April 23-24, 2012

Madison, WI

"Irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors." -Thomas Huxley

Answering the questions, questioning the answers: Panel discussion

The “Answering the Questions, Questioning the Answers” panel assembled on Tuesday morning, consisting of Trudy Lieberman of the Columbia Journalism Review, Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Chris Mooney, freelance writer and host of the Point of Inquiry podcast, and Marilynn Marchione of the Associated Press.

Trudy Lieberman opened the panel by explaining and drawing lessons from coverage of U.S. health reform, as, she explained, “the same thought processes that influence science inquiry also influence health policy.”

To begin with, the health reform mandate was never explained to the American public. Policymakers and politicians weren’t talking about health reform, and so the press didn’t cover it. “Was it a surprise, then,” Lieberman asked, “that the public didn’t support the mandate?”

On top of the lack of basic understanding of the mandate, several ideas — like the “demonization of insurance companies” and that health care would be universally more affordable — were not questioned in coverage.

Coverage of health care reform uses terminology like “medical homes” and “evidence-based medicine” that people don’t understand, and this widened the gap between the intended message and the audience. According to Lieberman, the biggest story of all in the health reform conversation — how the affordable care act would affect ordinary people — was not covered as the legislation worked its way through Congress.

Science writers, like writers covering health reform, need to write for ordinary people. Writing for ordinary citizens involves establishing credibility with the audience, and writing for the public, not the story’s sources.

Mark Johnson echoed Lieberman’s call to write for ordinary people, emphasizing the need to deconstruct jargon and avoid introducing a scientific word without explaining it. “People distrust what they don’t understand,” Johnson said, “… so when I’m talking about, for example, blood being analyzed, I don’t want to make the machine like a magic box. I want to explain the process.”

Explaining the process — showing what goes on, how the experiments are done — demystifies the process, making nonscientists more likely to trust what’s learned from the process. Visualization is key here, according to Johnson.

“With most things, we can get people to visualize what’s going on,” he said. “Einstein believed that ordinary people should be able to understand these complex topics like relativity, and we’re failing them if we can’t help them understand it.”

Questioning the answers isn’t easy, but Johnson suggested a place to start: looking for obvious problems with the way that research is constructed and keeping in mind that researchers have their own biases, fueled by academic competition, that may cloud their comments on competitor’s work.

Chris Mooney shifted the discussion to the motivations behind citizens’ decision-making processes. He took an informal poll of the room, asking the members of the audience to raise a hand if Republican or conservative. All hands stayed down.

“We’re engaged in a psychologically liberal activity,” Mooney stressed, expressing frustration at the course of discussion so far at this conference. “We’ve opened the door to thinking about things psychologically, but we haven’t walked through it.”

Mooney went on to explain motivated reasoning, furthering what Arthur Lupia had introduced in his keynote lecture: “People have a view of the world, if you attack it, their emotions fire unintentionally, and then they will come up with any argument to make themselves whole again. The smartest people do it the most.”

To engage with an audience that may viscerally disagree with an issue, Mooney suggested that journalists “kill the nuance” in order to avoid triggering that visceral response that leads to motivated reasoning. Journalists need to understand the nuance in their subjects, but steer through it, being mindful of narratives, word choice, and frames.

Journalists also need to recognize how different politically aligned people will respond to frames, and make use of appropriate frames accordingly to get the same information to a different audience. For example, Mooney said, “If you want conservatives to understand the climate change problem, frame it in terms of nuclear energy,” and by extension, privatization.

Mooney concluded by highlighting one small problem: “This all makes journalism into something we don’t even recognize anymore.”

Marilynn Marchione switched the focus from how the message is manipulated to exploring the denialism and bias within, and urged journalists to consider “how your inner bias might be priming you to alter your message before you even know that it is happening.”

Question the validity of the novelty, advised Marchione. For example, when encountered with a gene mapping or testing story about disease prevention, a journalist needs to honestly consider the novelty, and ask if any new information is actually gained and who the information is benefitting.

Marchione described cell therapies to illustrate the importance of investigating the actual health and financial impact any new medical treatment would have for an individual patient. A journalist needs to understand what an emerging treatment means for the average patient in order to cover it well.

Denialism is rampant in alternative medicine, Marchione said. Like Johnson, Marchione emphasized the importance of language, particularly the use of “natural” and “holistic” in coverage of alternative medicine.

Marchione urged science writers to seriously consider the implications of covering certain stories. The science, she said, “may be new, may have met a test of statistical significance. But what does it really mean? What does it mean for your audience? A lot of science shouldn’t be written.”

By Molly Simis

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