The role of science journalism in an age of denial

25 Nov 2016

Deborah Blum. Image: Mark Bennington

Pulitzer prize-winning author Deborah Blum will talk in Dublin next month about some of the challenges facing science journalism. Claire O’Connell caught up with her ahead of her visit.

Climate change. Vaccination. Genetic modification. Evolution. The science is there, but not everyone trusts it. What role do science journalists have to play in the face of ‘science denialism’? That’s a question that journalist and author Deborah Blum will tackle at the upcoming Sci:Com conference in Dublin on 7 December.

“We live in this era where people are very resistant, and people may not trust scientists to tell the truth,” said Blum, a former columnist for The New York Times and author of the The Poisoner’s Handbook.

“As science journalists, what we have to wrestle with is this: have we played a role in this science denialism and have we been responsible?”

Getting informed

Blum feels strongly about the need for people to be scientifically informed. “We live in this chemical web and we are constantly being alerted to different threats, so we need to be able to navigate and say, ‘Yes this is worth worrying about and I can do this to protect myself’ or ‘No, that is just some activist or poster-child or fundraising crap’, which some of it is,” she said.

“People need to understand enough of the scientific process.”

Blum is well versed. Her father was an entomologist and chemical ecologist and she would get chemistry sets for Christmas. Plans to be a chemist changed when she found the lab wasn’t for her, so Blum “meandered into journalism” and specialised in environmental toxicology and poisonous substances, where her upbringing equipped her well for inquiry.

“I grew up in the culture of science so I wasn’t afraid of it,” recalled Blum. “I never worried about asking a stupid question – an ‘I haven’t done my homework question’, yes, but not a stupid question.”

One of her most famous works was for The Sacramento Bee in California, called ‘The Monkey Wars’, on the complex ethical and moral questions surrounding primate research.

Blum ploughed through mountains of Freedom of Information requests and pushed and negotiated to get interviews – many people involved in primate research would not talk to her – and the persistence paid off: the series scooped her a Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting in 1992.

‘Science is a process, everything is a data point in an ongoing inquiry, and this is one of the reasons that scientists get so frustrated with journalists’

Culture clash

Blum recognises the tension that can brew between scientists and science journalists, who often relate a story in different ways. “[A science journalist’s] approach to telling stories about science is never going to be the approach of the scientist,” she said.

She was intrigued by a recent study of nearly 400 scientists in the United States that found “scientists most prioritize communication designed to defend science from misinformation and educate the public about science, and least prioritize communication that seeks to build trust and establish resonance with the public”. 

Defending science is not the role of the science journalist, noted Blum. “Journalists eliminate and inquire and try to make sense and take an independent view – our job is not to defend science,” she said. “So there are always going to be some cultural conflicts.”

However, she added that the media has not done a wonderful job of informing about the process behind science. “Media stories about science they are often about an event, a discovery a breakthrough,” she said. “But science is a process, everything is a data point in an ongoing inquiry, and this is one of the reasons that scientists get so frustrated with journalists.”

Future of science journalism 

Recent years have seen a hollowing out of specialist science writers on the staff of mainstream or print media, but some digital media organisations have been enriched, noted Blum.

“One of favourite examples is BuzzFeed, a news site that came of age in the clickbait era of cat videos,” she said. And now they have one of the best staffs of science writers.”

That said, she is concerned that many of the trained reporters are now concentrated on the US coasts, and Blum would like to see a greater reach of science journalism into other regions of the US.

Blum directs the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, where fellowships offer mid-career science writers a nine-month “sabbatical” where they can take courses at MIT and Harvard, learn from experts at seminars and generally recharge their intellectual batteries.

The prestigious programme has run since 1983 and Blum became director last year. “The idea is that we will help train science journalists in new and different ways and send them out to do more smart stuff,” she said.

Deborah Blum will visit Ireland to speak at the Sci:Com Science Communication event on 7 December 2016, at the Ballsbridge Hotel, Dublin. The focus of the conference is ‘Let’s not go there: Tackling tricky issues in science’. Tickets are available here.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication