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Stanford University School of Medicine

Journalist shares insights on the media and communicating science to the public

8780137530_9d4c7dc3a2_zThis week, a Stanford event explored the news from a viewpoint the public seldom sees: through the eyes of a journalist. The event, a Q&A, featured Andrew Curry, a freelance journalist, and Paul Costello, Stanford Medicine's chief communication officer.

The conversation began with two widely covered, yet poorly understood topics: Brexit and President Donald Trump’s pledge to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

In both cases, Curry explained, the public failed to receive important information. "I think there’s a lack of education, and sometimes a lack of interest, until it’s too late."

"The day after the Brexit vote the biggest Google trend in Europe was, 'What is Brexit?'," Costello pointed out.

"You see similar trends in the coverage here.” Curry said. “Republicans are going hard against the Affordable Care Act, claiming they have a mandate, [yet] the voters who voted for Trump are saying, ‘Wait, that’s my health insurance.’ There are many sources of information, some less reliable than others, and I don’t think people's understanding of how media works is particularly good."

"What don't the people understand and how does the media work?" Costello asked.

"There’s this weird perception that everyone coordinates coverage," Curry said. "That it’s this media conspiracy. That’s so far from the truth. It’s really just a lot of people trying to do their jobs under pressure.”

Costello asked Curry how he deals with this lack of trust, and what he thinks of the prevalence of alternative news sources.

"This sounds terrible, but I don’t think it’s a good thing that anyone can publish online," Curry said. "The media and professional reporters used to be a sort of chokepoint... there were consequences for reporting false information.”

Costello and Curry also addressed the gulf between scientists and journalists. Scientists are "not very" good at explaining their work, Curry said.

"They don’t know who I’m talking to, or who I am," Curry said, explaining a scientist once thought he hadn’t prepared for his interview because he asked the researcher to explain his work in simple terms. "I’ve done a lot of background work, but it’s my job to ask stupid questions. If I don’t understand all of it, someone else won’t."

Journalists also have the responsibility to make sure readers understand the scientific process, Curry said. For example, even if scientists suspect a particular outcome, "they're reluctant to say something they don't have hard evidence for, which I have to respect."

During the discussion, Curry fielded a question from the audience about the best way to communicate science to the public.

"I have a two-year old who watches 'Dinosaur Train.' In every episode there's a hypothesis… It's good that at two he's being taught: What is a hypothesis? When I'm telling the story of a scientist — as in the chemical weapons story— I explain they had an idea, they tested that idea, and [in this case] the results weren't what they expected."

"I think journalists and scientists are afraid to say they got something wrong… that they now have new information," Curry said. Teaching people about the scientific method will help them understand how to interpret the news, and it will help them maintain their trust in research — and reporting — as more refined data become available.

Previously: Science communication in the current political climate: A Q&ABetter science communication is critical, The New Yorker’s Michael Specter argues and On communicating science and uncertainty: A podcast with John Ioannidis
Photo by Sean Davis

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