A ‘Sea Change’ in Findings from 1,300 Researchers?

Research scientists and journalists may be interacting lots more than generally thought, and the scientists’ experiences, at least, may be “far smoother” than generally thought.

That’s the gist of a new research report based on a survey of more than 1,300 researchers in the U.S., France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

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Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison’s Sharon Dunwoody

“Scientists actually see rewards in this process, not just pitfalls,” University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor and study co-author Sharon Dunwoody said in a statement. She and her colleagues, who published the survey results (pdf) in Science, pointed to what she called a “sea change” in scientist/journalist relations, now “more frequent and far smoother than the anecdotal horror stories scientists routinely share.”

The survey included responses from 358 U.S. scientists but did not deal specifically with climate science. Dunwoody said in a phone interview that the study found few differences in scientists’ perspectives from country to country.

“The results of the poll are generally good news for both scientists and journalists,” the University of Wisconsin press statement said. But it added that “in some fields where social controversy is more acute – climate science and evolutionary biology – for example, surveys might paint a different picture.” The researchers noted also that their study found that scientists contacted by journalists tend to be more senior and “more productive researchers, suggesting that journalists do a better job than scientists think of finding the best people to talk to.”

Dunwoody said the scientists surveyed “are quite savvy in their interactions” with journalists and knowledgeable about the workings of the media generally. Nonetheless, she acknowledged also that many scientists “still view the practice of journalism as incompatible with scientific culture,” a perception she and her colleagues find “more nuanced than in the past.”

In a phone interview, Dunwoody said many scientists long had appeared “to have bought into the argument that these interactions with journalists are very difficult and stressful.” She used the term “sea change” to characterize what she and her colleagues found to be an increased awareness on the part of scientists of positive rewards resulting from their interactions with the media and nonscientific audiences.

“We have never had good systematic evidence for that,” Dunwoody said. “Now we do.” She said she is optimistic that a growing number of scientists will no longer feel they are entitled – that they have “cultural permission,” as she put it – to remain ignorant of media practices. Instead, they “increasingly recognize their public responsibilities and their need to communicate,” Dunwoody said.

Commenting on the Dunwoody et. al study, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker cautioned that journalists should not be overly gleeful with the study results.

“If only about 60 percent of researchers are satisfied with their experiences with the press (in two areas, epidemiology and stem cell research), that means 40 percent or so are neutral or unhappy – and that’s per encounter. It doesn’t take a very high ratio of getting burned to drive a general hostility to the press.”

The Tracker noted also that most science writing does not involve exposé-type coverage, in which reporters “expect their subjects to be upset …. Mostly, on this beat, one hopes one’s sources are content, happy even. Mostly, too, that’s how it turns out.”

If there is such a “sea change,” Tracker Editor and veteran science writer Charlie Petit wrote, perhaps it’s because the research scientists’ deans and other bosses “have been telling them for some time that it’s good for getting grants or for business. That is, they need us more. They may not like us more.”

Commenting on coverage of the research, Dunwoody said there has been “relatively little” coverage in U.S. media, but “lots” in Germany and the United Kingdom. She said the study results often are treated not so much as news, but rather as “very useful information for people who have to engage in these processes …. A lot of people are making use of the findings in service to their work and not necessarily as ‘news,’” she said.

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Bud Ward

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...