Journalists vs Scientists: summarised by an animated GIF



Some context: To advertise the collaborative-editing capabilities of Google Drive, Google ran a campaign two years ago using the Hall & Oates song¬†Maneater, featuring the eponymous musicians simultaneously using a Google Docs file to come up with lyrics to the hit. They also gave us the “Gone Google Story Builder” tool, allowing anyone to make a short clip of their own in similar fashion.

Shortly after the discovery of a new type of particle that we now believe is a Higgs boson, I made the above clip to illustrate the difficulties of communicating science, highlighting the differences between scientists’ need for 100% accuracy and journalists’ need to tell a compelling and understandable story. I shared a link with my friends on Facebook to lukewarm response and forgot all about it.

Today, while going through my Facebook profile looking for something else, I came across the link to the original clip and decided (as you do, these days) to make an animated GIF of it and share it on Google+, a social network that has supported such files for quite some time. I was a little surprised by the reaction. As of writing this entry, the post on Google+ has 53 +1s and 77 re-shares, and has been seen over 27,000 times. That is by far the most successful thing I have ever posted on Google+.

A few people, though, missed my point.

Peter Smalley, for example, said, “This is exactly how media sources get science wrong – except usually scientists don’t get to be involved at all.”

That’s not what I was going for at all. The point isn’t that journalists get science wrong (I’m not saying they don’t), it’s that those on the other side of the fence are rarely receptive to their needs. Scientists regularly give the journalists what they assume will be sufficient: objective facts. This is usually accompanied by an insistence that the wording of the journalistic piece reflect the terminology and caveats that are present in the scientific publication. I’ve also found scientists reacting with shock when journalists ask them questions that seem simple or basic, not accounting for the fact that journalists have to cover a wide range of topics and don’t typically have the luxury of writing about just the field of the scientist in question.

I thought I should clarify that my sympathies, in this case, lie with the journalists!

I welcome your feedback.