Lost in translation: science journalists and society

By
Wendy Smith and David Secko

It's not easy reporting on science these days. Or so the story goes.

Science is a complex, rapidly evolving target. This combined with cutbacks and deadlines can lead to the oversimplification of newsworthy science, shoddy science slipping into newspapers, the creation of conflicts that don’t exist or the maintenance of those long forgotten by scientists, among other issues. So the story goes.

By
Wendy Smith and David Secko

It's not easy reporting on science these days. Or so the story goes.

Science is a complex, rapidly evolving target. This combined with cutbacks and deadlines can lead to the oversimplification of newsworthy science, shoddy science slipping into newspapers, the creation of conflicts that don’t exist or the maintenance of those long forgotten by scientists, among other issues. So the story goes.

It’s not hard to scan the web or library stacks and pull out a history of study on science journalism that is littered with the words “hype”, “polarization” and “sensationalism”. That's not to say journalism in general isn't accused of the same transgressions on a regular basis. That’s also not to say there isn’t a lot of damn good science journalism, which is all the more laudable considering the numerous challenges facing the science beat (including recent cuts and suggestions that dedicated science journalists in Canada may be on the decline).

Our interest in these issues is strongly linked to the untold personal experiences of Canadian science journalists. To us, these largely untold stories shape and define the collective role of science journalists as they interact with science and society. We hope to dig up them up, to discuss them and to ask: what about our collective Canadian experience do we wish to defend? And what do hope to improve?

Lost in Translation: Bill Murray as an Analogy for the Science Journalist

Traditionally it was assumed that science journalists simply functioned as an interface between scientists and non-specialists. Reporters were seen as a pipeline through which information from scientific experts reached the eyes and ears of the passive public. They translated lab lingo for the non-specialist.

So what does Bill Murray have to do with all this?

A lot, suggested André Picard at a recent Health Journalism Workshop at Concordia University.

For Picard, Murray's role in the movie Lost in Translation is emblematic of his experience at the interface between science and journalism.

Murray plays an American actor adrift in Tokyo, Japan, grappling with a country that is utterly alien to him. In Picard’s experience, health reporters and scientists are foreign entities to each other. Scientists can spend months in the lab testing one variable, while journalists can make snap decisions (cover X, ignore Y) and prefer what they can summarize in 21 words or less. Scientists pepper their work with caveats and often conclude that more study is needed; journalists are fond of breakthroughs and some confess to a strong dislike for uncertainty – "it drives them crazy," Picard says. Both sides speak vastly different languages – and because of this, information can get lost in translation.

Within this translational abyss, what has Picard’s experience taught him? We’ll mention three things here: select good research, summarize it, and simplify it. At its best, this will provide a “snap shot” of accurate scientific information that is understandable and showcases real people.  At its worst, it will oversimplify, mislead and betray.

Is Translation Enough?

From Picard’s vantage point, we haven’t made much progress doing away with the Lost in Translation setting. "I feel like it's two steps forward and one step back sometimes," he says. "We're not winning the battle here…we are caught in that model.”

From our perspective, “that model” often mandates a breakthrough or conflict driven, translational role for the science journalist. Within this frame of mind, the science journalist’s key preoccupation is linguistic translation.  Translations of lab lingo are then (for example) framed as breakthroughs, even though, as Picard correctly suggests, real breakthroughs are few and far between. The result is the audience suffering from chronic breakthrough fatigue.

That’s partly why the translational model has been flagged as one potential culprit in the public's collective apathy towards science – which can preclude citizens from engaging in policy debates about issues that increasingly affect their health, their safety and their environment. This is all occurring at a time when the pace of science is accelerating and its ramifications ripple through political, ethical and legal arenas. (Think stem cells, nanotechnology, biobanks and biofuels, for instance.)

We are, therefore, interested in alternative models related to the role of the science journalist.

Our intention is to collect the lived experiences and perspectives of people who are implicated in the production of science journalism. Then we’ll see how we can integrate these different perspectives to suggest a broader, more wide-ranging role for the Canadian science journalist.

Even with this small start, Picard’s experiences suggest that discrimination is perhaps a more important focal point than worrying about whether we are lost in translation. Discrimination here could refer to journalists focusing not only on becoming more discriminating in their selection of good research (weeding out dubious scientific claims, for example) but also helping non-specialist readers or viewers to do the same.

Discrimination and translation need not be mutually exclusive, and lots of journalists wear both hats. But emphasizing the function of discrimination in Canadian science reporting does point to the need to enable the creation of relationships where journalists can in part learn from scientists on how they discriminate good research from bad. (Some international examples of this do exist.)

And as we collect stories, we are keeping our eyes open to how science journalism might help enable citizens to do the same.

David Secko is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism at Concordia University and lead investigator on the New Models in Science Journalism project. Wendy Smith is a research assistant on the same project and a Montreal-based freelancer. After earning a PhD studying soil amoeba, Secko now turns his attention to journalists who cover science. The goal is to better understand, support and improve how the world he knew communicates with the world he now inhabits as a science journalism professor.

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