The Society for Environmental Journalists met recently in Sacramento California. I went to two events. While both events were well-planned informative and entertaining, I was left with a lingering question: why would I want to learn how to become a good science communicator?
Three obvious possible answers come quickly to mind:
Obviously, #3 is the answer I would like to believe. I would like to think that most of us don’t need our egos stroked that badly; and I believe that most of us are too busy to worry about how hard or easy it is to be a journalist covering the environment. However, we all read about the knowledge- implementation gap and how becoming more effective communicators can help integrate the most recent research into natural resource decision making.
What is the evidence that talking to the press actually works to accomplish goal # 3? So grant me an indulgence. Imagine for a moment that we agree that journalists are good at their jobs. If this is the case, then we can assume that they will find the correct experts, asked them the correct questions, come to the correct conclusions. Hence, being proficient at speaking to journalists, construct a message box, and stay on topic will be largely irrelevant as the journalist pry relevant information out of our scientific experts. As an example, I was called this morning by a reporter from The Guardian to comment on a paper coming out in Science this week (on megadrought). I suspect that I can only rationalize this under #1, above, as I had no particular #3 agenda, and I don’t think I succeeded at #2.
If we believe journalists to be competent professionals, and I largely find this to be true, then I would have to conclude that the reason I wish to be proficient at science communication is so that I might have better leverage to convince a journalists to cover a story that they might otherwise not find interesting. At this point, I must confess that my own personal evidence of difference -making now becomes pretty slim. I can truly say that there have been a couple of interviews, out of dozens, where I think that I shifted the direction of the storyline in a way that would be helpful if policymakers read the story and then did something about it. I have no evidence that policymakers have ever done something specific as a consequence of some popular article in which I was quoted (admittedly hard evidence to obtain). I have never cold-called journalists to try to convince them to cover a story about some science that I felt was in need of policymakers attention. Once called, I have pitched a story, but I think that was largely a distraction to the journalists.
So, has my media training and for not? Possibly. Possibly I have to rethink my media relations strategy.
On the optimistic side, if we can say that we have, through training, positioned ourselves so that some fraction of the journalism community looks to us you have questions on particular issues, then perhaps we can say that we’ve maximized our opportunities the difference makers. This would be especially true if we believe that the people were trying to inform are far more likely to consume popular information than technical information.
If we grant that it is impossible to garner counterfactual information on our interactions with the media, then perhaps we must resign ourselves to be satisfied with the following results chain model:
1. If you learn how to effectively communicate science, then we are more likely to be called upon by journalists.
2. If we are more likely to be called upon by journalists, then we increase our opportunity to effectively convey a message of importance regarding natural resource management.
3. If we effectively convey a message of importance regarding natural resource management, then we are more likely to see a positive outcome than if we never interacted with public media.
Hmmm, might be true. It is what I choose to believe.
I have to thank Matt Williamson for this bit of uncomfortable self-examination. Matt, always the skeptic, is constantly challenging us to think about why something is important. In doing so, I have come to the conclusion that while I have started to feel rather good about my capacity to talk to journalists, and happy about frequency with which I do that, I think I must also be rather disappointed in how little effort I have put into strategic thinking and action with respect to trying to direct the message by pitching storylines journalists.
Some of you may wince at the word choices of the previous sentence. As scientists we gather facts, analyze data, interpret outcomes. We do not develop storylines. Nevertheless, journalists write stories. Therefore having an impact through the media may require shifting language out of our comfort zone. Allocating my limited time to calling people in the press and pitching stories that I think are important to get out there is clearly outside my comfort zone. Let's get uncomfortable, then!
Google chrome users: click here to download a RSS extension