Marit Mitchell
No Comments

Missing Links

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

There’s a divide between what we should know about science and what we learn from most newspapers. Why Anne McIlroy is one of the few journalists bridging the gap between the dinosaur era and the 21st century—and beyond

From her desk overlooking the Parliament Buildings and beyond to Gatineau, Anne McIlroy is secretly collecting shiny objects. Little pieces of information that, by themselves, are not particularly significant. They slide innocuously into plain brown folders and remain hidden from the world until she can find the unifying concept that will consolidate them into a story worth telling. The brown folders pile up to her left, paper peeking out haphazardly. It’s a slow process-this file has been growing for almost a year. McIlroy isThe Globe and Mail‘s science reporter, and right now she’s fascinated by evolutionary developmental biology, or evo-devo, the study of how the genes that control an embryo’s development have changed or retained their function over time. But she can’t quite make a compelling case for the feature-length article she so badly wants to write. Years on the science beat have taught her there’s no point mentioning an underdeveloped story to her editors-without a hook to lure readers, they’re not interested. So she’s waiting, squirreling knowledge away, until she comes across the hook that will enable her to pitch the idea.

With print space at a premium, devoting precious column inches to “hard” science stories is a luxury few newspapers enjoy. The Globeis unusual in retaining a science writer: most papers rely on wire copy from Reuters or AP, or delegate to a general assignment reporter. Unlike its U.S. counterparts, The Canadian Press employs no dedicated science writers. Editor-in-chief Scott White would like to have a reporter on the beat full-time, but that would mean scaling back coverage in other areas. Big-picture and ideas-based science is a hard sell to an audience that, for the most part, hasn’t had any science education since Grade 12. Still, these kinds of pieces appear regularly. It’s just that they’re disguised. If you look for it, you’ll find science behind stories about current events such as a tsunami, tainted-food crisis or Canada’s asbestos policy. “They don’t call it science journalism, but it’s dealing with scientific issues,” says Margaret Munro, a science writer with close to 30 years experience who now works for Canwest News Service. At the same time, health and environment stories covered by reporters on those beats are on the rise, popular because they translate science into information readers can use, science that directly applies to their lives.

“So what?” you might ask. Does it matter that readers aren’t getting much “straight science”? The science they do get is woven into the background of other stories or covered only when there’s a direct “What’s in it for me?” health or environment hook. But it doesmatter, because approaching science this way is a bit like covering the economy only in personal finance stories: frame the big picture issues as too hard to understand, too complex to report, and you end up with a lot of small stories that, while not entirely without merit, don’t really add up to much. As we slide further into the 21st century, science underlies decisions made at every level, from choosing between vitamin brands to allocating federal funds. But, science’s advocates say, if journalists and editors persist in ignoring the big issues until there’s a “news you can use” hook for individual readers, we may end up missing the chance to influence policy and behaviour on issues that can affect not only individuals, but all of humanity.

Case in point: climate change. Seventeen years ago, international scientists-including 99 Nobel Prize winners-issued the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” outlining the impending dire environmental crisis. “This was a frightening document,” says renowned Canadian scientist David Suzuki. “But if this was a frightening document, the response of the media around the world was terrifying. There was no response. In Canada, our so-called national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, didn’t bother to report it. The CBC, our national broadcaster, didn’t think it was important enough to bother talking about. Excuse me, over half of all Nobel prize winners telling us we could have as little as 10 years to avoid a total catastrophe, and this is not newsworthy?” No coverage equalled no public consciousness on climate change until a decade later when melting ice caps and drowning polar bears came to the fore. In the meantime, we had severely diminished our collective ability to mitigate global warming.

Evo-devo is heavily rooted in genetics, developmental biology and evolutionary theory-not exactly light fare to present to readers with their morning coffee. McIlroy wants to make sure her story will interest her readers, but if her editors don’t see the value, she’ll never get the chance to tell them about amazing advances and discoveries. As one researcher told her, we have the potential to someday create “a human with 60 back vertebrae or six limbs.” Understanding how an organism’s body forms the right parts at the right time has significance beyond medical applications such as preventing developmental disorders; it could even tell us how one species became another. Explaining the experimental process of executing such mind-boggling feats excites McIlroy, but she sometimes worries she’s become too involved with a topic, that she’s the only one who thinks the story is appealing.

“You can’t make people eat peas,” says Peter Calamai, long-time Toronto Starscience reporter and a founder of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association. “You can’t make people read about something just because it’s good for them.” But is a lack of interest in peas the fault of the cook or the diner? Bonnie Schmidt, president of Let’s Talk Science, a scientific educational agency, says that in our culture it can be a point of pride to be science-phobic. “There’s almost this coolness around math and science phobia,” she says. “You wouldn’t want to come out publicly and say ‘I don’t want to read’ or ‘I can’t read.’ There’s a stigma to that, but there’s almost a coolness to saying, ‘Ugh, didn’t do well in science, just don’t get it, can’t do math to save my life.'” Stephen Strauss, former Globescience writer and current author of‘s “Science Friction” column, says that understanding science is fundamental to fostering an informed society. But the news media neglect it in favour of politics, economics and gossip, adding that our current world view and attitude towards science makes us “cavemen in the 21st century.”

Even some people you’d expect to be advocates for science coverage see the merit of the “news you can use” approach. Tom Spears, who covers the beat for the Ottawa Citizen, says he doesn’t believe in scientific journalism, which might seem strange, given the kinds of stories he writes. He’s been sealed in a DC-9 flying 10,000 metres over northern Michigan, one of two journalists invited on a NASAtraining flight that simulates weightlessness. He’s written about ancient oceans on Mars, and he’s reported on the squirrelpox virus in the U.K. Still, he thinks science journalism is just reporting and storytelling, like any other beat. So when that DC-9 landed in Cleveland, he filed a story describing the experience and explaining why NASAdoes it, instead of shoehorning in details about the physics of zero G or projectile kinetics of the flight path. He wrote that “the reasons for the shuttle missions can make eyes glaze over … testing new ways of growing crystals for the semiconductor industry in space just doesn’t grab headlines.”

Spears prefers to talk about the scientists themselves, rather than detail their work. He says that if he’s not particularly fascinated by the technicalities, his editors are even less so. Other reporters at the Citizenare so math and science illiterate, Spears says, they come to him with questions about how to calculate basic percentages. His blog, Dark Matter, suggests that we “skip the heavy lifting in science” and just focus on what’s cool, what grabs attention, and what affects us directly. “People want to hear who got murdered and are taxes going to go up,” he says. “If you go too heavily into the details, readers aren’t going to remember it.”

As McIlroy builds her evo-devo file, she works on other stories. Today, it’s a shorter piece about researchers in the U.S. who’ve found a Tyrannosaurus rexskull with some of its ancient tissue still intact. Dino stories always play well, and this is a prime opportunity to get on page A3. In search of an outside voice on the discovery, she extracts her phone from under a drift of paper and calls Hans Larsson, a McGill-based paleontologist. He’s a terrific media personality, able to relate the most complex ideas in layman’s terms with perfect analogies. She gets her answers and asks her standard parting question: “What else are you working on?” He’s been examining sets of genes that determine how different species develop over evolutionary time. Experimentally, he’s monkeying around with gene expression in chicken embryos in an effort to make them grow dinosaur-like tails. It’s not what she’d call an instantaneous “eureka moment,” but in the following days McIlroy can’t get Larsson’s words out of her head. And finally it gels: she’s found the hook for her evo-devo story, and with a Canadian connection to boot.

It’s not the typical way a science story develops-at least not for many on the science beat. These days, reporters are far more likely to be trolling the internet and scanning peer-reviewed journals such as Science,Natureor PNASas well as hundreds of electronic articles from lesser-known journals. Then there’s EurekAlert, a news aggregation service that compiles scientific press releases from universities and research centres, journals and government agencies and dumps them in the media’s electronic lap. Canwest’s Munro blames this pipeline for making science reporting predictable and focused solely on discoveries. In a recent talk she gave, she counted instances of the word “breakthrough” in EurekAlert headlines and found over 3,200 in just two years; she had also counted more than 2,000 mentions of “landmark studies” in “prestigious journals.” “The media play the game,” she says. “We pick up this stuff. But who’s wagging who here?” Current coverage emphasizes reporting on important findings, often to the detriment of explaining the results and providing context. “I sort of think of them as pointillism, the style of painting where they paint with dots, like Seurat,” says Helen Branswell, one of CP’s two medical writers. “I think that a study is like a dot. It’s a piece of information. We paint the dot-but what we’re not really good at is painting the picture.”

That’s a point of view confirmed in the research of Stephen Ward, former director of the University of British Columbia’s graduate school of journalism. Ward’s work shows that the vast majority of science story ideas come from the press-release pipeline, and this means less and less first-hand reporting on local scientists. It doesn’t help that many scientists don’t show much interest in having their work publicized by the mainstream media. Eric Taylor, a professor of zoology at UBC, researches speciation and hybridization of native fish populations, and conservation of biodiversity. He says although conservation is a hot topic right now, he doesn’t actively promote his findings to journalists. He makes himself available if reporters are interested in his work, but rarely issues press releases. “There’s a certain reticence in science to do that because it sounds a bit like self-promotion,” he says. Scientists tend to look down on colleagues they see “blowing their own horn.”

This may be a uniquely Canadian attitude. An international study published in the July 2008 issue ofScienceconcluded that despite “perceptions of ‘barriers’ to a more active involvement of scientists in public communication or of a ‘gap’ between science and journalism … interactions between scientists and journalists are more frequent and smooth than previously thought.” Sixty-four percent of scientists surveyed from France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States responded that they had been interviewed by journalists at least once in the past three years. However, Seed‘s December issue featuring “The State of Science 2008” found that, when asked how they would describe their interactions with the media, 65 percent of scientists responded they have no interaction. Twenty-six percent answered that their interactions were positive, and nine percent negative. The conflicting results are further proof of the journalistic truism that you can find a study to support anything.

I want to do a story on a guy who’s turning chickens into dinosaurs,” says the disembodied voice from the black teleconferencing unit in the middle of the table. The Globe‘s Focus section editors and writers gathered in the Toronto meeting room are silent. Few of them have a science background-like most journalists, their educations focused on English, history or journalism-but that makes them good representatives of their non-scientific readership. McIlroy waits, then keeps talking, trying to make her case from Ottawa with no idea if she’s bombing or not. Do they think I’m crazy? she thinks. Are they making faces at me? When the conference call concludes, she speaks to her handling editor, Julie Traves, to find out whether the editors genuinely like the idea. Traves assures her that they’re keen, and McIlroy’s relieved, because after a year of planning, “if they’re not interested, they’re not interested. What can you do?”

McIlroy’s colleagues aren’t unique in their lack of scientific training-even science journalists typically don’t have a science background. Ward and his team at UBC interviewed 25 print reporters and editors in an effort to determine how they’ve been trained, whether they have a science education, how they find their stories and what sources they rely on. The group found that 80 percent of science journalists (whether or not they’re labelled as such) did not have a degree in science. Ward says this lack of education means reporters don’t feel qualified to ask tough questions of scientists or to be critical of their work. The result is a reluctance to evaluate the importance of scientific findings, which leads to what Ward calls “stenography journalism,” where reporters merely regurgitate what they’ve been told or pick lighter stories over more complex ones. “You do too many quirky stories because you don’t feel you can do the serious stories,” says Ward. “We need to critically question scientific information today as much as we question political information or any other form of information.”

McIlroy came from a math- and science-focused high school and took courses in biology, ecology, sociobiology and genetics along with journalism at Carleton University. Initially hoping to do a double major in biology and journalism, she started at the Citizenin her third year, leaving only enough time to finish the journalism degree. Entering university during the economic recession of the early 1980s, she was hoping her knowledge of science would make her a valuable commodity within the journalism industry. She was right. Her familiarity with the scientific world enables her to fearlessly pick up the phone and ask the nuanced questions that make her pieces rich. She is exceptional in her ability to get the details in the story-including how her subject did what they did-and not just the attention-grabbing results. Peter Calamai says the “how” is one of the first things to go when trimming a story, along with names of coauthors and information on who funded the work. “That accounts for a lot of the reason people are unsatisfied after they’ve munched a science story or eaten their science goody for the day,” he says. “It’s all presented as something magical.”

McIlroy’s brand of ambitious, detail-oriented and engrossing real-time coverage is the kind of reporting Adam Bly wants to encourage. Bly is a man on a mission to convince the world that “science is culture.” The Montreal-born Bly-founder, editor-in-chief and CEOof Seedmagazine and Seed Media Group-is often airborne, bringing his vision to Washington, Dubai, Mexico City, Beijing, Cape Town, Sharm El Sheikh and New York. Today he’s descended to address the Science and Technology Awareness Network (STAN) conference in Ottawa. It’s a densely foggy morning in early November; provincial flags hang limp and dripping on their poles outside the windows of the National Arts Centre. The 120 attendees duly don nametags and sip conference coffee as they settle into chairs at round banquet tables, the fog somehow dampening the atmosphere in the entire room. Introductions are made and Bly, in a perfectly tailored, narrow-fitting black suit and sharp-looking white shirt, no tie, takes the dais.

He speaks of a worldwide revolution with science as the engine driving cultural, economic and developmental change. A 21st century renaissance. People perk up. He reminds them that every aspect of their lives relies on the products, both tangible and theoretical, of the scientific method. “And yet,” he warns, “the promise of science cannot be met unless we find ways of engaging 6.7 billion people, and not one person less, in the cause of science, in the convictions of science, in the methodologies and philosophies of science.” As he speaks, the fog lifts both outside and in. But, he continues, we’re not there yet. When asked if journalists are performing satisfactorily, he is unequivocal: “No. No. No. No. No, or I wouldn’t have done this. No, and it’s not because there are bad people doing it, and it’s not because they don’t get it. It’s because they’ve been doing it a certain way for a long time and that works,” he says. “It’s not as if there’s been a total failure of the science media establishment in the last 60 years. We’ve seen great output. I’m just saying that today, in that world that I see, I think it requires a new approach to media.”

This approach involves awakening to science’s integral role in how we live and appreciating it as the only way forward. It means unabashedly covering science in a manner that educates readers to its potential. And readers are getting it. Seedenjoys about 130,000 subscriptions and bimonthly newsstand purchases, and in two years its online affiliate has grown to 120 blogs read by over two million people monthly. Claims Bly: “It’s the largest conversation about science on the web.”

And that scientific curiosity isn’t limited to geeks, argues Clive Thompson, a Canadian magazine writer based in New York, who’s written about science for Wired, The New York Times Magazine and New York. “The amount of really dense science in pop culture is freaking astounding,” he says, referring to the popularity of shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its spinoffs, in which investigators rely on science to break absurdly convoluted cases. “People are excited about some of this stuff.” And there’s a market for science as entertainment. Stephen Hawking appears on The Simpsonsand is part of the show’s line of action figures. Discovery Channel programs like MythBustersthat use science to debunk or support urban legends are popular. Even New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art is hip to science: a 2008 exhibit called Design and the Elastic Mind featured art, furniture and architecture designed to reflect recent advances in science and technology. “These guys are not doing this because it’s good for humanity. This is because it’s hot. This is simply because it sells,” says Bly. (Not everyone agrees; David Suzuki sees it as a disservice to serious science. “It was hopeful when channels like Discovery, Animal Planet and National Geographic started, since they covered natural history very well, but each has ended up with those incredible animals or the deadliest snakes or the biggest trucks,” he complains in an e-mail. “All spectacular stuff serving testosterone-driven young males.”)

But as “real” science attracts a following online and in the pages of Seed, and pop science is a hit on television, neither seems able to gain a foothold in mainstream news. Not so long ago, both the Toronto Starand National Postdedicated pages primarily, if not entirely, to science. At the Post, the Discovery pages featured ideas from across academia that could change the way Canadians thought about the world. Initially the section had only a few dedicated writers-notably Margaret Munro writing about science, and Andy Lamey writing about everything else. Toward the end of Discovery’s life, the science component increased to more than 50 percent. Like a phoenix, the pages died and re-emerged several times between 1998, when the paper launched, and the pages’ ultimate disappearance in 2005. “Scientists would tell me, ‘My God, you guys are so on top of it! I can actually go to the Postto get science news!'” says Munro. Karen Zagor created Discovery from a blank sheet and edited it on and off until 2004. When it finally died in a round of cutbacks, only she and Munro mourned. There was little protest from the general reader-ship or the scientific community.

The Star‘s managing editor, Joe Hall, says science stories always score well on reader surveys, but he doesn’t place much stock in such responses. Peter Calamai calls it the “halo effect” when readers give
responses they think make them look good, or in this case, smart. “Certain subjects score relatively high because readers believe that a newspaper should cover the subject-whether they actually read them or not,” says Hall. But whether readers believe their papers should cover science or whether they just think that wanting science coverage makes them look smart, they’re acknowledging the importance an under-
standing of science has in making them informed citizens. Though it’s hard for skeptical editors to imagine, readers may genuinely want to read about what’s happening in organic chemistry or astrophysics.

It’s fall 2007 and Anne McIlroy is standing in Larsson’s lab at McGill watching him operate on chick embryos. He implants them with a tiny bead coated in proteins in the hopes that they will grow big, primitive-looking tails. Having conducted two preliminary interviews with Larsson by phone, she knew she needed to travel to Montreal to get this scene. It’s a concrete image, something real that will hook readers and entice them to continue reading through the fascinating but complex details of evo-devo. After a year’s work, she’s finally got the full package to deliver to her editors-captivating topic, news element, Canadian character and sheer wow factor. On November 3, 2007, the story runs to 3,000 words on the front page of the Globe‘s Focus section. Over at the Star, Peter Calamai is amazed-he would never have tackled anything that complex or tried to get so much scientific detail past his editors. “You don’t have the luxury anymore of just putting something in the paper about some rarefied aspect of science for the 20 percent of the people who might read it,” he says. But McIlroy sees it as part of the job, and proves that with the right recipe, even peas can be tasty. “If you ask people if they want to read a story about physics, they’re going to say no,” she says. “But if you write about how there’s this big collider that could theoretically create tiny black holes that might swallow the world, they’re going to read it. You just have to make it interesting and you’ll get them.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

three + 17 =