Journalists, scientists in symbiosis

A forum explores some similarities between the two professions.
Monday, April 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:53 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

What are the similarities and differences between scientists and journalists, and how can they coexist in a way that benefits both groups? Two leading figures in science journalism will explore those questions at a forum today that kicks off MU’s second annual Life Sciences Week.

“Both journalists and scientists are intelligent and creative, both have chosen careers where they have an audience ... and both are focused on explaining how the world works,” says Julie Miller, an editor of Science News magazine, a weekly science publication.

Miller, who has also been the editor of the scientific journal Bioscience, said she hopes to bridge the gap between scientists and science writers by showing that scientists and journalists are more alike than different.

The combination

Many of the problems journalists have in covering science come from the difficulty in making science palatable for the average reader, she said. “The hardest aspect of science writing is being able to present a very short version of a much larger story in a very short amount of time.”

Miller said the profession of science journalism is changing: At one time, science journalists were former general assignment reporters who took an interest in science, but today many of the newcomers are trained in both journalism and science.

Sharon Dunwoody, a professor of journalism and mass communication and an associate dean at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has written three books on the relationship between scientists and journalists.

While Miller hopes to show the similarities between scientists and journalists, Dunwoody said she hopes to show how some of their differences can cause them to be at odds.

At odds

“Scientists are used to controlling information,” Dunwoody said. “But they have very little control over what journalists do.”

The cultures of journalism and science have clashed several times — for example, in cases where a scientist has tried to read a story before it was published or tried to delay a story from being published until the research was released in a peer-reviewed journal.

A changing science

But in recent years, scientists have become more savvy and have begun to interact with journalists effectively to bring more exposure to their researches, Dunwoody said. Some scientists have gone so far as to pay public relations firms to help them deal with the news media, she said.

Dunwoody said that in the future, scientists and journalists will likely develop a shared culture and an environment where two groups of people coexist, each knowing how to interact with the other group in a way that benefits them both. This is the type of relationship that exists between journalists and politicians, she said.

“In a shared culture, both sides know the rules of the game and play by them,” Dunwoody said. “I think such a culture is developing now.”

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