Contributed by Mandy Slate
We’ve probably all encountered both journalistic misrepresentation and poorly communicated science at some point. When the two collide we sometimes see the blame placed on the journalist for misinterpreting the science (there is even a prize for the most flagrant of these examples see: http://deevybee.blogspot.com/2010/06/orwellian-prize-for-journalistic.html) or conversely the academic may be criticized with being too dense. But perhaps neither of these assumptions are entirely fair.
The translation of science through the journalistic lens shouldn’t be as difficult as it is after all both parties generally have the same goal of clearly and precisely communicating a concept. In reality, this is not so easily played out. Academics often fill their explanations with undefined jargon and/or move too quickly through complicated concepts. In fact, this challenge is not exclusive to the academic-journalist interaction. Scientists are renowned for their inability to clearly communicate their research to academics outside of their discipline and oftentimes even fail among their own research cohort.
As a result of this communication barrier, journalists become imperative as they attempt to bridge the information gap between the academic world and the rest of society. Academics require public support for funding and policy issues. Additionally, oftentimes the topic of the research itself directly pertains to the general public either through its relevance to our health or environment. People are better equipped to make conscientious decisions on these complicated subjects when the oftentimes bewildering complexity of a subject can be made plain. As far as the public is concerned, the value of science will grow in proportion to its direct relevance.
There are a few simple things we, as academics, can work to incorporate into our verbiage to facilitate this cross-communication. 1) Learn to use understandable measurements: Although this is not likely to work in scientific publications, in communiques that are directly intercepted by the public we can try and translate less common measurements like hectares to more easily interpreted dimensions like the size of a football field or an amount of water could be compared to the capacity of a local lake. Using metaphors (and using them well) can really be to the academics benefit in these cases. 2) Avoid jargon whenever possible: There are many levels of this but in general if you can describe the idea to a third grader (and have them understand it) than there is a good chance that you are being clear enough. 3) Practice: I have many times heard researchers say that their work is not glossy or hot and thus it will never be picked up by the press. I don't buy this. Something drew you to this research topic so deeply that you now lose sleep, suffer socially, and ignore your general well-being to pursue it. Practice communicating this essence that has so infiltrated your life. Make it beautiful and fascinating. Passion can be contagious.