Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Value of Good Communication Between Science Journalists and PIOs

Writing is a critical part of science communication, both for general audiences and for expert ones.  Science journalists, public information officers (PIOs) working for universities and other institutions, and scientists themselves – among others – do this writing. I started my career doing research in astrophysics, trying to master the dry, technical writing favored by academic journals. I then changed course, and for the last 13 years I have worked in publicity with NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory, helping to turn technical writing – that not many people understand – into writing that many people understand. Although I started as an astrophysicist, I’m now closer to being a PIO.

During this second career I’ve developed a keen interest in science writing and science communication, along with the interface between science journalists and PIOs and others working in publicity. Therefore, I have been fascinated by the recent discussion at Undark magazine of “A Looming Rift in Science Journalism” by Aleszu Bajak and “Science Journalists Vs. Public Information Officers” by Paul Raeburn regarding “recent disagreements over who should control the professional group to which they both belong”. The professional group of interest is the National Association of Science Writers, which contains both science journalists and PIOs. However, only journalists can be officials, a controversial point for PIOs, whose membership fees provide a significant source of income for NASW. In his article Raeburn suggests having a splinter organization called The National Association of Science Journalists”. This would solve some problems, but I think it would have some important drawbacks, as I discuss here. [Note, I have never been a member of NASW, but think my outsider’s perspective may be of interest].

Earle Holland, an accomplished, now-retired PIO, explains in one of the many excellent comments to both articles (73 at last count for the Bajak article and 23 at last count for the Raeburn article) that it’s important to keep PIOs and journalists together in NASW so they can learn from each other. I agree. If there is a splinter association for science journalists, I fear that a large fraction of science journalists would leave NASW and they would become even more separate from PIOs than before, possibly increasing friction and a lack of understanding between them.

A personal example of useful science journalist/PIO communication comes from the now-defunct Science Online meetings. I attended the second-to-last meeting in 2013 and listened to many authors and science journalists discussing their craft. A highlight was meeting and working with Nadia Drake, a terrific science writer for National Geographic and other outlets. We led a discussion of how press releases could be improved from a science journalist’s point of view. This led to several blog posts, one written by me and one written by Nadia before the meeting, plus a follow-up post and some useful reflection on how we do publicity with Chandra.

Conflicts of Interest

Here’s another example of useful science journalist/PIO communication. David Dobbs – a writer I have great respect for – commented on Raeburn’s article, writing about the problem he would face if PIOs were to become NASW officers:
“I must leave because some of the publications I write for stipulate that I cannot be a member of organizations in which membership might create apparent conflicts of interest “[COI]. 
This is something that I had never considered before and sounds like an insurmountable problem. However, as Pete Farley pointed out in a follow-up comment:
“…it would be helpful for this conversation if you [David Dobbs] or someone else could provide a real-life sample of the contractual language you describe.”
I agree with Pete Farley that this would be helpful, especially because I have several naive questions – I’m definitely no COI expert – about the details. First, it isn’t clear to me that having one or a handful of PIOs as NASW officers can potentially create a bigger COI than having dozens or hundreds of PIOs as non-officer members of NASW, with their many different employers. In any particular case there might be several non-officer members generating the possible COI rather than just one officer. My point is why wasn’t this a problem before? Sure, the individual officers have more power than non-officers, but Dobbs’ statement above doesn’t make a distinction between different types of members. Is there a threshold of membership status where one goes from not being a potential COI to becoming one? What about members who are at an intermediate level, such as on the NASW board?

Second, I can imagine COI occurring for science journalists being NASW members, both officials or otherwise. For example, what if you see press coverage by other news organizations arguing that a new science result is a breakthrough? However, this story happens to be in a field you know about from previous stories and you find, by talking to your expert contacts, that the result is very likely wrong. Think of arsenic life and Carl Zimmer’s Slate story, for example. You start writing your story but then find that a New York Times or Washington Post writer also did some careful investigation, uncovering important details such as fraud or COI, that you didn’t discover, again casting serious doubt on the original stories. Wouldn’t you want to mention that in your story? But, if New York Times or Washington Post reporters are members of NASW and more specifically if a member happen to be the one who wrote the good investigative story, does that create a COI?

What about working on a story about the commercialization of space and wanting to write positively about the Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin? If writers from the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post are members of NASW, is that a COI? There are bound to be other examples – people usually work for someone, after all.

These are real questions of mine, rather than rhetorical ones, as I haven’t given this sort of COI much thought. Although these examples are indirect, I’m not sure that anyone can be immune to COI, by joining a large association with a diverse membership. Resorting to full disclosure seems to be a commonly-used remedy to this problem. Do some publications specifically bar the use of full disclosure statements for apparent COI?

Respect for PIO work

I won’t join the “angry turn in some of the comments” as Paul Raeburn puts it, but I often suspect that science journalists think PIOs automatically exaggerate and distort science results. This can sometimes stem from casual rather than malicious remarks. For a personal and minor example, look at the comment-section discussion between Ann Finkbeiner – another writer I have great respect for – and me in a 2012 blog post titled “Trust no one, and other lessons I learned from physics reporters” written by Erika Check Hayden, at The Last Word on Nothing (LWON) blog. Erika Check Hayden mentions a comment by Ann Finkbeiner in her article:
“LWON’s own Ann Finkbeiner says she largely trusts physicists, because they demand highly significant statistical results. But, she adds, “all this believability and trust is called off when the subject has political implications” – as happens frequently with federally funded labs and agencies.”
I work for a federally funded observatory and I responded to Ann’s comment pointing out that there are many different motivations for doing publicity and it’s important to remember that poor publicity can damage the reputations of scientists and institutions. Ann then responded by saying:
“And maybe the problem I’m having is less with the institutions than with the “PR machines” you talk about. Big breakthroughs, farthest whatnots, tantalizing hints of particles – and I know if I call the actual scientist, I’m going to hear, “Well, yeah. That’s sorta 2 sigma.””
 This led to an even longer comment from me – polite but perhaps tinged with self-defensiveness – explaining that we require results to be more significant that 2-sigma to do a release. I also gave more details about the importance of maintaining a good reputation in doing publicity, including the need to have scientists cooperate with us for future stories. I also point out that, like umpiring in sports, publicity efforts tend to be ignored when a good job is done and panned when mistakes are made. This can lead to a distorted view of PIO work. This discussion happened online, but I think it’s even better if it happens in person, at meetings like NASW.

These interactions are why I’d like to see science journalists and PIOs in the same room, even if it’s just once a year. We have a lot to learn from each other. Previously I wasn’t motivated to join NASW but now that I’ve heard PIOs make up a substantial fraction of membership, rather than the tiny fraction I’d assumed, I’ve changed my mind. However, if it’s just PIOs talking to other PIOs, and I don’t have the opportunity to meet fine writers like David Dobbs, Ann Finkbeiner, Paul Raeburn and Aleszu Bajak, my motivation to join would diminish.

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