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21Jun 2013

Does the U.S. need a Science Media Center?

Does the U.S. need a Science Media Center?

England's Science Media Centre has been in operation for more than a decade now. Others have been established in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, and a committee has been formed to consider setting one up in the United States.

All of which makes this a good time to ask the question posed this week by The Observatory at Columbia Journalism Review: Does the Science Media Centre help journalists?

That is apparently not its purpose. It was set up, says its director, Fiona Fox, to help scientists deal with the press. Its governing philosophy, she writes in Part 1 of a three-part series, is that "The Media will ‘Do’ Science Better when Scientists ‘Do’ the Media Better."

You might be forgiven for not understanding this; the SMC is not clear about it. Its home page links to programs for journalists, scientists, and press officers--and journalists come first. It identifies itself as "primarily a press office," which means that it is primarily devoted to publicizing science, not to helping scientists deal with the press.

Columbia Journalism Review has assembled a half dozen or so writers to debate the value of such science media centers. Part 1 is a debate over the value of the British center; Part 2 discusses how the media centers performed during the Fukushima nuclear crisis. And Part 3 asks whether establishing such a center in the U.S. would be a good idea.

My reading of these debates and discussions is that the people behind the centers are more enthusiastic about them than are journalists, who are largely skeptical.

I'm skeptical, too. I'd like to know more about the problem these centers are supposed to solve, and some detailed explanation of how they believe they are doing it--and can do it in the U.S. 

-Paul Raeburn



Paul asks: "I'd like to know more about the problem these centers are supposed to solve, and some detailed explanation of how they believe they are doing it".

All of the SMCs face a series of different local circumstances so we work slightly differently. For instance, in New Zealand, there is only one full-time science reporter left working in the media (for Radio New Zealand), so the problem we are trying to address is that science is covered by general reporters who don't have the time, background (or inclination) to cover science in-depth. 

If you think this is a world away from the US - it is, but don't get too comfy - you've seen and tracked the decline in science reporters and science sections in your own country. It will get worse before it gets better.

In NZ and Australia our focus therefore is very much on helping those journalists trying to cover science stories, do a better job. So part of that is proactively flagging research and experts when big issues are kicking off in the media.

One example... recently, one of our biggest cities, Hamilton, voted to stop fluoridating its town water supply. A big argument ensued between anti-fluoride activists and local politicians who voted against the move. Where was the science in the commentary? Nowhere until we rounded up comment from a university expert who spent the rest of the week laying it out for the media...

On on Sciblogs platform - 30 scientists blogging about their areas of expertise, extensive science-based discussion continued

Scientists in my country are not particularly rewarded or encouraged to be proactive on the science communication front, so encouraging those scientists who are willing to speak out on controversial issues in a time fashion that is useful to the media is also part of our job. That is why, as well as working every day with media tackling science-related issues, we help up-skill scientists through our Science Media SAVVY course, the only intensive science media training course for scientists in New Zealand.

The model isn't perfect and each SMC struggles with a different set of issues - including sustainability. But the need we address is real, particularly in countries where specialist media has been totally hollowed out. The question is how quickly this happens in your area of preoccupation... the US of A. That will determine to some extent the need for a US Science Media Centre and the way in which it will operate.

Peter Griffin, Manager, New Zealand Science Media Centre, editor of Sciblogs, former technology editor New Zealand Herald. 


I appreciate the spirited defenses of the Canadian center, and I hope I did not inadvertently besmirch the center in my discussion of the UK operation.

I was a founding director of the Science Media Centre of Canada.

I am also a newspaper journalist with 40+ years experience.

The Canadian SMC follows a different path than the U.K. one. Check our website and you'll see that we define our primary goal as helping journalists reporting about science, not helping researchers tell their story.

However, we do put on "Bootcamps" for researchers to try to explain to them what we call the journalistic method (as a parallel to the scientific method). These bootcamps feature a panel of experienced journalists describing a "typical" day in the news operation of a newspaper, a radio service such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or a TV station.

We offer this Journalism 101 Bootcamp on a cost-recovery basis and have so far presented about 10 to universities, research institutes and professional conferences. The feedback indicates that the researchers feel they now understand media imperatives and journalistic values much better. This knowledge helps them in communicating science through the media, they say.

We also offer a companion Bootcamp for journalists, called Science 100. This is aimed at General Assignment reporters who are more and more being called upon to cover stories with major science, technology or medical components, and have no background for doing so.

(As an aside, no major Canadian media outlet would consider for one moment assigning a neophyte to cover a story about the National Hockey League but they think nothing of asking a GA reporter with no science background to interview a researcher about an advance in cancer treatment or string theory.)

The Science 101 backgrounder have had a more difficult time getting off the ground because newsrooms find it very hard to pull reporters "off the line" for even a shortened two-hour version. So instead we are now targetting the graduating-year classes at J-schools, who will be tomorrow's GA reporters.

I was slightly disappointed that Paul Raeburn had apparently not checked the SMCC website. He would have found there ample evidence that our primary audience is journalists, and especially non-specalists reporters, producers and the like.

And if he had looked at the editiorial advisory committe of the Centre, he would have seen people like Margaret Munro, science reporter for PostMedia, the country's largest newspaper group, and Jim Handman, executive producer of the hour-long CBC weekly science program, Quirks and Quarks.

These are working science journalists who obviously believe that the SMCC does valuable work for journalists. I chair the advisory committee. I first became an NAWS member in 1969 when I was the science reporter for Canada's largest newspaper group. After 25 years as a foreign correspondent and editor, I rejoined NASW in 1998 when I was the science reporter for The Toronto Star, the largest daily newspaper in he country.

Earlier this month the Canadian Science Writers' Association, of which I am a founder, presented me with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

So, for what it's worth, I join Margaret Munro, Jim Handman and the small number of science journalists still practising in staff jobs in Canada as attesting to the valuable work done by the Science Media Centre of Canada --primarily to assist journalists who are NOT specialized science reporters.

Check it out for yourselves at

Peter Calamai

Ottawa, Canada   


Can't speak for the Aussies or Brits, by as a member of the Editorial Advisory Committee of the Science Media Centre of Canada, I can state quite confidentally that our SMC is primarily devoted to helping journalists.

As readers of this blog know all too well, our science journalism colleagues are going the way of the dinosaur in most mainstream media. And the slack is being taken up by General Assignment reporters, who lack the background, training, education or experience to cover complex science stories.

That's why we started the SMC in Canada - to help GA reporters "when science hits the headlines". We alert them to interesting science papers and science events each week, poining out Canadian content (such as a Canadian co-author on a paper) when appropriate. And we help put them in contact with a bank of scientists who can answer their science questions on deadline.

It's really hard to see a downside to this effort - at least the way we're doing it up here.  So far, reporters and editors across the country have embraced us, and I don't see any other organisation fulfilling this role.  It can only lead to better journalism and better understanding of science (IMHO).  In the ideal world, every major newspaper and broadcaster would have a science specialist on staff - but that ain't going to happen.  This is one solution to the problem.


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