Push v pull for communications practice content (wherever it shows up)

Some — clearly very few — of you know that for more than five years I wrote a column in the quarterly magazine ScienceWriters (the house organ for the National Association of Science Writers) called Scholarly Pursuits.  The conceit behind this product was to digest/redact 3-4 scholarly articles for the 3,000 NASW members, who are overwhelmingly practitioners of one kind or another — jobbing journalists, freelancers and PIOs.

It is worth noting it had exceptionally low uptake or readership.  FYI.

Here’s a sample:

Scholarly Pursuits May 2010

Suggested Slug: Big Science, Little Releases

Suggested Tag: Science may be increasingly multi-institutional and involve a number of research partners, but the news releases are still home-grown affairs.

Shirttail – Rick Borchelt is director of communications in the USDA Office of Research, Education, and Economics.

Graube, M., F. Clark, and D. L. Illman. 2010. Coverage of team science by public information officers: Content analysis of press releases about the National Science Foundation Science and Technology Centers. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 40(2): 143-159.

In the not-so-distant past, most federal and other research grants supported one principal investigator and a handful of graduate students and post-docs, the so-called individual investigator model. Increasingly, however – at NSF, DOE, NIH and elsewhere – science has become a grand collaboration involving multiple institutions and many researchers, each of whom has some part to play in the overall research enterprise the agency has chosen to fund. The greater commitment of federal research investments in what many scholars call “Big Science” also requires multiple research actors, often at far-flung institutions.

One might assume that news releases from these partner organizations – to be fair and balanced – would give due credit to the other researchers in the project, if not to the agency that made the research possible. One would be wrong, Graupe and colleagues have found.

One of the early models for this kind of research is NSF’s Science and Technology Centers (STCs), which fund joint research projects conducted by a few to a few dozen collaborating scientists and institutions. Graube et al looked at a 2006 snapshot of news releases from 14 of the 17 Centers during the study period – 68 news releases in all – to figure out the extent to which PIOs involved or even mentioned other institutions or other researchers in releases issues from their home institutions.

The great majority (60 percent) of the releases were about research findings; a smaller but still significant 16 percent tracked some kind of institutional announcement like a founding or grant award. Despite the fact that STC funds also fund non-research work, and fund them well, the percentage of releases about education, diversity enhancement, and knowledge transfer all fell in the single digits. “While it is apparent, based on an extensive analysis of the centers’ websites and annual reports and through extensive interviews of center personnel by one of the authors, that knowledge transfer, educational, and diversity enhancement initiatives are taking place to a considerable degree and with significant levels of funding, the picture portrayed to the world, including to journalists, does not reflect the level of activity and investment at STCs in these broader mission elements,” Graube et al write.

About three-quarters of the time, the team found, the release mentioned the name of the Center at the institution, about the same percent as mentioned NSF. The STC program itself fared less well, getting play in fewer than half the releases. The upshot here, of course, is that a quarter or more of the releases never mentioned the funding agency or the funding program. Of the releases that mentioned NSF or STC, though, some 13 percent had an error in the name or acronym of the Center or the STC program. Imagine explaining that to the program officer!

PIOs also seemed to deliberately lowball the involvement of other researchers and portrayed the research only from the angle of their own institutions. Joint releases were very rare, comprising only about 13 percent of the total.

“The net effect is to highlight the single institution, single research stories, and to de-emphasize inter-institutional cooperation among center partners,” they conclude. “It is possible that competition for research dollars among universities and research institutions is one contributing factor.”

Gee. You think?

“The way that news originating from STCs is identified and reported to the world affects the extent to which team-mode research is visible to journalists and the public,” the authors write. “When two or more center partners issue joint press releases under the banners of the involved organizations and/or with contact information from the partners, this signifies to journalists and to the world that the news has resulted from a team effort and the partners together share ‘ownership’ of the results. A jointly issued release helps to frame the story as an outcome of ‘team science.’”

Tarnoczi, T.J. and F. Berkes. 2010. Sources of information for farmers’ adaptation practices in Canada’s Prairie agro-ecosystem. Climatic Change 98: 200-305.

One of the regular justifications of quality science writing in contemporary society is that it helps people make sense of science and technology issues that affect their daily lives. If there is a population where the need to make critical decisions about an emerging issue in science is manifestly evident, it’s the impact of climate change on farmers and agriculture workers.

Tarnoczi and Berkes explore how farmers and ranchers seek, find, and use information about climate change. Their focus is the Canadian prairie provinces – the Canadian “breadbasket” – but could be generalizable to a wide range of lay publics whose livelihoods are affected by socio-scientific issues. Long-term, the climate change prognosis for the Canadian provinces calls for warmer temperatures and greater aridity; currently, farmers there are experiencing increasing weather uncertainty and variability, and more frequent extreme weather events including droughts and floods, the authors note. In coping with this climatic uncertainty, do farmers find the media supplying them with information they need to preserve their livelihoods and productivity?

In semi-structured interviews with 28 farmers in Alberta and Manitoba, the authors found that social sources and personal experience – not media coverage – was the most common source for information regarding the practices (cited a total 90 times in the interviews). Government was the second most common source of information, followed by industry, producer and conservation organizations (cited 80, 77, 60 times respectively). Media came in dead last, cited 54 times.

“Farmers commonly cited media for providing information regarding tillage and organic farming,” they found. “However, for the most part, the information was written for a broad audience and did not contain applicable locally-specific material important for adaptation practices.”

Part of the issue with media information was farmers’ interest in direct observation before making a decision about new technologies to adopt or innovations to emulate. “Information that was observable or experiential was more significant for the adoption of new practices.” Tarnoczi and Berkes explained. “For example, farmers claimed to be more willing to try conservation tillage techniques after seeing a neighbour succeed with the practice, even when they already had prior information on it. Experiential knowledge was obtained through observation of the benefits or costs of new practices incurred by neighbours, trials with new equipment, and field demonstrations.”

Media available currently to farmers just can’t reproduce this “tire-kicking” approach, but could be part of a multimedia approach including face-to-face interaction.


Smith, K. C., R. F. Singer, and E. E. Kromm. 2009. Getting cancer research into the news: a communication case study centered on one U.S. comprehensive cancer center. Science Communication OnlineFirst, published online in advance of publication Dec. 30, 2009.

Very few research studies have looked at the construction of science news from the perspective of how scientists and research managers understand or value public communication about their work, Smith et al argue; and “have not explicitly considered news coverage of clinical science as a social product nor have they examined scientists’ expectations of the uses to which audiences would put communicated research findings.” The authors contend that only by understanding news coverage of cancer research as a social construct negotiated between scientists, public information officers, and the media can one actually make sense of what the public learns about cancer research.

To better understand this social construction, the team focused on one (anonymous) of the National Cancer Institute’s 40 Comprehensive Cancer Centers, located at a research institution in the U.S. They conducted in-depth interviews with stakeholders associated with many aspects of cancer research at the Center. In all, the study analyzed data from 20 in-depth stakeholder interviews: seven with scientists in the Center, four with communication professionals from the institution within which the Center was situated, four with communication professionals from key funding organizations and scientific journals, and five with health and science journalists who were in a position to cover research produced by scientists from the Center. Media interviewed included a health correspondent for a major, national cable news service; a reporter from a national wire service who was assigned to cover health issues; and a journalist for a major U.S. daily newspaper whose beat included health topics, as well as two journalists who cover health and science for the major daily newspaper local to the Center

These disparate stakeholders, Smith et al found, all superficially shared a common goal: “[T]he stakeholders all expressed support for the idea of seeking news coverage for cancer research,” they write. But then the motivations and expectations from public communication of the Center’s research started to diverge. “Our analysis reveals both considerable support for mediated communication of cancer science and substantial tensions as to what constituted news, who such stories should be told to, and with what goal in mind,” they explain. “The lack of clearly articulated overall objectives for cancer communication meant that descriptions of the process and place for such communication from the various stakeholders revealed considerable potential contradictions.”

Scientists, for example, “prioritized providing useable information — specific, conclusive findings that people can use to inform their prevention and treatment decisions — as the primary goal for communicating with the news media. Educating the public about the ‘big picture’ related to cancer research served as an important secondary goal for this group.” Another major motivator for the scientists and science managers in the study was the belief that success stories in the media would generate more funding for cancer research.

PIOs, for their part, also described value in enhancing public understanding of the incremental nature of scientific progress. “In essence,” the authors explain, “stakeholders who are involved in producing and communicating cancer research findings [see] value in framing discussion of newsworthy findings within a larger context of overall scientific progress.”

And the reporters? “Unlike the scientists and communication specialists, journalists did not talk in general terms about public education about science,” Smith et al say; “the work of constructing a story included determining whether people will care about a story and how to convey this to the audience. Similar to the scientists’ concern with educating the public, journalists’ accounts of getting people to care tended not to include any discussion of ‘to what end?”

The lack of concern about what people actual do with cancer research they read or hear about seemed to characterize all the stakeholders, the study found. “Scientists essentially conceptualized a one-way framework for scientific communication and did not refer to feedback from recipients of their messages to either their own work or even the communication of findings in the future. None of the stakeholder groups regularly articulated conceptualizations of what people might do with the information that they received.”

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