Science writers define their voice amidst controversy

Reporter's notebook

Photo courtesy of Roger H. Goun/Flickr

By Rachel Zamzow

SAN JOSE — What is the job of science journalists? Are we cheerleaders for science, detached translators or bold truth-tellers? And how does this role shift in the face of polarizing controversy?

Science writers covering the 2015 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science debated these roles Friday during a luncheon honoring the winners of the 2014 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.

As the recent measles outbreak holds the attention of Americans, science journalists are positioned to cry out against the infamous – and completely fraudulent – link between autism and the MMR vaccine. But should we?

This was one of the questions posed by Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Lee Hotz to science writers attending the luncheon and a panel of the Kavli award winners. Members of the audience and award winners alike responded to Hotz’s probing queries about the field.

The autism-vaccine controversy is one of the rare cases in science where you can say something is true or completely incorrect, said Laura Helmuth, science and health editor at Slate. And she thinks journalists have a responsibility to do so with conviction.

“When people are upset and they’re swearing, it’s probably time to write an opinionated piece,” she said. Climate change, which rests on strong scientific consensus, also presents an opportunity for journalists to speak truth instead of provide misleading false balance.

But perhaps there’s a more active way to engage the public on polarizing issues. Simply telling people the truth doesn’t always change their minds, said Rob Stein, a Kavli award winner and senior editor of NPR’s health and science desk.

Science News managing editor Tom Siegfried does not think the journalist’s job is to persuade people. Instead, we should provide factual information in areas where there is debate, he said.

Kavli award winner Michael Rosenfeld applied this idea on the recent NOVA documentary “Vaccines – Calling the Shots.” Instead of just debunking the false autism-vaccine link, Rosenfeld and his team covered new research on the possible causes of autism.

“I see a place for a calm, authoritative voice where there is public confusion or disagreement,” said Rosenfeld, who won for the PBS series “Your Inner Fish.”

But what about when the science isn’t as clear? As fields such as particle physics and cancer biology become increasingly complicated, there is more room for uncertainty. Here the job of the science journalist is to “show the reader that science is always changing,” freelance writer David Dobbs said.

Near the end of the Pacific Standard piece that earned him a Kavli award, Dobbs takes a narrative aside to tell the reader his source is speculating about an unexplored idea in genetics. Being clear with the reader is important, he said.

When controversy infuses the public’s view on scientific topics, the role of the science journalist may appear complex. But at its core, the craft is elegantly straightforward, according to New York Times columnist George Johnson. For this two-time Kavli award winner, the goal is simply “to sit and write what is true.”

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The 2014 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award winners were recognized Friday, February 13, at a ceremony at The Tech Museum of Innovation. From left to right, Rob Stein, Micheal Rosenfeld, Matthew LaPlante, David Dobbs, George Johnson, Michael Werner and Mara Grunbaum. Photo courtesy of Atlantic Photography Boston.

The Kavli winners were also recognized at a ceremony Friday evening at the Tech Museum of Innovation in downtown San Jose. Each award winner shared brief insights on their recognized pieces and reflected on the privilege that is being a science writer.

The winners of the 2014 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards:

  •  David Dobbs, Pacific Standard, for his story exploring changes in gene expression with one’s social environment:
    The Social Life of Genes
  • Michael Werner, KCTS 9/QUEST, for his television feature on the wolves of Cascade Mountain:
    The Ecology of Fear
  • Michael Rosenfeld, David Dugan and Neil Shubin, Tangled Bank Studios/Windfall Films for PBS, for their television series on the evolutionary path from fish to humans:
    Your Inner Fish
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