Lap Dog or Watch Dog?

Lehrman, Sally

Originally, science journalists thought of themselves as "translators." They were big fans of science and they attempted to make it meaningful and accessible to the public.

That's still what we do—to an extent. With the explosion of science and scientific technology, and with business, government and big money interests converging, we need to fill our traditional journalistic role of watching over the public interest, too.

How do you report on science in a way that does more than just amplify and promote new studies and the latest thinking? How do you help the public interpret new findings, contemplate their impact, and participate in the discussion of how scientific ideas can be integrated into society?

The Dangers of Being a Lap Dog

At first, just doing friendly reports on the latest findings might feel the most comfortable and appropriate, especially if you’re in unfamiliar territory. But this kind of reporting can go wrong. Here are some traps:

  • Pinball journalism: Yesterday, coffee was good for us; today it is bad.
  • Social assumptions embedded in science: For instance, who usually seeks to "cooperate" and who "dominates"? Who is"violent" and who has "anger management problems"? Is disability is something to be avoided or overcome, at any cost? In fact, scientists are a part of their surrounding culture and vulnerable to social, political and cultural bias, just like the rest of us.
  • Artificial balance: "Global warming exists," says scientist A; "No it doesn't" says scientist B.
  • Reductionism: The view that science, or this one aspect of science, explains everything. The belief that science is the same as "truth."
  • Determinism: The view that science (usually genetics) dictates and predicts our future course as human beings.
  • Paradigm cement: The assumption that scientific paradigms that are current one day will always be so.

Consider this statement from the 3/29/03 Times-Picayune: "Scientists often describe DNA as a blueprint for who we are, determining what we look like as well as predicting certain inherited traits."

What a Good Watch Dog Will Do

Check the Research Behind the Claims

  • Does it fully support the claims? What questions remain unanswered?
  • Read up on your scientists’ general body of work. Is there a theme? A point of view? Who do they cite and who cites them?
  • If your scientist says the sky is blue, check it out.

Check Who's Got an Interest in the Story, and How

  • Scientists: Your scientist probably would like fame and fortune. He or she wants to win over the public to his or her point of view. She wants to save the world in one way or another--by screening our genes or stopping us from smoking.
  • Companies: Companies involved in science want to keep their investors happy. They want to sell drugs or services; they want to create public acceptance and demand for their products.
  • Others: Everybody wants to get more funding for their work. Conflict of interest is pervasive. Assume it.

Consult Other Sources for Context

  • Scientists with competing points of view
  • Regulatory agencies
  • Business documents and industry analysts
  • The published scientific literature
  • People on the front lines
  • Those affected

Seek True Balance

  • You can provide this by telling your audience:
  • What controversies remain among scientists who work in this field?
  • What's not known or understood?
  • What doesn’t this study or the research so far tell scientists?
  • What competitors does this analysis or field of research have?
  • What'ss missing from the study or area of research?
  • What are the weaknesses in the study or area of research? What assumptions does it work from?
  • What's next?

Tell the Whole Story

  • Do explain the science; don't just gloss over it.
  • Point out assumptions, especially in studies involving race, gender, class or disability.
  • Offer historical, social and economic context.
  • Use examples.
  • Make uncertainties clear.

Sally Lehrman is an independent science and health issues reporter for publications ranging from Scientific American to Health magazine, and the science content expert for SoundVision's radio series The DNA Files. She serves as national diversity chair for the Society of Professional Journalists.

Sally Lehrman