Dan Falk
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Showtime for Science

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To make it on TV news, scientists must step out of character: If the role is wrong, so is much of the coverage

Every thing about the clamor for a new particle accelerator by physicists at the University of British Columbia appealed to the reporter in Eve Savory. The accelerator would produce subatomic particles – kaons, which have important medical and industrial uses-in unprecedented quantities. The kaon factory story, Savory tried to explain to her supervisors at the CBC, would be about a fundamental mystery of the universe, a report from the frontier of matter and energy. What’s more, the story had a political dimension since eastern scientists claim that the project will never justify its $1.2 billion startup costs, while in the west, scientists passionately demand an end to the Ontario/Quebec bias of federal funding agencies.
But to Savory, the story was worthwhile simply because it was about scientists. Unlike many reporters who loathe the job of trying to elicit anecdotes and personal insights from scientists, Savory likes the challenge. “I know there are evil scientists and power-seeking scientists and money-seeking scientists out there,” she says. “But, though it may sound really naive, I think there are also some real idealists who are looking for truth and for something that will help the world, and I always want to tell their story. And it frustrates me that I don’t do it better than I do because of my own limitations and the limitations of television.”
Savory is, in fact, one of the few broadcast journalists even taking up the challenge. An eleven-year veteran of The National, she is one of only a handful of network news reporters dedicated full-time to a science beat. She is also very good at what she does. A three-time winner of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association’s Science Journalism Award, Savory was nominated again last year for her three-minute feature on the effects of global warming in the Arctic permafrost. But her piece was edged out for first prize by another of her stories, this one filed from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California on the Voyageur space probe’s fly-past of the planet Neptune. Yet in spite of the combination-a story with/national significance and an award-winning journalist aching to tell it-the kaon item sat on the back burner at The National for almost two years. Savory would bring it up in sessions with her assignment editor four or five times a year, packaged along with a list of other possible stories in British Columbia to help justify the travel costs. But time after time, it was passed over. “They would say, ‘That’s intriguing but we can’t get you out there. There’s no money and there’s no news peg.’ With all the other news-Beijing, Panama, Eastern Europe, Meech Lake, the Liberal leadership, Okawe just never had the room or the money to do it.”

As long as science stories are regarded as difficult and complicated-hard for reporters to cover and yielding little in the way of pictures-they can never compete with traditional political and economic news for the limited resources and valuable airtime of the TV networks.
Yet in 1973, 43 percent of respondents to a national survey said the media do a poor job of covering science. And it seems little has changed since then. A study released by the University of Calgary in 1989 showed that 40 percent still feel that way. This, in spite of headlines telling of space probes, medical breakthroughs, AIDS, climate change, ecological breakdown and a host of other complex scientific issues. Stories about medicine and health, energy and the environment touch everyone’s lives now more than ever before. The public is truly dependent on scientific information. And it is to the media-to television in particular-that they turn to for this information. But news organizations rarely understand the science behind the stories and, to make matters worse, seldom go to the scientists who might set the record straight.
Environmental stories are handled particularly poorly. Ongoing problems such as deforestation or global warming require thorough analysis, making them more likely to show up in longer feature pieces than in the news itself. Then there are more dramatic stories, such as industrial accidents or oil spills. These offer the drama of confrontation-usually between big business on one side and environmental or native groups on the other-which opens such stories to sensational reporting. But the science is all too easily lost in the sensationalism. In 1989, the National Media Archive, an agency of Vancouver’s Fraser Institute, studied the coverage that environmental stories receive on Canadian television. The finding was that scientists were rarely sought out for interviews in comparison with other sources. For example, government spokesmen and environmental activists were each given 25 percent of the airtime in CBC’s stories, while scientists got just 10 percent. The privately owned CTV network was even worse, giving more than 60 percent to government sources, 10 percent to environmental groups, and only five percent to scientists. Moreover, according to the NMA report, even when scientists were cited, their opinions were systematically discounted.
In an opinion piece last fall in The Globe and Mail, John Chuck man, a senior economist at Imperial Oil, accuses the media of oversimplifying. He says that disasters such as oil spills are often covered in a “Chicken Little” manner, alarming audiences instead of informing them. “The complexity of environmental issues-in which scientific and economic factors are intertwined-goes largely unreported. All too often, stories are sensationalized and the remedies suggested are simplistic.”
“People are interested in science,” says Jeffrey Crelinsten, co-founder of The Impact group, a Toronto science communication consulting firm and president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association. “But the editors and producers-the gatekeepers who tell the journalists whether their programs can go on the air-those people have a view that people aren’t interested in science. But they’re wrong.
“A democracy works by providing people with information, and the media is an information pipeline. And if it’s structured in such a way that important information can’t get through, then it’s failing.”
Part of the reason good science stories often don’t make it from the lab to the evening news is the communication gap between scientists and journalists. While reporters often give short shrift to the views of the scientific community, many scientists, for their part, dismiss the concerns of journalists and the needs of the media as irrelevant. They avoid interviews or restrict their comments to chapter and verse of proven data. Though that attitude is understandable in the scientific community, it frustrates the reporter’s need to find the human drama behind the story.
One reason scientists are hesitant to talk to the media is because they fear the reaction of their colleagues. “Scientists who popularize, in general, are often thought less of by their colleagues,”
says Patterson Hume, a retired computer science professor who hosted several prime time science shows on the CBC in the late fifties and sixties. “You’re suspect, in some ways, if you are seeming to bring science down to everyday terms.”

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