Thomas R. O'Donnell

Just the facts, ma’am (and sir): Website offers valid science to reporters and the public

In STEM on September 3, 2018 at 8:20 am
A page from Science comics, circa 1939, when newspapers warned of a mad scientist rampage – and the president trusted the FBI. Via the Digital Comic Musem.

A page from Science comics, circa 1939, when newspapers warned of a mad scientist rampage – and the president trusted the FBI. Via the Digital Comic Museum.

If you’re looking for it, there’s good science news reporting everywhere. There’s a long list of science blogs (this is only a few), many written by researchers themselves. There also are innumerable podcasts and videos – some authoritative, some not.

But unless you’re seeking such information, you probably won’t see it. Science coverage in general-interest publications, like newspapers, is almost nonexistent. (Exceptions include the USA Today section in Gannett papers around the country, which often has a science story anchoring its cover, and the New York Times Tuesday section.) Most media can no longer afford reporters who specialize in science.

So what’s a local newspaper or television station to do when science issues burst onto the scene? How can they answer readers’ questions about whether the latest flood or wildfire is related to climate change? How can they address the latest discovery at their local university and gauge its importance?

A nascent website, financed through donations grants from foundations, offers those local reporters quick, scientifically valid and understandable explanations on these issues, free of charge. Its organizers were in Iowa recently to promote the effort and attract both reporters and the scientists who can help them.

SciLine.org has been operating for several months with in-kind support from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s leading general scientific society, and benefactors philanthropic grants. Much of its staff was in Des Moines recently as part of a tour of universities and institutions. I met them at a gathering co-sponsored by the Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The audience included several local journalists plus professors and administrators from the university.

SciLine director Rick Weiss, a former Washington Post science writer, told me the site is a “response in part to the problem that journalists are disappearing – specialty journalists are disappearing,” taking with them knowledge and understanding of science issues and the scientific process. As a result, someone who may have covered a city council meeting yesterday may be thrown into covering an epidemic of concussions in high school athletes today.

SciLine logoSciLine gives them a quick way to get the facts. Its services include on-line media briefings with panels of experts on science topics in the news (such as extreme weather events). Reporters can join the video call to get background on the issue.

More importantly, the site also matches journalists seeking information on specific science subjects with corresponding experts. “We work with scientists who are really good communicators,” Weiss said. SciLine staff members make the connections, even on deadline. “Reporters know they don’t have to make cold calls to find the right experts.”

Scientists, meanwhile, can register as a source willing to speak with reporters. SciLine staff members check credentials, such as publications, and whether the source has had media training before adding them to the list.

Charles Nelson, a Drake astronomy professor, said some scientists are skeptical of speaking to the press, especially via unfiltered contacts. “Reporters, they’re a pushy lot and they’ll get on the phone” at inconvenient times. Some may have less-than-pure motives, conning legitimate scientists into appearing on programs about pseudoscience like alien life or Bigfoot. SciLine, Nelson said, offers a mechanism for interacting with the media, perhaps making researchers less wary. By the end of the evening he was ready to sign up.

Weiss shares Nelson’s hesitancy over connecting scientists with questionable media outlets. SciLine won’t act as intermediary for those demonstrating an agenda or history of twisting or sensationalizing the facts. But “if you’re working for a website that has some eyeballs on it, I want you to have the best information.”

Weiss says SciLine is different from other sites such as ProfNet, a longstanding service now owned by the PR Newswire press release distribution service. They often charge institutions to have their faculty listed as sources. “Those are the people [the institutions] want you to talk to, not necessarily the best” sources, Weiss said. At SciLine, “we’re not beholden to anyone” and will connect media with the best available experts.

“We’re artisanally connecting you,” he laughed.

But what also makes SciLine different – and useful for nonjournalists – is its third service: fact sheets on hot-button science issues. They’re “designed to be used by a reporter who’s kind of hair-on-fire” pressed to meet deadline but needs solid, easy-to-grasp and scientifically vetted information, Weiss said. But the average citizen also can turn to them for quick, reliable background on topics they may hear about in the news – or at the local café.

I’m skeptical, however, about whether SciLine can make a difference in changing the discussion surrounding science. Disseminating accurate information hasn’t changed the minds of antivaccination activists or climate change deniers, for instance. Weiss acknowledged the general failure of the deficit model, but is hopeful that having a set of scientifically verified facts at reporters’ fingertips will help nonetheless.

“Unfortunately, today the mere idea of science and that there is such a thing as evidence has become political,” he said. SciLine is designed to counter that notion.

Even if we can’t agree on solutions to science-related issues, we can agree on the facts – I hope. SciLine is one way of assuring we all have the same, scientifically valid evidence. That has benefits.

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