Media reporting on technology issues often leaves a lot to be desired. Why?
It's a long story, rooted in misunderstandings and differences in outlook, but here's my attempt to explain why reporters often exaggerate the claims, distort the facts and ignore all the caveats.
Here is how the engineer or scientist thinks.
'I have been working on this for five years, it is a really promising line of research. The work is getting on well, but is nowhere near finished, and even when I do finish, it will simply add a couple of small nuggets to the general body of human knowledge'
'I have a deadline by 5 pm, and I need to fill 200 words with a techy-geeky type story. There's this propellor-head prof who has some kind of invention, but he's a bit reluctant to talk to me.
Imagine the scene. It is 10 am. Bill Hacker, our junior journalist graduated two years ago with a degree in modern history and economics, found a training placement at a big international publisher and has been doing the rounds of the different departments on one of its national daily newspapers. He has been on the science desk for the last couple of months and is discovering that it is a fairly easy life, because no-one else wants to do the science stories. He has done a couple of short features. One, from his former economics professor on how mathematicians are adapting their work to the stock market, and another on some new genetic treatment for a disease one of his relatives suffers from. He has had about five by-lines, more than on any other desk and is getting on well with Elaine, the science editor.
It is Tuesday. The weekly science page has to be finished by 5 pm in time for publication the following morning. The week has been thin, with few stories, and no good pictures, so there are some holes on the page. At the morning meeting, Elaine asks our hero to write a couple of hundred words on something from one of the northern universities. Hacker eagerly agrees.
He walks happily out of the meeting at 10:15 and opens his contacts book and bashes away at the phone buttons. It is the summer, so many of his contacts are away. Eventually, some time after 11, Hacker gets through to one of the mathematics professors at Newton University. He mentions a scientist called Bungle who is working on something fundamental over in the engineering building.
Hacker calls the engineering department, but there is no response. He continues pumping his contacts book in case the Newton story falls through, but no-one seems interested. He tries the Newton engineers again, and gets through to a receptionist. She says there’s a prof Bumble working in the Thermodynamics department. He was around earlier, but she has not seen him for the last hour, and there is no answer on his phone.
Hacker tries Bumble’s direct line every 10 minutes, in between calling the other universities. Each time he leaves a message saying he really needs to talk to the prof urgently.
Finally, at 1:30, there is a response. The departmental secretary calls to say Bumble will call back in a couple of hours or so.
Elaine pops in on Hacker’s cubicle on her way back from lunch, asking how he is getting on. ‘Fine," he says. "I’ve got a good one coming in from Newton University. It’s all under control,” he adds.
At 3, Hacker calls Bumble again, and there is an answer. It is not Bumble, but one of his assistants, A Greek chap called Massopolis. It is hard to make out what the guy is saying, though Hacker is pretty sure there is something big going down in the department. Massopolis says Bumble is not really the right guy to talk to. Prof Whizzo is in charge of the project, but he is in Italy on holiday with his family. Massopolis mentions in passing that he has Whizzo’s mobile phone number.
Faster than lightning, Hacker dials Whizzo’s number. He gets through straight away, to hear the sounds of clinking glasses, and pool-side splashes. Hacker feels a bit awkward about this, but dives in anyway. The conversation goes something like this:
Hacker (introduces himself) So professor, tell me about this idea of yours
Professor:Err, well, it’s a bit awkward right now. You see we have some guests round and I have to do the barbeque.
Well, this won’t take long, and we are hoping to give you a lot of publicity for this one. It’ll help when the next round of funding comes up. The education minister reads our paper, you know.
Well, OK then, but I only have about 10 minutes. The idea we have is about thermodynamics. The team back at Newton has worked out a way to reverse the effects of entropy.
Uhh, right, so, err, what does that mean, exactly?
Well, to be exact, we believe we may have discovered an exception to the second law of thermodynamics
Uhh, cool, so err, does that have any impact in the real world?
Well, if we can make delta S even slightly positive in a closed system, then there is a small, but very real possibility that we can actually get more energy out of the system than we put in.
Right, so we are talking power stations here then?
(Laughs) well, we are a long way from that. Right now we have a laboratory experiment set up in which we have tried to exclude all the extraneous effects, and we have just seen the first signs of a curious effect on the entropy levels in a process which we all thought was adiabatic.
I see... Umm, where is this laboratory?
(Surprised, and a bit irritated) Well, it's on the third floor of the engineering building, but really I don't think that is terribly important. What we are seeing here is some intial evidence which might eventually point toward a completely new theory of thermodynamics.
A new theory of thermidynomics! Wow! that's pretty important, huh?
Well, yes, I suppose you could say that, but it is only the very first signs of a change. There is a lot that could influence the work yet. There's another team working on this phenomenon at M I T, but we are still a few months ahead of them
So, for my readers, can you explain in simple terms what thermi-- err- dynomics is all about, then?
Well, it's quite complicated, but in simple terms, thermodynamics is the study of...
(Interrupts) Uhm, thermidynomics... could you spell that, please?
Ah! right! cool! thanks! Yeah, you were saying?
Yes. of course. Thermofluids is the study of how fluids can be used to transfer heat energy between processes and how that heat energy can be converted into more useful forms...
(Interrupts.) You mean, like electricity and stuff?
Yes! exactly. It's a fascinating subject, and there are three--or four--basic laws which govern the whole of thermodynamics and which...
(Looks at clock, notices it is just after 4 pm, and Interrupts.) Right! well thank you very much, professor, that has been really helpful! The story should appear tomorrow. Thanks for your time.
Click! the phone goes dead.
Hacker just has time to check a couple of facts on the Newton University website and do a search on the MIT site before writing his story:
Race for thermidynomics prize
By William Hacker, New Reporter staff
Two teams separated by five thousand miles are racing for the ultimate prize in thermidynomics.The leaders in this crucial race are based on the third floor of the engineering building in the UK's top-ranked Newton University. The British team, led by Prof Frank Whizzo, is creeping ahead of their arch-rivals, the highly-regarded team at MIT led by Prof Alius Merkin.
Whizzo, speaking exclusively to New Reporter from his villa in Italy, said he is on the brink of, "a completely new theory of thermidynomics" Thermidynomics, the specialist word for power production, is all about laboratory experiments, so the new theory could hold the answer to the world's energy and power problems for years to come.
Whizzo said the British scientists are, "months ahead" of their US rivals and will beat the US team to the ultimate prize: a new thermodynamics theory in which, "entropy can be reversed."
Whizzo already has a laboratory dedicated to the project and his work is showing, "a very real possibility that we can actually get more energy out of a system than we put in."
Whizzo's team includes Professor ??? Bumble and Dr. ??? Massopolis, working on a three-year visitor visa from his home in Piraeus, Greece
Hacker adds a note to the subs to check the last couple of details, then, at 4:55, he e-mails it to Elaine for her approval. She is panicking over her own story which also has to meet the 5 pm deadline, so glances at the first few paragraphs, strikes out the by-line, corrects three of the four spellings of thermodynamics, deletes the reference to villas in Italy and clears it.
The story goes to the subs who are having a bad day. They have just been told that they cannot have new laptops, but only the ones 'pre-owned' by journalists. They are not feeling especially charitable to young hacks.
At 9 pm, the story comes back from the subs like this:
UK Scientists beat US rivals in power race
A team of top British scientists is set to trounce their US rivals in a race to supply the world with unlimited, cheap power. The British team, led by Professor Frank Whizzo of Newton University, is months ahead of arch-rivals, at MIT led by Nobel-prize-winning Professor Alius Merkin.
SIlver-haired Whizzo said he is on the brink of, "a completely new theory of thermodynamics." This specialist area of geek knowledge is all about laboratory experiments, so the new theory holds the answer to the world's energy and power problems for years to come, he told New Reporter.
Whizzo said his team of scientists will beat the US team to the ultimate prize: a new thermodynamics theory in which, "entropy can be reversed." Helping Whizzo in his breakthrough research is Dr Georgiou Massopolis, on a three-year academic exchange programme from the University of Athens and Prof. Sungaiv Bumble, who has worked with Whizzo for the last five years since leaving the University of Calcutta.
Whizzo has dedicated a third-floor laboratory to the project and said his work is showing, "very real possibilities that we can actually get more energy out of a system than we put in."
Hacker and Elaine have gone out for a few drinks together and switched off their mobiles, so the story goes to press as it stands. Next morning, Hacker is somewhat embarrassed by the final version, but doesn't have time to worry about it, partly because there was no by-line, but mostly because he is already thinking about today's deadlines and the 500-word story on "great physicists" needed by 5 pm. He won't be calling Whizzo again, and besides, next month he starts on the economics desk.
It is, of course purely imaginary, but not so far from reality.
- Few journalists in the national media have a solid science-based education, let alone any direct experience of science,
- Deadlines are very real and very demanding in the newspaper world
- The journalist is often not in control of how the story finally appears
- There is not the time nor the space to include ifs, buts and other caveats
- The top priority is for the story to grab peoples' attention.
- Newspapers like to create human interest in the story
- Journalists don't always need to keep their sources happy
- Many have no real interest in the story. It can be just a question of filling the page
And on the other side:
- Many scientists include too much detail in their explanantions. The desire to be thorough is deeply ingrained.
- Jargon slows down communication
- Clear explanations of specific benefits will help the journalist get the story right.
- Be available. The more time you can create, the better the result should be, and the more time to correct mistakes.
- If necessary, have something written down that the journo can use as a crib sheet.
- If you have a website, make sure it is up to date and that there are sensible biographies and pictures of the most important people and items you might want to show off.
- Have a mobile phone, and make sure it is switched on.
- Don't say anything which you don't want reported
- Be aware that if you ask for a delay, the opportunity will almost certainly evaporate
- Find a way to fix the idea in normal, everyday life
- If you think the reporter may have misunderstood, then try to check what he understood by your words. Ask him to explain it back to you.
This is a fairly simplistic analysis, and yes, there are some great writers who really do understand science and technology, and can explain it well to non-scientists. Most of them tend to work for the specialist magazines, like New Scientist, Scientific American and others.
But a lot of generalist papers do get stuff wrong, and misrepresent people and ideas. So, err, you have been warned.