Science and the media: Can they coexist peacefully?

Science and the media: Can they coexist peacefully?
Bob McDonald at Treehouse Talks
Bob McDonald talks about science

What profession do you trust the most? A recent Ekos poll revealed good news for scientists. When answering the question “How much trust do you have in each of the following occupational groups or individuals?” scientists came out on top, beating out other professionals such as journalists, priests, politicians and union leaders.

This bodes well for scientists trying to communicate the complexity of current research. However, our television screens and newspapers are rarely filled with nuanced science commentary. The media is filled with simplified reports of scientific findings, annoying scientists and other technologists who have spent years analyzing problems.

Whose fault is this?

Scientists might be tempted to blame the media as being superficial and blasé about the rigours of scientific research. The media might lay the blame on scientists who speak in impenetrable jargon, unaware of how their research speaks to the priorities of the average Canadian.

Why is science such a challenge to cover well in mainstream media?

  1. Deadlines:  The reality is that most journalists work on very tight deadlines. To keep up with the volume of information demanded by customers, journalists are producing more content in less time. Journalists don’t often have the time to delve into the complexities of scientific research. They want a clear and simple story they can tell their readers.
  2. Headlines: Complexity is also constrained by space on the page. Headlines are not written by journalists, but by a sub-set of specialists who design headlines to attract reader attention. This is why scientists are often dismayed that the most controversial thing they mention, even if only in passing, is what makes it into 24-point font above the fold.
  3. The bottom line: 50 years ago, if you wanted news, you opened up the daily paper. Now newspapers have to compete with TV, blogs, newsfeeds, radio and websites.  All of these sources of information are, at bottom, businesses that need to make money, which means attracting and retaining customers. Producers and editors have a very clear idea of who their target market is and how they need to frame stories to retain those consumers.
  4. Ambiguity: As articles and news segments get shorter and shorter, mainstream media begins to reject complexity. Good news stories have a clear message and a clear binary division between good and bad (mugger = bad, old lady = good). Science is, by its very nature, collaborative and complex. There are nuances in research and variables that matter that can’t be compressed into a 20-second soundbite or a 500-word article. This can make it frustrating for scientists and journalists to cooperate.

Still, the stakes are too high to give up. In the same Ekos survey, 69% of Canadians agreed with the statement “It really bothers me that hard scientific evidence isn’t shaping public policy to the degree that it should be.”

In an effort to bridge the divide, MaRS is hosting an event on April 4th devoted to looking at the intersection between research and the media. Journalists from different media and researchers from different fields will be meeting to discuss how we can best mend the rift that has grown between these two groups.

Want to continue this conversation in person? Join the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education Introductory Event here at MaRS. Tickets are free, but must be requested from Project Coordinator Lindsay Archibald at

The event is designed to draw attention to a large international conference, the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education, being held in Toronto from June 16-18. Get more information on this at