Research Summary

Science training and environmental journalism today: Effects of science journalism training for midcareer professionals

Scientist-Journalist Interactions Are Key During Science Journalism Training

Applied Environmental Education & Communication
2018

Science journalists serve as an important liaison between scientists and the public. However, journalists may not be trained on how to report on the results of scientific studies. Without sufficient training, science may be misconstrued and findings presented inaccurately. While some science journalism trainings programs exist, the effectiveness of most of these programs has not been evaluated. This study assessed the impacts of a science journalism training program for early- and midcareer journalists.

This study involved journalists who participated in science journalism trainings at the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting between 1999 and 2015. The Metcalf Institute offers a variety of science journalism trainings ranging from one-day training sessions to weeklong immersion workshops. The researchers collected data on the effectiveness of Metcalf trainings by surveying 111 participating journalists on their perceptions of the trainings. The authors also analyzed the content of stories published by 20 journalists before and after they participated in a weeklong immersion workshop. Finally, the authors conducted interviews with 20 other journalists who participated in a weeklong immersion workshop.

Results showed a number of small but positive effects from the science journalism trainings. Overall, participating journalists stated that they felt more confident when reporting on scientific studies after taking part in workshops. An analysis of the content of articles published before and after the workshops revealed positive changes in journalists’ reporting behaviors that were in accordance with best practices. Specifically, the authors found small increases in the number of scientific sources cited and the acknowledgement of scientific uncertainty. In addition, more journalists were using thematic framing, which means that they provided readers with a greater context explaining why environmental events occur rather than focusing solely on the event. For example, several of the journalists who reported on coastal flooding started connecting coastal flooding events with climate change and sea level rise in their articles published after the training.

Results from the interviews showed that journalists found interpersonal interactions with scientists to be the most valuable tool for science reporting. During the training, journalists found it particularly effective to sit down one-on-one with scientists and read scientific studies together. During these readings, scientists helped journalists identify the most important information from the studies.

This study is limited by the small nature of the improvements from the training, some of which were not statistically significant. For example, while citing of scientific material did increase after the training, the increase from 8% of articles before the training to 11% of articles after the training was not statistically significant.

Making radical changes to the journalism industry is almost impossible, therefore the authors felt that even small improvements in science journalism should be applauded. Furthermore, the authors stated that any increase in the amount of references to scientific uncertainty is important. Scientific uncertainty has often been mistakenly framed as doubt, and journalists should explain both the power of scientific data as well as its limitations to the public.

More opportunities for journalists to interact with scientists would be valuable. The authors highlighted the importance of understanding the culture and common practices of other professions. This type of understanding can be created through informal training opportunities where scientists and journalists work together to better understand how to communicate information to the general public.

The Bottom Line

Journalists help to communicate scientific information to the broader public, though many have never received training on how to do so effectively. This study evaluated the effectiveness of science journalism trainings at the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting. The study found small but positive changes in participating journalists’ reporting behaviors after taking part in workshops. Journalists reported that personal interactions with scientists were among the most valuable tools for science communication. More opportunities for journalists and scientists to discuss and interpret scientific studies one-on-one would be beneficial.