A local television news affiliate interviews a science teacher at a March for Science in Austin, Texas in April. ©Wil C. Fry, 2017.
Communicating science isn’t just a matter of ticking off facts in an understandable way (although that, in itself, can be difficult enough). To be effective, scientists need to consider personal values and other influences that affect how audiences receive their message—all while being, primarily, a scientist.
Throw in additional hurdles such as institutional restrictions on sharing information or concerns about reputation, and it's easy to see why scientists shy away from communicating with the public about their work. That doesn’t make it acceptable, though.
In fact, Los Angeles Times reporter Rong-Gong Lin II recently compared it to knowing that a car was barreling down the road, but not calling out to the pedestrian in its path.
“There is a moral imperative for you guys to get out of your silos and talk to the public,” Lin told a crowd of about 350 hazards and disasters professionals. “The public really needs to know—they want to know. They want to know what the hazards are and you are actually in a position to communicate that to them.”
Lin, along with Mark Lorando of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Sandi Doughton of the Seattle Times, spoke during the opening plenary at the 42nd Annual Natural Hazards Workshop on July 10. While the trio shared many examples of how their reporting has already affected community safety, it was clear that with more participation from scientists and policymakers, even more change is possible.
“We’re in the same business when crises happen and communities are at risk,” Lorando said. “We’re both in the business of trying to educate and elevate people’s understanding of what’s happening.”
Journalists Sandi Doughton, Rong-Gong Lin III, and Mark Lorando offer advice on communicating about disasters at the Natural Hazards Workshop in July. Moderator Lauren Alexander Augustine of the National Academies is featured on the left. ©Zoe Welz, 2017.
To that end, the panel shared some ideas to help scientists and others in the disaster realm communicate more effectively with journalists or directly to the public.
Build relationships. While there are some scientists whose work is so prevalent that journalists turn to them automatically as sources, most would rather hear from a range of voices on the subject. With that in mind, don’t overlook the possibility of reaching out to reporters about your field of expertise. Journalists can’t cover—and the public can’t know about or act on—topics they don’t know exist.
“There is going to be no other avenue to reach people more quickly and more powerfully than through [local media],” Lorando said. “But that requires a relationship between you and that news organization, and forging that relationship is as much your responsibility as it is ours.”
Become a trusted source. Feeling shy? Scientists don’t always have to go on record to get worthwhile information out there, Doughton told the audience.
“There are different ways you can work with us,” she said. “You can be that person that’s willing to stand up and be quoted in the story saying this is wrong; this is dangerous. But that might not be your style. So you can work with us in a different way. You can be that behind the scenes person, that off-the-record source who gives us tips. In the journalism business we call these people trusted sources.”
Try not to talk (too much) like a scientist. Years of training might have left many scientists unaware that, when their official hats are on, they speak in a way that can be dense and impenetrable to the layperson. Intense detail, jargon-filled speech, and a tendency to provide lots of background before getting to the conclusion are all examples of communication that wins over scientists but loses everyone else.
“When you’re speaking to the lay public, try talking about the new thing first,” Lin recommended. “We still want the [context], but if you talk about it the way you normally do it, you risk losing the attention span of the person listening.”
Leverage social media tools. Even if you decide traditional news media will never be the outlet for you, that doesn’t mean you can’t still have your say. Today’s social media tools offer a multitude of ways you can deliver important information or guide people to solid science. It can be as subtle as tweeting the link to an especially good article or as bold as writing your own blog.
“You need to understand what we have available to us,” Lorando said. “This is a golden age of communication. We have more ways to reach people than we ever have before.” Although the panel approached the need to make the wealth of available information more accessible from a journalistic lens, many in the science field itself are coming to realize the value, as well.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have created a research agenda to examine the science of science communication. Others have developed curriculums and education programs to make scientists better communicators.
All of these efforts point to a growing understanding that, with so many scientific certainties being called into question, perhaps our greatest hope is an informed public.
“There was this time when scientists wouldn’t really talk to the masses directly, but now you can,” Lin said. “And I would encourage you to do so because it’s a time when the public really wants to hear from scientists. It does not serve democracy if people who should know this information don’t know it exists.”
Jolie Breeden is the lead editor and science communicator for Natural Hazards Center publications. She writes and edits for Disaster Research News, Research Counts, the Quick Response Research and Mitigation Matters report series, and special projects and publications. Jolie graduated summa cum laude from the University of Colorado Boulder with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.