New Media and New Narratives for Science Reporting

Over at the Intersection, Sheril asks the following about new media and science communication:

consider these questions from the program:
* New media addressing S&T issues – what/where/who are they?
* Who do they see as their primary audiences?
* What do they try to convey (or try not to convey)?
* What do they see as missing from the current dialogues on S&T and policy?
* How are they addressing those elements?
* What are the new media missing?

I think the primary role that new media can play is the development of new narratives. Most science stories are plugged into a few narratives such as:

  1. We’re all going to die.
  2. Icky and gross.
  3. Men want to have sex, women want babies.
  4. Controversy of any kind, no matter how ridiculous or unfounded.
  5. The best, newest technology EVAH!

I actually think this is less the fault of reporters, than editors (most of whom know far less about science than the reporter covering the story). One advantage of ‘new media’ is that science stories can have alternative narratives. For example, I was interviewed for a story about a fish tank-associated Salmonella outbreak. To a microbiologist who read the EID article, the ‘don’t let water contaminated with fish shit get on your dishes and food’ angle was trivial. Sure, it needed to be said–there are a lot of stupid people out there. But that wasn’t the real story, as far as I was concerned.
The real story was that this Salmonella strain had a type of antibiotic resistance that could only result from the agricultural use of antibiotics. I know the reporter understood this (and has covered antibiotic resistance enough to understand its importance). Sadly, it died on the cutting room floor because the ‘fish shit’ angle was the focus of the piece. So the internetz have the potential to cover the angles that aren’t usually covered.
The other way the new media can advance the public’s understanding of science is that most traditional media have a very hard time portraying science as a process, as opposed to some form of revelation. I don’t think that there’s a single scientist who doesn’t cringe when he or she reads, “Scientists say…” as if this was revealed from on high. One excellent example of this was a great post by the author of a paper about how the paper actually came to be–which is substantially different than what a paper usually presents. I really wish a print journalist would interview the author.
So, how do you think ‘new media’ can help or hurt science?

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4 Responses to New Media and New Narratives for Science Reporting

  1. clear as mud says:

    Used well, newer media outlets (ie, blogs) can be used to either re-enforce rational narratives or squelch sensationalist ones.
    And they can do so not only by offering a supporting or contrasting view.
    They can do so by speaking in a different voice than would be seen in a news outlet (on one extreme: juicy story, often wrong) or a PNAS paper (probably valid, dry as dust).
    The voice they use can also be formed by their real-world experience of how to communicate ideas and – I think this is critical – learning how to alter your approach by listening to the comments. If your commenters are sincerely confused or are misinterpreting your writing, you can both clarify your statements quickly and also learn what you did wrong so as to improve the next round of writing.
    This all seems to depend on numbers, though. No single blogger is going to make an impact. But a spread out community people competent in both the subject matter and communication to friends and colleagues could conceivably help to move the narrative.
    The flip side is that the same power of newer media can all be used for bad reasons: to re-enforce sensationalist interpretation and counter rational analysis.
    I’m not sure, if there is a pitched battle, which side would be more successful. My thought has always been that if you have both the facts AND the communications variety and savvy, then you win.

  2. chezjake says:

    Another thing new media, especially blogs, can do (and some have been doing) is to present a complex subject in a series of short, *interesting*, readable, and reasonably frequent posts. This is probably a much more effective technique for grabbing the attention of readers who have limited amounts of time (in any one chunk) than posting/publishing a single, much longer article covering the same material.
    New media can also quickly compile lists (with links) to numerous posts from different bloggers (and different perspectives) relating to a given topic or to serve as a reference point for further inquiry. Wilkins’ list of “basics” posts is a key example of the latter.
    Print, TV, and radio are incapable of providing the easily clickable, immediate links to additional sources of information — or the embedded links to provide clarification/conetxt of ideas/concepts/facts that would otherwise make a short article/post much longer and less likely to be read by many users.

  3. HP says:

    First, just to “position my own narrative stance,” as the pomos might say, I am a non-scientist, and barely qualified as a science enthusiast, who has turned to science blogging as my primary source of “infotainment.” I am, however, a professional technical communicator with a couple decade’s experience documenting specialist software, so I’m not unfamiliar with the issues surrounding effective communication of difficult material.
    One of biggest new narratives emerging from science blogging is simply, “Scientists are honest.” And not only that, they’re honest across the board, not just with regard to their research. I think the basic honesty of scientists was one of the fundamental assumptions underlying the post-war “Scientists are wizards and miracle-men” narrative. But as people tire of the huge amount of misinformation and disinformation (aka “bullshit”) that they’re being bombarded with from all the usual sources, they’re turning to science news — and in particular science blogging — as a respite from the sea of crap.
    Consider the infamous Expelled fiasco. Of all the charges levied against PZ, not even his fiercest critics called him a liar. In other words, PZ’s (and Dawkins’s, Hitchens’s, et al) critics have completely internalized the narrative that scientists are honest. No one has ever challenged the authenticity of PZ’s atheism, nor of his commitment to quality science education, in the way that PZ and many others challenge the authenticity of the cdesign proponentsists and fundagelicals (cf. “wedge document”).
    Why is PZ Myers, so widely considered to be counterproductive, abrasive, and obnoxious, so popular? Because nobody doubts his honesty. In a world where you can’t trust the New York Times (Judith Miller, anybody?), unimpeachable honesty is a pearl beyond price.
    A second narrative that emerges from science blogging is, “Science is rigorous and self-correcting.” This comes less out of the political fights over various denialisms, and more out of Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research. Rather than seeing the often-triumphalist take on press releases, etc. found in news reporting on science, we see that even scientists who are excited about this or that paper will question the methodology or conclusions, or point out limitations and constraints on the study’s results or interpretation.
    So, two major new science narratives are emerging: 1) Even the most egregiously offensive scientist is not bullshitting you. (Thank you, James Watson. At least we know you’re not pretending to be a sexist and racist pig for partisan advantage.) 2) The pace of science is incremental — even glacial — and nothing is exempt from intense scrutiny.
    Is Sheril reading the comments here, or should I post this over there?

  4. Grand Theft Auto, Twitter and Beowulf all demonstrate that stories will never die
    Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 25/11/2008Page 1 of 3
    Storytelling is under assault in schools, universities and from the internet, but the power of narrative shows no sign of waning, says Sam Leith
    For portability, browsability and ease of annotation the book is the best form of technology we have; and has been since its invention
    “Tell me a story.” It’s a plea that echoes through the ages: not only the ages of human civilisation, but the ages of man. As a child, tucked up and ready for bed.
    As an adult, settling deep into a popcorn-scented cinema seat as the house lights go down. In old age, becalmed, combing your memories. Telling stories is as old a game as language itself.
    So it’s odd – not to say alarming – to read reports that some people seem to think we’re on the verge of running out of narrative. A group of academics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in cahoots with some Hollywood moguls, have announced the opening of a “Center for Future Storytelling”.
    “The idea as we move forward with 21st-century storytelling is to try to keep meaning alive,” explains its founder David Kirkpatrick. Baffling.
    Are they hoping – like Sarah Palin prospecting for oil in Alaska – to find fresh reserves; another two basic plots, maybe? [truncated]

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