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Communicating Science in the Digital Age

Two months after retiring from the Madison-based Wisconsin State Journal, where for 34 years he’d reported primarily on science and the environment, Ron Seely splays his hand on the table and points to a small knot of flesh on his palm.

It’s from how he cradled his iPhone, his physician told him, especially when Seely was constantly tweeting live from such events as legislative hearings on mining in Wisconsin.

“It was exhausting,” says Seely, who like many journalists balanced the new duties of tweeting and other social media tasks with researching and writing his stories, all while meeting daily deadlines. “It’s a vicious cycle: You create the expectation that people will have news instantly.”

Seely began his career in daily journalism with hot type and ended it with hot tweets. And his career—which includes serving as a teacher of life sciences communication at CALS—reflects the seismic changes that have jolted science journalism.

Take it from anyone who has ever struggled through freshman biology or o-chem: science news was hard enough to understand before the collapse of traditional media. Then Twitter and other social media exploded, blogs proliferated, reader comment sections swelled—and the science got even more complex.

It’s no longer just the newspaper plopping on your doorstep—the science journalism of years past, when discoveries were presented in one-way fashion by writers with science expertise and passively consumed by a trusting public. Science reporting was hit hard by the economic collapse of traditional media, with many science reporters laid off or not replaced upon retirement (example: the New York Times closed its environment desk early this year). As science journalism migrated online, web technology blurred the lines between professionally trained journalists, bloggers and other commentators, the public and, most notably, the scientists themselves, who face new and evolving challenges in understanding science communication.

Today, coverage is tweeted, re-tweeted, “liked” on Facebook, interpreted and reinterpreted by any willing participant—and is the target of instant and often rude, politically tinged reader commentary. With one in seven people actively using Facebook and Twitter users posting 340 million tweets daily, understanding the interaction between science news and readers is crucial.

In short, science communication is being reborn while the media reinvents itself online. That collision raises concern about how society views the science that can solve energy problems, mediate climate change, improve health and feed a hungry planet.

Stem cells, genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology, bioenergy and other complex advancements have all poured down on an American public ill prepared to understand even basic science. The National Science Board, for instance, in 2010 reported that only 73 percent of U.S. adults were able to answer correctly that the earth revolves around the sun; only 52 percent could say how long that takes. And a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that only 47 percent of respondents knew that electrons were smaller than atoms.

That lack of knowledge, combined with built-in attitudes about science among much of the public—often rooted in religious or political beliefs—makes groundbreaking discoveries difficult to grasp or embrace.

“We’re no longer just using microscopes. We’re using scanning, tunneling nanoscopes that go into 1,000 times more detail,” notes Dietram Scheufele, a CALS professor of life sciences communication. “The science is more complex, and just as complex is the question of what we want to do with that science.”

Small wonder that when the public turns to the media, it is often flummoxed, whipsawed by Internet trolls’ nasty comments and unsure what to think of the science’s legal, social and

We used to believe that if we only explained to people what the science is about, they would understand and support it.

ethical implications. In the process, is innovation handcuffed by public opinion at just the moment when society needs it most?

Against that backdrop, Scheufele and his colleague Dominique Brossard are in the vanguard of researchers who are trying to understand the emerging media landscape and its volatile dynamics.

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