Text of Remarks on "Re-Imagining University Science Media"
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Tomorrow morning at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, I will be addressing the annual conference of the University Research Magazine Association. I have pasted the text of my prepared remarks below with relevant links embedded. I will post a follow up on Friday highlighting questions, comments, and reactions. Readers are strongly encouraged to weigh in with their own reactions.
As professional science communicators and journalists, you are living in an era of convergence between two major trends in society.
The first trend is a dominant focus of this conference: Technology, audience preferences and behaviors have dramatically altered the nature of journalism. The balance of control over media content and information has shifted from the journalist as the gatekeeper and producer to the people formerly known as sources, experts, and audiences who have emerged as active contributors, collaborators, users, creators, disseminators, recommenders, and at times, powerful critics of content.
In this new era of digital technology, traditional media forms such as the printed science magazine, I would argue, should now be considered as secondary products to the Web, which should offer a "mega-content plus" version of the magazine, constantly updated, archived, curated, interactive, sharable, transportable, collaborative with other media, and actively connected to face-to-face dialogue, participation, and learning.
In this digital era, replacing the traditional audience for science content are two important groups. The first are "science publics," these are highly motivated individuals, usually with personal or professional ties to a field of science, an area of research, or a policy debate such as climate change or stem cell research. These "science publics" deep dive into media content, consuming news and discussion of the science topic across media and platforms. They expect high standards and quality for content, and they expect that content be interactive and responsive to their feedback, reposting, forwarding, or commenting. From the perspective of the university or research institution, these are perhaps the most strategically important users of media content, since "science publics" typically constitute the influentials and decision-makers that shape the reputation, brand, funding, and regulation of scientific research.
The other group constitutes a broader, diverse mass public. These individuals may lack the motivation and/or ability to regularly take advantage of the many rich sources of science content online. Yet in moments of personal need--such as a health problem--or at times of a focusing event -such as the Gulf oil spill--they will turn to the Web to seek out specific information about the topic. At other times they may simply "bump" into science media while searching out other topics or using entertainment or political media. On other occasions, through digital and face-to-face networks they will follow recommendations to science content from friends or colleagues who as opinion-leaders are members of the active "science public." To the extent that universities and research institutions hold a broader philosophical and social commitment to public education and engagement, these users of science content also remain centrally important.
The second trend involves a continuing shift in how the public is viewed relative to societal decisions about science. For decades, science communication has been defined as a process of transmission, where technical facts, findings, and concepts are popularized and translated for audiences with the goal of improving "science literacy," a term I would argue respectfully is too often used as a slogan or a brand device rather than as a carefully defined concept that is translated and evaluated relative to specific outcomes. In this model, science was expected to be well understood and supported by the public, but free from public input or control.
The shift over the past decade has been away from a transmission and science literacy model to a view focused on public engagement, which means empowering, enabling, motivating, informing, and educating the public around not just the technical but also the political and social dimensions of science....but remembering what the public does with the acquired knowledge, motivation, skills, and resources and how they participate on the issue, is up to them.
In addition, unlike literacy which has a uni-directional connotation that blames a "knowledge deficient" public, engagement is as much about informing the public as it is about also informing experts, decision-makers, and as I will discuss more specific to science magazines, journalists. Communication is viewed as a two-way process where experts, decision-makers, and journalists seek input and learn from the public about preferences, needs, insights, ideas, policy options or in the case of journalism, what stories should be covered and what angles, dimensions, and voices emphasized.
From personal experience and many discussions that I have had, I know that these two trends introduce massive amounts of "control" anxiety for research institutions, scientists, and journalists alike. If citizens directly shaping the research agenda for biomedical or nanotechnology research is anxiety producing for scientists and administrators, journalists in the digital era face their own sources of concern.
When non-professionals are now active contributors of content, what role is there for professional news judgment and gathering? What issues are raised relative to journalism ethics, norms, standards of quality, accuracy, independence, and conflict of interest?
Each of these trends and sets of questions are ones that I have researched and thought about over the past few years. On trends in science communication, I have been both a scholar of and an advocate for the shift towards an engagement model, a perspective that I summarized last year in a co-authored synthesis article at the American Journal of Botany and that I have written and spoken about across many different venues.
Related to this focus on public engagement, I have also considered the role of journalism and the need for new models for science media. Last year, I collaborated on a report with colleagues at American University to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, identifying and examining emerging best practices in digital journalism. I have linked to these documents at my blog where you can also find the text of these remarks. In the rest of this talk, I want to highlight these emerging best practices in digital journalism with a focus on what they mean for university research magazines and the more general trend towards a public engagement model in society.
In the research conducted by the Center for Socia Media at American University, we reviewed the many recent reports and studies on digital journalism; analyzed a broad range of leading websites and completed hour-long interviews and follow up surveys with thought leaders, innovators, and researchers who are examining digital journalism projects and outlets.
The first best practice, we call simply "Involve."
Contributions from users to digital science media should not be viewed as just another strategy for boosting traffic and page views. Instead, it is important that media organizations consider users as potentially invaluable content collaborators, either as a substantive commentator and/or amateur reporter whose work boosts the overall quality of content. Moreover, participation should not be thought of as something that occurs after newsgathering and publication is complete. Rather, users can be directly involved in reporting and interpreting the news. "It is the end of the Sage on the Stage," said one of the interviewed experts in our report to CPB. "It is the end of one person going out there and reporting. Users want to participate in gathering information, collating, and imparting it."
Our interviewed experts were unanimous in arguing that professional journalists need to adapt to collaborations with citizen reporters and contributors, noting an air of arrogance and elitism that currently hinders this shift. As one expert argued:
[Amateur] journalists do their jobs based on enthusiasm and real knowledge of their communities and sometimes what they're missing is that reporting skill and that knowledge about libel, really simple things. Professional journalists have gotten so mired in the idea that we are guardians of all that is true and good and we know better than everybody else; that arrogance has really been their downfall in a lot of ways. There's a lot to be learned on both sides, I think.
User participation should start with the editorial process: what issues, topics, or areas of research should be covered? What dimensions of science should be covered i.e. the technical to the ethical to the social and economic impacts of research? Which voices and perspectives should be included?
Both formal and informal research should inform this process. One starting point is to identify and interview a diversity of influentials who are likely to be users of your content or for whom you would like to expand your reach. They can be identified through formal positions at the university and across departments, and/or their prominence by way of activities, publications, blogging, or news visibility.
In addition, as a site based tool, there are likely a number of benefits to employing user registration. This function would encourage any visitor to the site to register so that they could engage in a full range of content features. Registration information may include phone, email, postal address, professional or group affiliation, relevant interest or topic focus, their experience and level of current engagement with social media such as blogs or social networking sites, and short informal surveys on their perceived information and resource needs, what topics, subjects or dimensions they would like to see covered, and questions that assess their opinion-leader attributes, or their propensity to share information and influence others.
Besides turning to influentials as sources of story ideas, these influentials can also be recruited to contribute content in the form of blog posts, Q&A; stories, and comments on stories.
A second best practice is to "Go Deep."
As we reviewed in the CPB report, online tools and platforms allow media makers to build deep, multimedia reservoirs of content around science that extend user access and provide context for ongoing coverage. Databases, maps, conversation tools, news aggregators, and other interactive elements build in value and stickiness by encouraging interaction and providing multiple layers of detail. This deep content provides context beyond the original report or feature, attracting users over time and establishing the research magazine site as a durable online reference as well as enabling cumulative reporting and commentary capabilities in the online space. Stories and features, in other words, take an updated and evolving life of their own, just like science.
As one interviewed expert suggested, offering deep content caters to the needs of a new generation of online media users. On most topics, users are merely browsing and "bumping into content" but "for the few subjects they deeply care about, they are deep diving." This motivation to "go deeper" includes evaluating primary documents, exploring databases, and witnessing how other journalists outside their community or country are covering the story. In constructively aggregating complementary content around a story or feature, as another expert explained, media organizations can serve as "information valets" and trusted "concierges" who are anticipating users' information needs on a topic and providing for them.
A third best practice is to "Collaborate" with other media:
In cities and regions across the country, digital news and public affairs projects are being organized around shared issues, locations and user communities. These projects can involve connections between different sorts of media outlets as well as related organizations, institutions, and publics. This is particularly important for university research magazines which can collaborate and share content with university media relations, university or locally based museums and science centers, public library systems, public media outlets, and also for-profit media including newspapers and the digital news sites for radio and television broadcasters. In total, this type of regional collaboration would form a rich and interactive digital media hub focused on science and technology. This type of collaboration is especially important in an era of ever harder to reach audiences and when the science beat at a local or regional newspaper is a disappearing content feature.
A fourth best practice is to invest in Science Media Literacy initiatives:
To motivate and prepare individuals to use digital media to learn about science, share information, express their views, and coordinate activities, journalists can partner with scientists and social scientists to develop "civic science media literacy" curricula. These modules can be formally incorporated into university, junior college, and high school science courses across the country. For older adults, they can be offered as community curricula at libraries, which can also serve as access and contribution points to the type of regional collaborative science media hub described earlier.
The modules--as required complements to textbook and laboratory content--would introduce students to quality online news sources about science; teach students about how to constructively use participatory tools such as blogs and other social media applications; educate students on how to critically evaluate evidence and claims as presented in the media; introduce students to the relationships between science and institutions as they are often covered in the news; and socialize students into enjoying and following science by way of digital media after they complete their formal science coursework. In short, this type of media literacy curriculum would not only potentially grow the audience for science media--and for the research magazine site-- but also impart the skills, motivation, and know-how that students and adults need to be participatory citizens in the online and real world.
A final best practice is to promote and empower public participation and involvement:
This last best practice is at the intersection of the two trends I mentioned at the outset: the power and promise of digital media and the shift towards an engagement model on science and society. It is also perhaps the most controversial when it comes to university research magazines or science journalism more generally.
University-based research magazines--if reconceived as digital news communities--are uniquely able to promote conversations and engagement with policy debates over science. These sites can also provide information on how to get involved, whom to contact, and where to show up to participate or vote. Importantly, university research magazines--especially if part of a collaborative regional hub of science media--can actively connect their content with face-to-face public forums or town hall-style meetings where lay citizens, experts, and stakeholders gather to share perspectives, learn from each other, and express collective preferences. The forums can be covered as news stories, broadcast and archived online, or produced as short documentaries so that readers not in attendance can learn about the event and issue. Participants at the forums can also be asked to contribute commentaries or blog posts; and discussion spaces online can be opportunities for participants and others to continue the conversation and discussion following the event.
The idea of actively promoting public participation and involvement relative to science policy debates is easily confused with advocacy. In part, because of the relatively narrow definition of science literacy as the transmission of "neutral" facts and concepts about science, the notion of civic science education is dramatically under-developed in American society.
The distinction between advocacy and civic education is important in a number of ways. Much of what science organizations and scientists do when it comes to outreach on policy-related issues has an implicit instrumental basis, turning to innovative methods to reach audiences with the hope and the belief that these efforts will lead the public to see the issue at question more as scientists do.
Yet this particular outlook on public communication is somewhat analogous to how democracy building is often thought of relative to foreign policy: The U.S. invests in democracy building in countries, but the implicit goal and assumption is that the outcome will lead countries to be direct allies of the U.S. If this doesn't happen, then democracy building is considered to have failed.
Engagement on science and society, on the other hand, is different from implicit advocacy, and should be thought of more in terms of civic education. The goal, as mentioned earlier, should be to empower, enable, motivate, inform, and educate the public around the technical, political, and social dimensions of a debate, but what they do with the acquired knowledge, motivation, skills, and resources is up to them.
To close, as I have argued, current trends in digital media represent a historic and exciting opportunity for university research magazines and science journalists more generally. The revolution in information technology also comes at a time of dramatic change in how we think about the role and function of the public in societal decisions about science.
I would argue, respectively, that you should think of what formerly was called a "university research magazine" as digital science media communities embedded within a regional media ecosystem that because of the economic distress to commercial media lacks news about the local or personal relevance of the research that takes place at your institutions.
Digital media also allows your organization to transcend your traditional subscriber base, your university constituency, or geographic boundaries, and to serve global "science publics" who are using and contributing to deep content on a scientific subject such as climate change or biomedical research. As a consequence, your value is greater now than at anytime before, but to maximize your potential, new considerations and practices are needed.
This new environment and opportunity raises questions and invites challenges as to how to manage the need and demand for users to directly contribute to content, starting with initial decisions about story assignment and focus. It also invites the opportunity for cross-media collaboration and the sharing of content. But perhaps most importantly, digital technology allows traditional science media to adapt to the new movement in society towards direct citizen participation in decisions about science, the direction of research, and science-related policy.