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March 13, 2000




AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org

"The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything-except what is
worth knowing ...." -Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900

Several years ago the First Amendment Foundation undertook an extensive
study of how science is treated by journalism. Their report (linked below)
suggested then that a significant gap existing between the two communities.
Bridging the gap between science and the general public requires addressing
this issue.

This report is all the more relevant today when we have food and restaurant
critics penning actual news articles relating to food science and government
safety regulations between cook book signings, and doing so for such august
publications as the New York Times. Poor reporting and use of explosive
language, such as Frankenfoods, is not the sole domain of British tabloids.
(In fact, you might be interested to know that the term Frankenfood was not
coined by the British tabloids or supermarkets as is often reported. The
venerable New York Times was the first to use this word in a page one
headline, Sunday, June 28, 1992: Geneticists' Latest Discovery: Public Fear
of 'Frankenfood. The term actually lifted from a letter-to-the-editor a
week prior.)

The public is provided information regarding science through various
filters, the most significant of which is the media. Today, seamless news
cycle (thanks to CNN and the Internet), intense competition and budgetary
constraints force journalists to quickly generate stories on a variety of
dissimilar topics using fragmented and often inaccurate sources. Few of
these reporters have any science background and even fewer concern
themselves with taking the time to report science related stories accurately
or completely.

Today's New York Times, page 1 story: Redesigning Nature -- A reign of fear,
clearly demonstrates how attractive the flamboyant fear campaigns of the
activists can be in generating front page news versus the Time's description
of "the discussion among 300 participants in the hall was serious science --
intelligent, earnest and a bit dull" from where this story was reported.
Surely such a story, absent the protesters (who numbered according to the
Times at fewer than 20), would have been relegated to a small note at best
buried in the back pages. However, 20 protesters message was clearly louder
and of more interest to the Times than the "dull" scientific reporting of
300 experts.

To view the First Amendment Foundation report:


Worlds Apart

Foreword "The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything-except
what is worth knowing ...." -Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900


Among multiple public complaints about newspaper and television news content
in this tabloid-tainted, media-saturated society is an odd criticism, laced
with irony and loaded with contradiction: Readers and viewers of mainstream
media assert that they are overfed with an information diet they don't want
and starved for news they need. Still, responsible editors and news
directors note with natural interest and professional regret the great gobs
of tabloid news about O.J., Princess Di, Marv and Jon-Benet that have been
consumed and digested by many millions of their customers. They know, of
course, that intellectual junk food sells. And they are entitled to wonder
once in a while, despite the public's complaint about its diet, whether
Wilde was right. Looking back on the news coverage of recent years, it's
obvious many editors and news directors believe he was. When celebrity fills
every inch and second of news space and air time, something else must be
omitted, perhaps something more important, something the public needs,
perhaps something even as entertaining-if not as titillating. This yearlong
study, by a veteran science journalist and a physicist who has spent years
in NASA's space-science program, considers something that has been left out
of most mainstream news coverage in recent years. Worlds Apart analyzes
media coverage and media attitudes as they relate to science and technology.
Science and technology? Can these topics really compete with celebrities for
news space? Jim Hartz, former host of NBC's Today show, and Dr. Rick
Chappell, trained as a space-shuttle payload specialist, would argue that
this competition is fair. With straight faces, they would assert that
science should win. Their study makes a compelling case that they are right
and Wilde was wrong. If you are a taxpayer, you should know and care that
$73 billion of your money last year went to scientific and technological
research and development. If you are a stockholder in any of a number of
major corporations, you should know that another $100 billion-plus was spent
by the private sector. If the nation's health fight-whether the enemy is
cancer or heart disease or AIDS-is your fight, it's a human-interest story,
a multibillion-dollar economic story and a science story. If crime concerns
you, you should know that DNA testing has made police investigative
procedures more effective by proving-in ways that lie detectors and
fingerprints never could-whether a suspect is likely to be implicated in
certain major crimes. Genetic engineering, cloning and fertilization
techniques: all of these are science stories. So is global warming. So are
all the new technologies that drive our computers and cell phones. Science
is literally a life-and-death news story that threads its way through every
aspect of American culture-and the media leave the public mostly
ill-informed about it, contend Hartz and Chappell. With extensive
interviews, detailed research, a public-opinion survey and anecdotal
reportage, the authors make the case that too many news organizations give
science short shrift, thereby depriving their readers and viewers of
information they both need and want. To read Worlds Apart is to understand
that some news decision-makers sincerely believe that their readers reject
science out of hand as a deadly dull subject. Others are intimidated in the
face of a subject they themselves know so little about. Still others
insist-and perhaps believe-they are adequately covering science under other
names: health, space, technology, the environment. The evidence the authors
present leaves no doubt that adequate coverage of science stories is rare,
found in only a handful of news outlets. It has not been forever thus.
Sputnik launched the space race more than 40 years ago, thrusting this
nation into a panicked competition with the Soviet Union, our dread enemy.
We answered the challenge. When Neil Armstrong took his "giant leap for
mankind" onto the surface of the moon, we knew the race was won. As
democratic impulses began to take root and the Soviets' "evil empire"
crumbled away, Americans began to relax. The spin-off benefits from the
space race flowed into consumer products such as fiber optics, cellular
phones, fax machines and home computers, but we began to take our scientific
advances for granted. The news media's interest in matters scientific
rapidly waned. Scientists have come to see the loss of media interest in
their field as dangerous to the future of the nation. Nobel Prize winners
have declared that we are eating our seed corn by failing to understand,
promote and support new scientific initiatives. There is a cruel irony in
the fact that journalists, whose own profession has been so radically
altered by the technology of the Information Age, are neglecting to explain
the transformation affecting their industry and so many others. There is
concern on the part of many reporters that even greater changes will shake
their news organizations as millions of Americans move to the new media for
their information. In a time of such great transition, the American people
need a better understanding of how science is daily altering lifestyles and
culture. In the nation's earliest days, the founding fathers knew that the
free flow of information was vital to sustenance of our democracy. That is
why they gave the free press constitutional protection. They anticipated
that journalists would use that liberty to create what Thomas Jefferson
envisioned as "an enlightened society." Today, Hartz and Chappell insist,
society is hardly enlightened when it comes to science-at the very time when
there are dramatic and disturbing legal, moral and constitutional debates
surrounding so many scientific breakthroughs. They call for journalistic
leaders to take a new look at science so that the public might be better
equipped to understand and participate in the growing debates. They ask it
in the spirit of values embodied in the free-press clause of the First
Amendment. The First Amendment Center is indebted to Jim Hartz and Rick
Chappell for their dedication and professionalism in researching and writing
Worlds Apart. -John Seigenthaler