Melanie Lenart, Ph.D.: Environmental Scientist and Writer

Journalists and Scientists Have Different Roles,
But They Share a Goal - An Informed Public

(published 01/12/10)

Melanie Lenart teaches a University of Arizona course on environmental writing in the department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science. Her book, Life in the Hothouse: How a Living Planet Survives Climate Change, is scheduled for release in April by the University of Arizona Press.

Sometimes a 900-word column in a major newspaper can bring more attention to the nation's pending water shortage than a year's worth of scientific papers. When Unquenchable author Robert Glennon of the University of Arizona's law college wrote a Washington Post column called "Our Water Supply, Down the Drain," his words potentially reached some three-quarters of a million readers - with internet access expanding potential readership by millions.

The hope of reaching more people is one reason some scientists and policy experts are writing for newspapers and other public venues. Another reason involves a growing tendency among grant-providing agencies to require public outreach. Finally, internet access is inspiring more scientists to share their thoughts directly with the public by posting details about their research and writing blogs.

Meanwhile, the number of working journalists keeps dropping as newspapers and magazines succumb to the overall economic downturn as well as hardships specific to publishing - which include the internet's tendency to ignore copyrights.

With that in mind, I'd like to consider the many similarities and yet defining differences between science and journalism, and how we support practitioners. As a newspaper reporter who trained and worked as a scientist and now blends this into a science writing career, I have been exposed to the inner workings of both professions.

At their best, scientists and journalists both seek truth. This guiding principle enlightens research investigations, whether in the field and lab, or through legwork and interviews. Any type of research involves loads of background reading. In their articles, journalists and scientists both strive to set their own perspectives aside to consider other sides of an issue, with the understanding that new evidence could overturn a presumed truth.

The writing style they use differs greatly, with scientists favoring statistical analysis, passive voice and abundant journal references while journalists sprinkle their writing with anecdotes, quotes and real-world examples.

For writing to qualify as journalism, the writer should have no vested interest in the topic. In practice, a vested interest usually boils down to monetary terms, no payoff for a certain slant, no job with the organization featured, no stock in the company garnering the headlines. If conflicts exist, journalists are expected to mention them.

Articles are the product by which journalists make a living. Reporters receiving a weekly paycheck need to churn out daily articles to keep their jobs. Magazines thrive on freelance writing, typically paying by the word rather than the hours invested. Editors value independence more than affiliation.

Thus the source of support creates a big difference between scientists and journalists. Scientists often earn money from research grants or university appointments. Articles, they usually write for free. Journalists traditionally thrived indirectly on advertising dollars, for ads running in publications or broadcasts.

The easy access of the internet makes it challenging to raise enough money from advertising dollars, so publishers are looking for other avenues of support.

One avenue involves the so-called New Media approach. It incorporates the non-profit method to raise money, including by seeking grants and donations to research and write stories or support publications. High Country News and Mother Jones have courted donations for years, but most publications have relied only on advertising dollars and subscriptions for support.

It's interesting that this latest twist on the media landscape would increase the similarities between journalists and scientists. At the moment, though, far fewer grant opportunities exist for those doing journalistic research than for those doing scientific research.

Yet we can't expect scientists and policy experts in academic institutions to meet the need for informing the public. These scholars are busy doing research and writing papers for peer-reviewed journals, organizing conferences and workshops, and training and educating students. Generally, those in charge of promotions rank science writing and other types of outreach efforts far behind peer-oriented work.

And we can't expect the media to provide the depth of scientific information needed to keep the public informed. Journalists are busy keeping an eye on government, with a constitutional role as government watchdogs.

Somewhere between science and traditional journalism lies the art of communicating about science beyond or behind the issues of government policy. The internet suits this mode. It can provide depth by allowing readers to "drill down" into a topic by following links to increasingly specific details.

People seek accessible information. This struck me again when I bumped into Robert Glennon at the Paradise Café while working on this guest view. His book Unquenchable has made a splash on the public scene, even landing him an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

When I asked how the book was doing, Glennon noted Unquenchable had passed a mark reserved for the top 2 percent of books by selling more than 5,000 copies. Not necessarily big bucks, considering that authors typically earn $1 or less per copy. Still, it has other rewards for those interested in spreading a message. "I get an invitation to speak maybe once a day," Glennon said. "I have to do triage."

Books for the general public and the internet both offer wonderful ways to share information on complex issues such as science. Scientists and journalists consistently agree that we need more science stories. So let's make sure we find a way to support writers, both official journalists and other writers who help fill in the details on science topics.

That's one way to help citizens understand the science of complex issues, including water policy. Quenching the public's thirst for knowledge can lead to better decision making about these important issues of sustainability.

 

This Guest View was originally published in the January 12, 2010, issue of Arizona Water Resources, the newsletter of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center. The original version is posted here.

 

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