Interview w/ The Scientist on Ida's Media Strategy

I did an interview this morning with Elie Dolgin of The Scientist magazine discussing the "going broad" media strategy surrounding Darwinius masillae aka Ida the fossil. The magazine has the Q&A interview up on their site. The user registration is free and well worth the 2 seconds in order to access the wealth of content at the magazine's Web site.

Below are my comments. As I've noted, this week's events will serve as a long standing case study for science communication scholars and professionals to analyze and debate.

The Scientist: How unusual is this amount of media attention for a single study?

Matthew Nisbet: This single study may have gotten more attention across multiple media platforms than any study in recent history. You may have to go back to the announcement that Raelians had cloned a human child, or the cold fusion announcement back in the early 1990s [to find a comparable media response]. Those are in part unfair comparisons because neither one of those studies was peer reviewed. The big difference this time is that this study is peer reviewed in a major journal.

TS: Have the authors of this study crossed the line into overselling and hype?

MN: It's a difficult balance in order to generate wider attention. You have to use language and metaphors that are non-traditional in how science is communicated. On the other hand, whether it's a fossil find or a pharmaceutical drug, you don't want to use metaphors that oversell the impact or promise of the discovery. The risk with that is that you undermine credibility and trust with the public.

TS: The paper's publication was accompanied with spots on morning talkshows, a book, TV tie-ins, and so on. Isn't that all a bit much?

MN: There's an important distinction between the channel and the language and the metaphor. There's nothing wrong with communicating about the find across these various channels. In fact, scientists have to go beyond their traditional mechanisms for communicating if they're going to reach beyond a narrow slice of the public. But where you need to be careful is in how you choose to define a particular study. I think where [the authors] might have gone wrong was not in the use of the channels but actually in the choice of language.

TS: In addition to toning down the rhetoric, how can scientists use these same tactics more responsibly?

MN: This type of "going broad" strategy might be more appropriately applied to a scientific subject generally or to a body of research rather than a single study. No single study is the "slam dunk" or the so-called "missing link," as this particular study has been defined. The strategy is tremendously innovative, though, and it has introduced science concepts to audiences that wouldn't otherwise pay attention to them. This can now be a platform for learning how to engage wider audiences to start following scientific subjects more closely.

TS: How are scientists themselves responding to this announcement?

MN: Apart from how the media is discussing the story, there's a really interesting conversation online among scientists about just how significant of a finding this is. Before, when a study like this came out, our only access to what might be on the minds of the scientists was to follow their limited statements in the New York Times or read the news at a place like The Scientist. But now, with the blogosphere, within hours [of publication] we can actually eavesdrop on what different scientists think about the study and how they're beginning to make sense of it. Also, there's a breakdown in the hierarchy within science. Now, you have non-symmetrical interactions between graduate students and senior scientists. It's something that's completely different in the world of science.

TS: What can we learn from this episode?

MN: The take-home lesson is that this is a really innovative model for going broad and reaching audiences, and it's a model that there's a lot to learn from in terms of effectiveness and strategy. But the danger is that in activating those broader channels that you don't go beyond what can accurately and honestly be said about the significance of the paper for the promise of the underlying science. There's a lot to like about the strategy and the planning and the wider attention that this study has gotten, but there's a lot to debate about the language and metaphor that's been used to convey the significance of the study.