Science communication in the Australian media – How do we do it better?

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Climate change reporting in Australia is disproportionately negative. (source: abc.net.au)

It is an interesting era in which to be a scientist. For the first time in almost a century the federal government has not got a science portfolio and so Australia do not have a federal minister for science. We are faced regularly with doubt and delusion with regards to the reality of future climate change and unfortunately, a large proportion of climate deniers are widespread reporting in mainstream media. Given we are a developed and relatively well-educated nation the question is why is science so negatively reported? So this blog is not a biological science post, rather it is a post that focuses on the importance of science communication in an era when science must be heard. I think this is an important topic, especially as a large part of this blog has been to learn to effectively communicate science to all audiences. Trying to understand why Australia does not hold science and its findings as an important part of our development is important. Even more of an imperative is understanding what we can do to improve this.

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) held a public lecture and expert panel on the media’s treatment of climate change and climate science earlier this year. The fantastic panel included Wendy Bacon, professional Fellow with ACIJ; Professor Peter Ralph, Director of the Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster in UTS; Robyn Williams, ABC Radio National’s The Science Show and Will Steffan, Councilor with the Climate Council of Australia and researcher at Australian National University. The panel looked at the current state of science reporting, the potential reasons for this state of affairs and what the science community need to do to improve this.

Some mind boggling statistics were provided by Wendy Bacon about the state of science reporting in Australia, which were reported by ACIJ (2013). In the Northern Territory for example, only one science report every 5 weeks is printed, The Herald Sun rejects the findings of climate science in 97% of its science reports and the Australian generally reports climate scepticism. More disturbing is that the discourse of Andrew Bolt, one of the most prolific journalists and climate skeptics in Australia, seems to be forming national opinion when it comes to climate science, more than any scientist or academic. Bacon added further insult to injury with the statistic that, ‘Australia ranks at the top of per capita emission in the world, but we also have the highest concentrations of media scepticism or denialism in the world.’ It is a rather depressing thought that as a developed and educated nation, our mainstream media continue to reject the findings of the scientific community. Will Stefan suggests that the current scepticism is analogous to what was seen in the US with the battles to ban smoking advertising and the pseudoscience around the benefits of smoking.

So the question is what can the science community do? Well Robyn Williams suggests that scientists just aren’t very good at the four-word statements such as “climate change is a myth”. Journalists are trained communicators who learn to get their messages out as quickly and as catchy as possible. Scientists on the other hand have been trained to provide extensive background, reasoning and explanation for their work. We have huge messages and usually don’t have any communication training and background. Unfortunately it is the hard-hitting statements by well trained journalists, rather than the extensive research that sticks with the broader community. Dr Ralph suggests that not only can science report be disengaging, but also be depressing and leave people feeling powerless. We need to be clever, explained Ralph, we need to engage the broader public through platforms such as Crowdsourcing where we get the broader population involved in scientific observation. Coincidentally, a report on this was published only this month in the Sydney Morning Herald (Jonas 2013). These sort of platforms not only get people engaged with science but also obtain a vast amount of data.

Perhaps as scientists the days of long winded academic reports written for other scientists are coming to an end. Perhaps a hero of mine, Tim Minchin, is right when he says that ‘the arts and sciences need to work better to communicate science’. The impacts of a changing world will impact everyone, and ensuring that everyone is engaged in this changing world is vital. Science should not be an exclusive field but rather something that includes us all, something where we all believe we can make a difference. Communicating science should not be something that someone else does, learning to involve, engage and communicate science to all levels will be key if we want to see a change in the current discourse. Maybe then we will see a change in media reporting.

References

Bacon. W (2013) Sceptical Climate Part 2: Climate Science in Australian Newspapers Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, University of Technology Sydney.

Jonas. G (2014) The rise of the citizen scientists. Sydney Morning Herald, Accessed 18 May. http://www.smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/the-rise-of-the-citizen-scientists-20140516-zrcij.html  

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About loutosetto

A research masters student currently studying at Macquarie University. My interests are in coastal marine ecosystems. I like the interaction between the urban and the marine environments and the specialised environments that the fauna have evolved to survive in such variable environments.
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