As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” These sentiments were echoed by Penny Park, during her lecture, Curiosity, Doubt, and Truth: What journalism and science have in common and why they need each other, at University of Toronto, Scarborough.
Park, executive director of the Science Media Centre of Canada, led the discussion on how scientists and journalists can improve their relationship to provide better stories.
“Doubt is the handmaiden of every journalist,” Park said. “Are you sure? Where did you get that information? Science journalism should embrace those steps before writing an article.”
Created by Jeffrey Dvorkin, program director for the UTSC journalism program, the event marked the first in a series of lectures dedicated to teaching journalism students the value of the trade. According to Dvorkin, with more science-related topics popping up, creating informative yet interesting stories is a balancing act.
“My experience with trying to engage people in the scientific community is that their issue is journalists are not writing their ideas accurately enough, so both need to communicate better,” said Dvorkin.
As a veteran science journalist whose work includes production for Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet and a former biology student, Park is familiar with both sides. Currently working for the SMCC, she provides background information, rapid response media inquiries and indepth analysis for news stories that delve into science. This includes environmental pollution and advancements in health.
Journalists and scientists can build stronger bonds, Park says, by having field experts verify information and word use before an article is published. However, journalists need to be vigilant from the beginning about who they contact.
“Journalists should look at their expertise, who funds them and if they’re reporting a new find, is it for commercial reasons,” said Park.
One example she cited was a recent study in a food technology and toxicology journal which reported that genetically modified corn can give rats cancer. After it had been released, the SMCC looked into it and realized the statistics in the reports were wrong.
“By having a science background, journalists can flag those types of thinking with basic critical thinking skills and stay out of the loop of faulty research stories,” said Park.
Both Park and Dvorkin believe the next step is for students to take science or journalism classes that will give them that much-needed background knowledge. As a result, the school is looking at creating a course that combines science and journalism and how scientific issues should be covered.
“How do you make the important ‘interesting’ and the interesting ‘important?’” Dvorkin said. “That becomes the challenge for all journalists. We need to look at how best to achieve that synergy with scientists.”