Science hacks: project distils papers for a stressed press

Free Harvard resource aims to reduce errors in reporting of research. Jon Marcus reports

July 21, 2011



Credit: Alamy
Check your notes first: Journalist's Resource offers a database of scholarly reports with brief summaries in clear language


When the American Academy of Arts and Sciences brought together scientists and journalists to discuss how science was portrayed in the media, the result was not so much a collegial laboratory collaboration as an explosive chemical reaction.

The scientists said the journalists were too simplistic, always hunting for controversy and too rarely willing to take the time to understand the nuances of their research.

The journalists retorted that, if the scientists really wanted their work to have impact, they had to be able to explain it in terms that laymen could understand.

"They're probably both right," said Paul Karoff, who, as the academy's spokesman, has to deal with both sides.

"There are good journalists, and there are lazy ones; and there are scientists who are very effective communicators and others who may be incredibly accomplished and talented but who are not as skilled at communication."

Reducing the animosity between the two groups and helping to cut the chances of mistakes and misunderstanding making their way into press reports of research is the goal of a project that was launched at Harvard University this month.

The Journalist's Resource (www.journalistsresource.org), which has been a year in the planning, is a database of scholarly reports and papers with brief, searchable summaries in clear, understandable language. The service, available free of charge, aims to cater specifically to journalists' needs.

A press-friendly format

"What we're doing is translating this work into English," said Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School, where the project is based.

"The idea was to find a way to entice journalists into deepening and bettering their reporting on all sorts of policy-related issues by giving them access to good scholarly research."

Mr Jones, who is a Pulitzer prizewinning former media reporter at The New York Times, said budget cuts in news organisations meant that journalists had even less time than they had in the past to consult peer-reviewed policy studies by government agencies, non-partisan research organisations and universities - not just Harvard, but other institutions around the world.

But even when they did have time, many journalists have never had access to "high-quality research like this, which is geared to their reporting".

Battered by the loss of readership and advertising to the internet, US newspapers have reduced their reporting staff by about 30 per cent since 2000, according to the Pew Research Center, while network television newsrooms are less than half the size they were in the 1980s.

"If it's not guaranteed news that's being made, more often than not reporters nowadays are pretty much chained to their desk and have less flexibility to be out covering their beat," Mr Karoff said.

Meanwhile, with the proliferation of misinformation masquerading as legitimate research online and on cable television news - "junk", Mr Jones called it - "we wanted a place where people could go and have confidence in the brand".

A contribution to communication

From the academics' point of view, he said, "if you do scholarly research, you do it for its own sake, but you also do it in the hope that it will help move the discussion in a positive direction. So our purpose is to make scholarly research something that journalists understand and take the trouble to use."

Harvard's motivation, he said, was that "it was something valuable that we could contribute - we're at the nexus of both these worlds."

There may be one other obstacle to overcome, however.

Some researchers in the US, Mr Karoff said, strongly resisted the idea that they should be viewed as part of popular culture, just as academics in the UK have objected to demands that they prove the wider social and economic impact of their work.

Many in the US point to examples such as the astronomer, author and television presenter Carl Sagan, and remain dismissive of any suggestion that they should follow in his footsteps as a populariser of science and become - as they put it - "Saganized".

At the meeting of scientists and journalists, Mr Karoff said, "there was some discussion among the scientists that they wanted themselves and their research to be well respected and perceived as being of high quality among their peers and within their disciplines.

"For some, being recognised and even understood by the general public is less important."

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