June 25, 2001
Panel debates science,media
By Eric Rangus firstname.lastname@example.org
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
its the scientific community, Polak said. Theyre
the ones who have the eyes and the vision of the future. Theyre
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
doesnt it happen? Why dont 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
Otis Brawley, the Winship Cancer Institutes 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. Its 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 networks
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 dont
see that science has become part of the culture. Its 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
Americas 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 nations 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
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
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.