Research-based tips for reporting on science research


November 22, 2019

When journalists cover academic research, they often face the challenge of explaining complex scientific findings in a way the public trusts and understands.

Fittingly enough, there are researchers dedicated to the study of just that, producing knowledge that may help journalists better communicate other research findings.

Dietram A. Scheufele, the Taylor-Bascom Chair in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studies this topic.

His recent paper, “Science Audiences, Misinformation, and Fake News,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April 2019, highlights some of the biggest challenges in science communication, including declining public trust in the news media.

Earlier this month, Scheufele, who’s also an affiliate at the Morgridge Institute for Research and who served as a fellow at Journalist’s Resource’s academic home, the Shorenstein Center, in fall 2010, spoke about ways to communicate science effectively as part of a panel discussion at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting in Philadelphia.

Afterward, I followed up with him to ask how the media can help improve the public’s understanding of scientific research. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Some of Scheufele’s main takeaways:

  • Understand that terms that are now part of the common lexicon, such as “climate change,” or “gun control,” are the product of strategic framing. Framing is a tool used to explain complex topics by connecting them to already existent modes of thought and interpretation, for example through metaphor or specific vocabulary.
  • Be mindful of how the media’s repetition of these terms might influence readers’ interpretation of an issue. For example, Scheufele explained that some people might associate the term “gun control” with a threat to their rights, whereas they might interpret “gun safety” differently — as the broad concept of avoiding gun accidents or mass shootings.
  • Journalists should explain how policy makers and communications experts frame — and counter-frame — issues to provide context and perspective to readers.
  • Consider reporting what the larger body of academic research indicates rather than a single study. Journalists, university communications offices and scientists all have been known to contribute to the so-called “single study” problem, prioritizing exceptional individual studies over larger patterns of findings.
  • Beware that excessive press coverage of attacks against the media might exacerbate the issue, making the public less trusting of journalism.

Chloe Reichel: To get started, I want to pick up back where we left off at the APHA session. So you talked a bit about framing and how it’s so important because it influences how we interpret facts… I’m wondering what your tips are for journalists, on how to frame scientific research in a way that promotes science but also doesn’t land them in a spot of being accused of bias.

Dietram Scheufele: Framing… allows all of us to constantly make sense of the world, explain issues effectively, by basically making a complex topic applicable to a mental schema — call it a mental shelf, to use a different metaphor.

So it allows us to put it on one shelf that we already know and we interpret it in a particular way.

So, what does that mean for journalists? It means on the one hand, it’s really important to understand how carefully framed many of the messages are that come from different players in the policy arena, and that’s not any different for politics than it is for scientific issues. And really not blindly following a particular terminology.

CR: I’m wondering what you would say to the people who continue to push back when they hear the Guardian use “climate crisis,” or when they see “gun control” and they automatically assume that the writer just wants to abolish the Second Amendment.

DS: “Climate change” is a really good one. When [scientist and environmental policy professor] John Holdren … joined the [then-President Barack] Obama Office of Science and Technology Policy, he pushed somewhat for changing the wording and talking about “global climate disruption.” Also, to get away from this idea that this is either about warming or about just change but that is really going to disrupt everything from airplane travel to everything else. And Fox News pushed back pretty quickly and said, look you’re basically reframing the topic in order to push certain policy stances.

And I think this is where journalists have to be very careful, in terms of endorsing one term or the other. And you know that’s not any different for “gun control” and “gun safety,” than it is for the “death tax” or the “estate tax,” or for “exploring for energy” or “drilling for oil.” These are all intentionally-chosen terms.

Now if I start changing the language as a journalist, and I change it intentionally, I need to ask myself, why am I doing this? Am I doing this in order to raise awareness about an issue? And am I doing this to draw attention from readers to this issue — which I think is a very important purpose of journalism — or am I doing this in order to promote certain policy outcomes, because I think that we need to have certain types of policy proposals passed? And then I think, journalists leave themselves a little bit more vulnerable to partisan attacks if they do the latter.

I think, ultimately, the solution is twofold. One is to be very careful in what frames we end up adopting, especially if it means a change to the common vernacular.

But I think number two is, one tool that we’re underutilizing, if you look at most of the experiments on framing, they really depend on you only hearing one term versus the other. So some of the work that Daniel Kahneman had done back in the 70s that he won a Nobel Prize for in 2002 in economics, they depend on you not seeing the counter frame. You only see one of the two frames and most framing experiments actually show that very clearly. You know if you hear “gun control” all the time you have one view here and “gun safety” all the time you have another view. But we have very little data and I think this is where it’s good journalism comes in, it says, look, you’re being offered different interpretations with these different terms and engaging with the idea that different frames are designed from different political players, are designed to produce different outcomes, ultimately, is a matter of really helping citizens navigate public discourse.

CR: In your paper, you talk about how in surveys, only 1 in 10 Americans express a great deal of confidence in the press and about 3 in 4 think that the biggest problem with news about scientific research findings is the way news reporters cover it. And then you go on to discuss false balance and other ways that trust in the media is being undermined. But just getting back to reporting on scientific research findings, do you have suggestions for what journalists could do to communicate them in a way that audiences are more likely to find credible?

DS: This is as much of a problem with journalism as it is with how universities communicate about their research, and scientists themselves. The idea that we overemphasize individual studies over the larger patterns of findings that we have.

But we don’t believe in gravity because Newton dropped an apple. We believe in gravity because there have been hundreds and thousands of studies in I don’t know how many settings, at the planetary level and at the electron level, that have looked at the same principles. And so after those, now we’re pretty confident that this is a larger pattern.

As much as we can, we should focus in our coverage on what larger bodies of research tell us and not obsess too much about over what an individual study tells us. Because when that study gets retracted later, or when there’s another study that contradicts that study that says coffee’s good for you and says coffee is not good for you, that’s exactly when we potentially lose trust from readers.

I think the reason why the pattern is also important is because we’re going to be talking about things like replication. Questions about replication and reproducibility in psychology, for instance — how do we get across the idea that some of the processes of us constantly proving ourselves wrong is actually built into science?

Unless we’re able to communicate some of those internal self-corrective processes, we shouldn’t be surprised if there’s potentially some people in the public asking questions about, to which degree science is going the way it’s supposed to or not. And so I think it’s really important for scientists, public Information officers and science journalists to all pay attention to this issue.

The last thing that I’ll say about this, and I think it’s a really important one, especially for those of us in academia:  Science journalists, their job is not to be cheerleaders for science. Their job is not to translate and take the science that universities do and bring it to the public. Their job is to cover science as one democratic institution that we have; this is our best way of pushing frontiers of knowledge.

But their job is to cover that the way they would cover any other institution, meaning with a watchful eye toward what’s really going right, what’s exciting, and a watchful eye toward what sometimes may be going wrong, or, where the public should be paying attention. So I think part of our problem also comes from us — and by us meaning, various groups in the in the general public — having a warped understanding of what a science journalist’s job actually is.

CR: You also write in your paper that the media might be undermining itself through the discussion of “fake news” or mis- and disinformation. I thought that was an interesting point and spurs a number of questions, chief of mind wondering how the media could do a better job of covering attacks against the press.

DS: I think your assessment is totally right; it’s a Catch-22 to some degree. It’s not that you cannot write about it. But at the same time, the more you write about it, the more you amplify a message that’s ultimately designed to undermine your own work.

One of the things that the [Donald] Trump administration, in particular … has been really good at, is what in communications we call “agenda building,” so, influencing what ends up being covered by the press.

And, personally, I’ve seen very few Trump tweets talking about fake news on his Twitter feed, because I don’t follow it carefully enough; neither do most other people. But I’ve seen those tweets on CNN coverage, I’ve seen them on New York Times and Washington Post web pages. So I’ve basically seen the amplified effect through traditional news media. And the point that we’re making in the article is, it’s totally fine to acknowledge the fact that the Trump administration probably is not particularly fond of the news media, and is trying to undermine its credibility in order to be able to work around them or without them. But that doesn’t mean that I need to repeat and amplify and give a very broad forum to every tweet that keeps repeating that.

For more, check out our tip sheets on how to write about health research and viral nutrition research. We also have a resource on selecting and reporting on medical studies.


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