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Communications

Relative peace

Relationship between scientists and journalists has improved, but could get even better

Jornalismo_Scan1028NegreirosSecond in a series of articles on science journalism to be published in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the premier issue of the bulletin Notícias FAPESP, which later became this magazine, for the purpose of discussing the sometimes difficult relationship between scientists and journalists.  The first article, published in the August issue, profiled the work of pioneers Júlio Abramczyk and José Hamilton Ribeiro.

In 2008, Ana Lúcia Azevedo, then science editor of O Globo newspaper, was tasked with quickly pulling together an article to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Portuguese royal family’s arrival in Rio de Janeiro.  The historian she called to set up an interview about the subject agreed with her plan for the article and then told her, “Come in two months.”

She had hoped to schedule the interview for that day or the next.  Faced with that impossibility, she located another expert, who was able to see her immediately.  Academic researchers have gradually come to recognize the importance of communicating with a wider audience, but there are still some differences with regard to timing and expectations in the relationship between scientists and journalists.

“It used to be a lot harder than it is now,” says Azevedo, a 22-year veteran science editor and, since May 2015, special reporter on scientific, environmental and medical topics.  “Before, researchers just did not want to talk.  Today, they’re much more receptive, especially the younger ones.”  Only once did a young researcher impose a series of conditions to be agreed upon before giving an interview:  the journalist refused to accept them and appealed to the researcher’s supervisor, “an extremely polite Englishman, and the article came out very well,” she recalls.

“There has been a marked improvement in the last 10 years in terms of the media’s attitude with regard to science,” notes physicist  Paulo Artaxo, a professor at the Physics Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP).  “In general, reporters today seem better prepared to formulate more intelligent questions.  Before, questions were very basic, like ‘Is it true that the planet is getting warmer?’.  Today they ask ‘How do you assess Brazil’s strategies for combating the impacts of climate change?’.”

Artaxo has extensive experience and a rare ability for speaking with journalists.  His cordiality and warmth, however, have not entirely prevented mishaps.  Several times, he received reporters who had just gotten assigned to interview a climate change expert.  “They asked me: ‘Professor, what do I need to ask you,’?  he says.  “That’s when the interview becomes a fiasco.”

Jornalismo_Scan1029NegreirosAnother issue arises when an interview starts out well, but then reveals an implicit political shift towards an approach he disagrees with and about which he would never voluntarily make a statement.  “I no longer give interviews to some print media because I know that what will come out is what the editor wants and not what I really said,” he has decided, after seeing that requests for corrections were unwelcome.  He once called a magazine reporter and said that what had been published was not exactly what he had said.  “And the reported told me, ‘that’s how I understood it’,” Artaxo says.

“The person who composes the title is not the one who writes the article,” says Esper Cavalheiro, a professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp). He acknowledges that journalists today are better prepared and already know more about how science works, although he has also had his share of disappointments.  Several years ago, he gave an interview when he began using a convulsant compound to induce epilepsy in laboratory animals.  “And the title of the piece ended up being something like: ‘Study looks for anticonvulsant drugs,” he recalls.

Other conflicts have arisen out of careless use of language or the problem of finding a common language.  Cavalheiro makes a point to always say “individual with epilepsy” yet  newspapers always have him using the word “epileptic” or “carrier of epilepsy,” terms that he abhors.  “And then my patients come to me and ask, ‘Did you change your mind?’  I would never say that.  We have to be careful about the words the public is going to read.”

Tensions between journalists and scientists – while much lower these days due to more mature relations, concessions granted by both sides and mutual understanding – will likely always exist because the two groups work by different rules and at different rhythms, notes Alicia Ivanissevich, executive editor of Ciência Hoje, a hybrid scientific journal that contains reports and news submitted by journalists as well as articles written by researchers.  “It’s a positive tension that forces us to do our own research, to simplify without being simplistic, and to try to put ourselves in the readers’ shoes.”

As editor of Ciência Hoje for the past 18 years, she along with the science editors, receives and reviews articles by scientists for possible publication.  “The articles often contain a huge number of errors, in subjects the scientists should be experts in.  There are errors in content, interpretation of graphs, scientific names, methodology; all kinds of things,” she says.  “Sometimes I wonder if the error was passed on to the journalist because the scientist was lazy or simply too sure of himself. Just as there are good and bad journalists, there are good and bad scientists.”  Careful handling of the text during the process of revision is what ensures article quality.  “Most scientists recognize the positive involvement on the part of journalists,” she says.  “Currently, 90% of authors express their appreciation for the edits and the coverage.”

Three researchers from the Netherland’s University of Twente interviewed 21 biomedical scientists and 14 science journalists to analyze the advantages, disadvantages and difficulties involved in communicating with a broader audience than that in academia.  According to the May 2015 study published in the Journal of Science Communication, scientists in the Netherlands believe that interactions with journalists can help increase visibility, academic prestige and the possibility of recruiting new collaborators, obtaining funding for their research studies and attracting attention to their field of study.  On the other hand, if an article is bad, it can damage a scientist’s credibility and academic status, not to mention attract negative criticism from peers.

Scientists consider it a duty to communicate their scientific research, especially when it is financed through public funds, but say that coverage of science is superficial, incomplete and tends to be sensationalistic.  To them, journalists need to know more about the subjects they write about and have more solid academic training.  In addition, media professionals often do not clearly present their intentions and are perceived as being arrogant, demanding and inflexible, although there are many differences among journalists and the publications for which they work.

Journalists, in turn, said that they generally enjoy talking to  scientists even though the latter lack the ability to communicate what they do in simple language.  Furthermore, journalists said that they had trouble finding other researchers to interview, which would explain the low level of diversity in terms of interviewees, aggravated by tight article production deadlines.  “Both journalists and scientists now understand each other’s roles better,” said Anne Dijkstra, first author of the study, to Pesquisa FAPESP.  She added that, when necessary, journalists should publicize controversial findings or discoveries, even if it means foregoing their friendly relations with the scientists.

Journalist Fabiane Cavalcanti came to the same conclusion after listening to 10 scientists and seven journalists from Recife as part of a 1993 study at the Federal University of Pernambuco.  According to the study, scientists fear that journalists’ objectivity and desire for immediacy causes them to overly simplify their work, while reporters complain that scientists are stubborn and refuse to provide information. Unifesp’s Cavalheiro is uncomfortable with the journalistic philosophy that deifies scientists who do apparently extraordinary things but then casts them aside if they commit any error.  Artaxo has also noted that journalists have trouble handling scientific uncertainty: “Science is not 100% exact.”

A more thorough understanding by journalists of the processes involved in producing scientific knowledge and – something extremely rare at Brazilian universities – training scientists to speak to the press would certainly lead to more satisfactory articles.  Biologist Guilherme Becker discovered how just a little preparation before speaking to reporters could be useful.  In 2007, he gave several interviews about the decline of amphibian populations in the Atlantic Forest, the subject of his master’s thesis at the University of   Campinas (Unicamp).  Since he did not have much practice in presenting his ideas to a non-academic audience, he did not like some of the reports that were published and thought that his interviewers were also disappointed in the results.  It was different in 2014 when he spoke with confidence to journalists from the U.S. and Brazil about his doctoral work at Cornell University (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 226).

What made him so successful the second time was a conversation he had with his advisor, Kelly Zamudio, who had introduced him to media box, a tactic she learned in a professional development course for professors that she took at Cornell.  Also called press box, media box is a script that contains the main points of the study to be presented, which helps organize one’s thoughts and maintain the focus of the conversation.  The main idea, which would hopefully become the article title of the report, should appear in a box in the center of a sheet of paper.  Above it, below it and alongside it, should be additional comments, by topic, that the researcher adds about the methodology or implications of the study, in brief, clear and simple sentences.  To reduce the risk of saying something that might be misinterpreted, Becker advises, “don’t provide a lot of details or talk too long.”

Refinements to the media box strategy include connectors, which are topics that the journalists may raise – since they now have a better understanding of the science –, and that the interviewee should avoid, returning quickly to the main or complementary ideas.  “Kelly told me that even President Obama uses media box, imagining possible comments in order to avoid falling into traps,” Becker says.  “Media training is commonplace in the Netherlands,” says Anne Dijkstra. “At my university, public relations people train the researchers who will be in contact with media.”

Scientific articles
CAVALCANTI, F. G. Jornalistas e cientistas: os entraves de um diálogo. Intercom. V. 18, No. 1, p. 140-152. 1995.
DIJKSTRA, A. M. et al. The science-media interaction in biomedical research in the Netherlands. Opinions of scientists and journalists on the science-media relationship. Journal of Science Communication. V. 14, No. 2, A03, p. 1-21. 2015.

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