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June 25, 2001

Panel debates science,media

By Eric Rangus


The complex entanglement of science, education, politics and the media took center stage during a panel discussion on the difficulties of communicating the importance of medical research to the public, June 15 in WHSCAB auditorium.

The theme of “Meeting of the Minds: Scientists and Media Tackle Issues of Communcation,” was wrapped up rather nicely in the opening remarks of Georgia State Sen. Mike Polak (D-Atlanta).

“When you talk about who can bring vision to our leaders, I believe it’s the scientific community,” Polak said. “They’re the ones who have the eyes and the vision of the future. They’re looking to take what we can learn and move us forward.

“Media can be the conduit to make that happen,” he continued. “Media can bring scientific and opinion leaders together. But why doesn’t it happen? Why don’t we have the opportunity?”

The atypically large panel of nine speakers spent the better part of two-and-a-half hours discussing those questions and debating the various answers.

Otis Brawley, the Winship Cancer Institute’s associate director for cancer detection, control and intervention and a professor of hematology and oncology, said those in the medical community can err by not distinguishing among what is “known,” “not known” and “believed.” A lack of definition can lead to confusion.

Paul Fernhoff, medical director of the genetics laboratory and associate professor of pediatrics, used baseball terminology to make his point. He said the media look to report a “grand slam,” while basic science is unglamorous. “It’s a lot of bunts and sacrifice flies,” he said. “And a lot of it turns into strikeouts.”

CNN medical correspondent Rhonda Rowland was one of three media panelists. She said public relations people have helped smooth communication between scientists and journalists. She added that journalists are much better read now than they were years ago. When she started at CNN, the network’s medical reporters read just two journals. They now look at 20 and receive more than 500 medical-news-related faxes a week.

The discussion, however, frequently turned toward education. Nick Tate, science and medicine editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, quoted statistics that said more than half the people polled do not know the earth orbits the sun. This, he said, is a clear sign that science news is not related well to the public.

Solutions, the panel agreed, would not come easy. But all suggestions appeared to be based in education.

Tate said the print media are often put in the position of educating readers. Responsible members of the media, he said, put things in perspective and context for the audience.

Thomas Insel, director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, said making science more a part of daily life was crucial (he humorously noted that virtually all major newspapers carry a daily astrology column, “and then science news every Tuesday,” he deadpanned). “You don’t see that science has become part of the culture. It’s still seen as arcane,” he said.

“We need to train future scientists in communication,” said panelist Rick Chappell, who, prior to the roundtable discussed his book, Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future, along with co-author (and former “Today Show” co-host) Jim Hartz. “Scientists are not always able or inclined to talk about what they are doing,” Chappell said. Hartz served as panel moderator.

Journalists also have a responsibility to learn the subject matter.

Chappell said just 5 percent of the nation’s editors have a science background, and while many highly skilled science writers produce well-researched stories, many general assignment reports are not as scientifically adept.

“There is a loss of information if the reporter does not know the “subject matter,” Chappell said. “And we also need to help gatekeepers understand the value of science and technology.”

Other panelists included Michael Giarrusso, Atlanta news editor for the Associated Press; Amelia Langston, assistant professor of medicine; and Randy Martin, professor of medicine
and director of noninvasive cardiology.

The event was co-sponsored by the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience and Research!America, a nonprofit alliance of 414 organizations dedicated to making medical research a higher national priority.

The Emory event was the 17th in a series of media-science forums sponsored by Research!America, beginning in June 1998. Previous panels have drawn noted speakers such as ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson and Michael Katz, vice president for research for the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.

(Click here for more information about recent survey reports regarding science reporting and research.)



Back to Emory Report June 25, 2001