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Journalism teaches the public about science, but who’s teaching the journalists?

Science needs a better image and better science journalism is part of the answer. Journalist image from

MATHS AND SCIENCE EDUCATION: We’ve asked our authors about the state of maths and science education in Australia and its future direction. Today Kayt Davies looks at the connection between respecting science and good science communication.

What happens in the field of scientific endeavour is pipetted to us by the media. But from lab to media outlet, the formula is a tricky one. Journalists’ skill, the knowledge of their audience and the complexity of the science all go into the mix.

The end product ultimately affects how the public sees science, and that includes students in schools and universities.

But there are two big challenges – first is to teach scientists to communicate about their field of expertise. But the second is to help media practitioners to communicate to a wide range of audiences about a wide range of scientific topics, in short time frames and in few words. While progress is being made to help scientists communicate better, less is being done to help journalists, who often have little science education beyond their vague memories of high school lessons.

Effective science journalism matters because government decisions affect scientific work. If the democratic machinery is working, government decisions should follow public opinion - which, in turn, should follow good fourth estate journalism. The public then can understand why science matters, and track whether research is reasonably funded and/or conducted ethically.

Done properly, science journalism serves other functions as well. It facilitates public conversations, it helps build community narratives and it can inspire people to join the great human endeavour to collectively solve problems.

Its role in regards to science education is to shine a light on the inspirational cutting edge, illustrating why understanding magnetism, photosynthesis and trigonometry might be useful one day and why it may be worth paying attention in class.

This leads to the question – are journalists communicating science properly? Many argue that journalists routinely murder science, in the ways that Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre has been using as column fodder for years. The lively comment streams on Slashdot’s daily offerings are further proof.

While some of this criticism is deserved because journalism has been done badly, sometimes the journalists are not personally to blame and the problem is the product of an unhealthy social and political configuration that is divisive and dumbing-down science.

To understand this better we can look at what sort of people become journalists. They’re mostly folks who love words and not numbers - and who fell into artsy side of the arts vs science divide that starts to manifest in high school. This means it can’t be assumed that they understand confidence intervals, Schrödinger’s cat or how long a series of clinical trials is likely to take. This means there are questions they don’t ask, and explanations they don’t give.

As University of Technology Sydney’s Spinning the Media project showed, most science and technology stories that get a run in the media start their journeys as media releases – and therefore someone is standing to benefit from their publication. It’s troubling how many of these get published unmolested by journalists who can’t tell scientific spin from fact.

In addition, the ways journalists change media releases is often worrying. The standard journalistic approach to stories that are not screamingly time sensitive is to add “human interest”, usually by portraying the toiling scientist as an unsung hero celebrating a Eureka moment of world-changing significance.

This stereotype gives the impression that to be a success in science you need a heroic constitution and a fairy godmother, rather than a solid grasp of the big concepts. This is not quite the inspiration that science teachers may hope for.

Faced with these criticisms, journalists claim that the problem with science is that although it continually reshapes the world, it’s boring and not very newsworthy because it’s slow and incremental. There’s also a limit to what you can say about the innovative edge of any field without a whole lot of back-story to get an audience who can’t remember their high school science to appreciate why it matters.

This leaves media that produces short articles for broad target audiences stuck in terms of what it can say about scientific progress. Its current format doesn’t give it much room to move, and as a result the fragments of its audience who are interested in science are finding information about it elsewhere, like IFL Science (run by LabX Media Group) which now has 5.7 million followers.

These and other forward-thinking adaptive media outlets are using infographics, animations and links to glossaries and explainers to get around the problem of mixed levels of science literacy and to tell science stories in ways that break the old narrative molds. They also use humour, interactivity, in-crowd language and a sense of awe to cultivate interest in their offerings and reader loyalty.

These are the tactics of blossoming niche media production and it’s currently the healthier side of the media business. The danger inherent in this trend is that it creates sub-communities with different shared knowledges and neglects the village square, fragmenting society. And, if left unchecked, it will take us towards a situation where either a Lippman-esque ruling elite governs a bewildered herd, or towards the dystopia of Idiocracy.

The solution is better science education for everyone, including journalists.

This is the tenth part of our series Maths and Science Education.

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