Science Institute hosts journalists and sources

By: Rachel Fisher

Science Institute hosts journalists and sources
Summit affords both sides a rare chance to meet

PASADENA, Calif. ? California Institute of Technology scientist David Goodstein, with a doctorate in physics, is being peppered with questions about the mapping of human DNA by a group of journalists visiting Caltech’s leafy campus here. The inquiries fly fast and furious, laced with reporters’ typical intensity.
While such behavior would be the norm at a press conference, Goodstein, a specialist in physics, has just sat down to what was supposed to be a festive, non-working dinner. Only try telling that to this bunch of journalists, who are scribbling down the scientist’s quotes even as they sip chardonnay.
Welcome to the first annual Jack R. Howard Science Institute, a weeklong summit in late June between journalists who cover the areas of science, health, and medicine and the experts whose complex theories and discoveries the reporters must translate for the American public.
Twenty-five journalists from across the country, most of them working in print, were selected for institute fellowships, sponsored jointly by Caltech and the Pasadena-based Foundation for American Communications, a nonprofit organization providing content education for members of the media.
Largely funded by the Cincinnati-based Scripps Howard Foundation, the institute had reporters eating, drinking, and sleeping science, bunking on the Caltech campus, and attending lectures on everything from earthquakes to the solar system.
But perhaps even more helpful than this scientific immersion, say the reporters, was the rare chance to get to know on a personal basis the scientists whom they must badger for information.
“There’s really been a need for scientists and science journalists to meet and engender trust between the two groups,” notes Katy Human, science and environmental reporter for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo. “It was interesting to hear the scientists openly saying that they are afraid of the media.”
Part of that fear, say participants, stems from the fact that, unlike daily journalism, scientific advances are ongoing and do not get tidily wrapped up by afternoon deadline.
“[Scientists] won’t give you black-and-white definitives,” says Kerry Fehr-Snyder of The Arizona Republic in Phoenix. “You don’t get that cop-reporting thing where the cops say a guy’s guilty and the guy in jail says he’s innocent. It’s all shades of gray. ? So how do you apply that to a daily?”
“I do my story, look at the paper the next day to see how it turned out, and then move on to the next one,” says Martin Merzer, senior writer and science writer for The Miami Herald. “But if I screwed up [some facts] ? this is someone’s life’s work I’m using.”
Because science reporting often relates directly to readers’ health and ways they can better conduct their lives, “you’ve got to be more careful in terms of sourcing and phrasing than if you’re interviewing a celebrity or a politician,” says Michael W. Gaffney, health reporter for the Lubbock (Texas) Avalanche-Journal.
The job is tough and the stakes are high when it comes to reporting scientific and medical breakthroughs. An institute press release notes that nearly 60% of adult Americans polled by the National Health Council claim to have changed their behavior in response to health news reported in the media.
Edie Lau, science writer for The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee, can add her testimony to the evidence in this case: Readers call her to ask questions more frequently when she reports on breaking medical news and treatments than at other times.
While the science writers discussed in depth the heavy responsibility that comes with the beat, the week was not all seriousness. A gag-filled mock trial based on recent lawsuits against manufacturers of silicone breast implants was staged on the last night of the conference to illustrate not only how a science story becomes Page One news but also to give participants a little fun.
Laila McClay, associate producer and director for San Francisco KQED-FM radio’s “The Morning Report,” was having such a good time that she decided to remain at the conference even after she badly sprained her ankle early in the week and was put on crutches.
“I can’t think of another group of people who would have helped me out like these guys,” McClay says, indicating her fellow journalists. “They took me to the hospital and have brought me breakfast. And, besides, I’m learning too much to even think about going home!”
In fact, bonding with other reporters proved to be the best part of the week for many. “Just meeting other people has been like being back in the newsroom again,” says Giovanna Breu, a national correspondent for People who works out of the magazine’s Chicago bureau.
Covering science can mean that a reporter often finds himself justifying the importance of a story to non-science-minded editors. “It’s a different [kind of] beat,” says Gaffney.
“Many times, my editors come to me [at deadline] and say, ‘We’re waiting on you.’ I always tell them, ‘Do you want to try to write this?’ Because they don’t even know what I’m talking about.”
While the journalists rejoiced at the chance to hone their craft amid the California sunshine, science/medical reporter Jim Shamp, for one, was looking forward to his return to The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C. “It’s time to get back,” concluded Shamp, “and apply what I’ve learned.”
(Editor & Publisher [Caption]
(copyright: Editor & Publisher August 14, 1999) [Caption]

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