a 1997 National Science Foundation study found that half the American public doesn't know that it takes a year for the Earth to rotate around the sun . If Americans have difficulty recalling that simple fact, why would we expect them to understand the complexities of scientific research and its latest discoveries?
Most journalists fall into this group too. The overwhelming majority of scientists surveyed in a First Amendment Center, Freedom Forum study felt that few in the media understand the nature of science and technology, with 72 percent saying that journalists do "face a hopeless task in explaining the complexities of science" .