How much can you educate someone about DNA tests or climate change in three and a half minutes? Is "education" even the goal? NPR science journalist Joe Palca discusses what he hopes to accomplish in his science segments for public radio, as well as the reporting and production effort behind them. Palca was joined in a conversation with Science and Justice Professor and fellow journalist Sally Lehrman about the role of science news in society, including the interplay of scientists and audience in its expression.
Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca comes to journalism from a science background, having received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California at Santa Cruz where he worked on human sleep physiology.
Sally Lehrman is the first Visiting Professor in the Science & Justice Training Program. She is an award-winning reporter and writer specializing in medicine and science policy with an emphasis on genetics, race and sexuality. Lehrman has written for some of the most respected names in national print and broadcast media including Scientific American, Nature, Health, Salon.com, and The DNA Files, distributed by NPR. As a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, she also directs the Executive Roundtable on Digital Journalism Ethics initiative. The roundtable brings together journalism executives and entrepreneurs to discuss the responsibilities of the news media to accuracy, inclusion, transparency and accountability in the digital public square.
Science Journalism: Education, Entertainment or Instigation?
SJWG Rapporteur Report
4 March 2015
Rapporteur Report by Samuael Topiary
Joe Palca began his presentation by talking about his career trajectory in science reporting
which began with science reporting for TV in the NBC news Washington DC bureau where
he became a health & science producer. At that time, in the mid 1980s, his job was focused
on presenting science to the public in ways that would allow for an understanding the issues
in public policy debates. Palca told us that he couldn't stand the TV news approach where
every story had to have a medical Dr. and a patient and there was no time to find out if Dr.
knew what they were talking about. He was responsible for putting a story on the air every
night and this quick pace didn’t allow for other opinions about the story. Frustrated by the
limits of TV news science reporting, Palca moved to writing for Nature, the complete
opposite scenario, where the editor wouldn’t settle for anything short of a well-researched
story. In his move from one end of journalistic spectrum to the other, he learned that experts
aren't always as expert as they claim to be.
Moving from Nature to Science, Palca moved into medical-science writing and was the first
person to report on the Human Genome project. While at Science, he was supposed to be
tracking the money and policy-making activities, and not so much on the actual science,
which he considers to have been a dark period in science journalism. In 1992, he was
offered a one year job at NPR, which also necessitated a pay cut. Twenty-three years later,
he is still working at NPR, reporting on medicine, public policy, astronomy. He considers
NPR somewhere between local TV news and the type of reporting he did for Science and
Nature. The NPR audience is presumed to be a general interest audience, and his job is to
try and get them engaged and interested in science stories. At NPR, science reporting
integrated into general interest news, and will generally report stories that are similar to what
is being reported in the NY Times.
In explaining how science news stories are reported on, Palca explained the practice of story
“embargos” where the major science journals will publicize their table of contents in
advance to science reporters, in order to give them a jump on what stories will be published
in the upcoming article, allowing them to do their own research and due diligence on the
story. The embargo prevents reporters from publishing on the story until the date the article
in the journal is published. However, in this way, the news can publish simultaneous
articles about the breaking discoveries being published in the important science journals.
Palca explains that the “embargo” is what makes science writers look so clever, since all
journals have PR departments and send out embargo copy of next issue's table of contents,
and gives science journalists the chance to understand the topic and report on it, as well as to
predict what the big science stories will be.
Lehrman asked Palca about how his thinking about science reporting has changed over the
years. Palca responded that it has not really changed that much. He suggested that science
reporters can do a ton of education but no editor is going to ask for education; they are
interested in news and that you have to make reporting sound like news. He then added that,
in his opinion, science doesn't have a lot of answers. He was contemptuous about the idea
of relying on technological fixes to solve problems, such as geo-engineering to solve our
climate problems. He suggested that science reporting can answer the question of why tax
money should continue to be used to fund science inquiry: because it makes our culture
more interesting and gives us the ability to ask big questions. He suggested that if the
public understood science better, they might not be so interested in 'news stories' which
attempts to paint a picture of science “solving” something rather than a more true account of
scientific inquiry as being about inquiry and process. Lehrman asked how he approaches
attempting to disabuse the public of the notion that science knows everything in a 3.5 minute
piece? Palca responded by suggesting that, if taken as a whole, his body of work is
attempting to give people a notion of what science is all about.
As an illustration of this approach, Lehrman played Palca’s NPR story "Why Ants Handle
Traffic Better Than You Do" from January 19, 2015.
Palca explained that the scientist who was studying the ant
behavior was probably wrong in his conclusion that ants don't jam up, suggesting that other
scientists he consulted thought the physics was wrong. Because there were so many
questions in his mind about the scientist’s conclusions, Palca believed that his findings were
not relevant as a news story, however, he felt that the story gave an idea that traffic
engineers can look at behavior in another discipline and he thought the story was cute and he
got jazzed about doing the traffic report (which begins this entertaining radio piece). Palca
stressed the importance of making the stories entertaining and finding ways to make the
ideas come alive with humor. He feels it is important to explain but not explain it too much,
adding that the web version of the story includes a hyperlink to more information.
Lehrman explained that in her own stories she writes critically about genetics and asks Palca
why he went with the ant story when he knew there might be problems with the underlying
science. Palca answered that he’s not making it out to be too important. With this story and
his series of stories, he’s aiming at less important science so as to not mislead anyone. He’s
showing the process of doing science, rather than the conclusion or outcome. In this way,
he’s attempting to point out what is interesting, and not worrying about what is “important.”
Explaining that he has to be respectful of people's time, as the forum for his stories is
Morning Edition, he tries to keep his pieces short and entertaining.
The second radio piece they played was a profile about a genetics researcher at UC Berkeley
who is forecasted to win the Nobel Prize.
Palca explained that in longer form journalism, you would storyboard before
you go out and do the reporting, which is how TV documentarians do it. He never does that;
he just wants to talk to them about what they're doing and why; explaining that most of the
time, he has no idea of the structure of the story. He listens through his recording for tape,
which he finds moving or compelling. Lehrman asked how he knows how complicated to
get into the details of the science. Palca explained that he has to decide what people need to
know to follow the story without making it so complicated that it would be hard to follow.
He added that he’s not trying to prove the story is worth covering; he wants his audience to
take it on faith that it's interesting.
Palca explained that his focus is on exploring the minds and motivations of inventors.
Lehrman countered that she wonders if he let the scientist in his story off the hook by not
questioning her about whether editing the genome is the most effective approach, and
whether it is the best way to allocate resources? Palca responded that we would have to
throw out 9/10ths of medical research if we thought solely about economics. Rather, he
wants to tackle stories of inventions before they get to the point of implementation. Here
he’s looking at the mind and process of inquiry. Palca added that is critical of some health
reporting because he thinks the health care system is a mess. In the past, he wrote articles
for Science about the limitations of cancer research, but that was for a scientific audience.
In terms of the Human Genome Project, “this whole business about genomes and
personalized medicine, give me a break! There are so few cases when it's helpful.” He also
added that it would be a conflict of interest to report on many of these stories now, since his
wife is the deputy director of the NIH. Lehrman asked if this means that don’t hear stories
on NPR about the NIH? Palca responded that he tries to get his colleagues to do them,
assuring her that NPR has more than one science reporter.
Andrew Mathews asked about ways that Palca is about to bring the domains of politics and
science together. Palca answered that he doesn’t think the scientific community has done a
good job at analyzing it's process. He added that he is skeptical that peer review leads to the
best research being funded. Raising the question of how does a journalist know which
stories are good or important leads to follow? Lehrman suggested that she thinks Palca is
underselling his news sense -- some journalists just follows the PRs, whereas Palca is
discerning what is the most important work and how can he highlight that. Palca counters
that he can be wrong, just as everyone is wrong and that no one knows what the important
story will be and that he doesn’t think journalists or scientists know until you have
retrospect. He added that both Science and Nature are more wrong than any other journals
because they are riskier. He states that this is the process of questioning - I'm done saying
you should listen to this because it's the most important thing happening - I don't know what
is the most important thing
Donna Haraway (Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness, UCSC)
stated that she thought his Crisper story perpetuated a whole series of metaphors about
biology and genetics, simplifying the science and thereby reinforcing some of the most
destructive myths about genes by allowing the listener to believe that being able to edit
single gene diseases is going to be a fundamental breakthrough, rather than understanding
the reality of multi-gene interactions. She suggested that the story reinforces a public view
of science, which is destructive. Palca responded that “I give in more often than I like to.”
Haraway asked “what little tweaks could you have done that could have avoided that
problem?” Palca responded that he didn’t think they could build in that nuance. Haraway
suggested there was room to play with the metaphors and Palca stated that his difficulty was
getting across what how the scientist’s work would be useful and to get an audience with
limited attention and understanding to engage. He also added that he understands how he
perpetuates myths. Lehrman asked if he thought there was a feeling in science journalism
that the only thing people care about is cures to diseases. Palca said that his editor is the one
who talked with about what to include. He also suggested that the head of NIH goes to
Congress to say we're going to cure disease, not that the science which is being funded is
“good for learning.” Palca stated that he steers away from stories that seem to have cures
embedded in them, but still, it is received wisdom that the reason we're doing the work if for
medical cures and not knowledge in general.