Communication and the media

How should researchers interact with the wider public beyond the research community? A good start might be to replace the term “dissemination” with “communication”. They need to be able to see themselves in a context that goes beyond the internal scientific environment. Developing an ability to see things from other people’s perspectives is an important part of this, and a fundamental ethical challenge.

The standard view

In research institutions there is no shortage of well-meaning advice on "disseminating research". A growing awareness of the financial importance of having a visible presence in the public domain is reflected in the increasingly repeated message of various strategic documents: it is important to "simplify", "facilitate knowledge transfer" and "disseminate research results to society through the media".

About The Researchs Ethics Library (FBIB). This article is a part of The research ethics library, offering 75 specialised articles on topics linked to research ethics, written by a large number of different experts and professionals. It also includes articles on relevant Norwegian laws and international guidelines. Taken as a whole, FBIB shall serve as an introduction to key topics in the area of research ethics. Each article contains additional links to further resources.

Its purpose is to help engender reflection and debate, rather than to create an encyclopaedia or provide universally applicable answers.

The perspectives and viewpoints presented in the FBIB articles do not necessarily reflect those of The Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees; all authors are responsible for their own perspectives.

This is followed up with events for so-called "research dissemination". The invitation to a conference on science and mass media (Vitenskap og Massemedier), held in Oslo in 2005, contained the following message:

"Dear participant, dissemination requires simplification, and to do this well you need expert knowledge and understanding. Journalists will never have the same knowledge as researchers. It is therefore very risky to leave it to them to do the simplifying. Factual errors and distorted, banal representations of many years of work contribute neither to democracy nor to public enlightenment, and will only serve as grist to the mill of colleagues who are critical to dissemination." (Translation from the programme booklet from Confex 2005.)

Perhaps this description of journalists strikes a chord with some, but are such words and rhetoric really going to inspire researchers to become better at communicating with the wider public?

Above all, these forms of expression reflect the stultifying mindset surrounding the communication of science. We are told that it is risky to entrust journalists with simplifying the messages of researchers, since journalists lack knowledge and have a propensity to misrepresent the material. It is important to convey information in a way that is true to the understanding and intentions of the source of knowledge in order to contribute to democracy and public enlightenment.

Thus, the conference invitation reflects what is referred to as "the dominant view of popularisation" in the research community (see Hilgartner 1990). According to this view, popularisation is a one-way simplification process, where researchers and the public are placed at opposite ends of the "dissemination path". At the one end, researchers develop "real" or "pure" knowledge before disseminators, such as journalists or information officers (or researchers in the role of popularisers), convey simplified versions of the knowledge to a public that is regarded solely as the recipient of the information. The goal is to minimise media "noise" or "interference", so that the information conveyed remains as true to the source as possible.

A more dynamic view

Such a perspective makes far too sharp a distinction between the research and its popularisation. Researchers learn about research fields other than their own through popular representations in the media, and these shape their view of the content and activity in science. Thus, popularised knowledge is fed back into the research process. Simplification is also important in scientific work, both in the laboratory and in communication with students and specialists in related subjects. Popularisation is therefore something that also takes place "internally".

At the same time, scientific knowledge can also be created "externally": the public media offer researchers a platform beyond the research community, where they can formulate their thoughts and practise scientific work, whether in op-eds, debate contributions or comments in news articles. Viewed in this way, communicating research becomes something more than merely the transmission of results to the general public by those who stand apart from the public (researchers).

The more dynamic perspective (also called "the continuum model", see Cloître and Shinn 1985) reflects how science effectively develops in dialogue with the wider community of which it is a part. However, a good dialogue also requires the interlocutor to be regarded in a different light to that offered by the dissemination perspective: a passive laity devoid of creativity in relation to research. Occasionally, the public domain can actually be the place where production of scientific knowledge is initiated and developed, and not just by the researchers themselves. Bucchi (2004) reminds us that the so-called laity can mobilise considerable efforts around specific issues and influence research. One such example was when, in the 1980s, AIDS patients acquired knowledge that enabled them to influence experimental procedures for the AZT medication and speed up the authorisation of the drug (Bucchi 2004). The general public are more capable of acquiring relevant scientific knowledge than the scientific community would have us believe.

Need for rethinking

Such aspects of the communication of science are hidden by the traditional dissemination perspective on popularisation. That this remains the dominant view in the research community is no doubt partly because it has proven useful as a political tool for scientific experts. It can be used to distinguish between real and popularised knowledge: the establishment of a notion of inadequate, "contaminated" knowledge enables scientific knowledge to be idealised as superior. This knowledge also appears to be exclusive to researchers. Politicians and the public can only acquire simplified representations of science. Thus, researchers' authority when it comes to knowledge is protected from external criticism.

However, the dissemination perspective does not exactly create fertile ground for a much-needed public dialogue and public engagement around an influential social institution. If researchers are to make a greater contribution to this, they need to develop a more nuanced understanding of what popularisation is about. A good start may therefore be to replace the term "dissemination" with "communication". Communication is not just about spreading knowledge, but about exchanging knowledge. It has to do with being able to see oneself in a context outside the internal scientific community. Developing an ability to see things from other people's perspectives is also an important part of this, and a fundamental ethical challenge.

Seeing the public

In good communication about research in the media, the general public is viewed as knowledgeable participants in the public debate on science. A greater understanding of non-experts' perspectives on areas in which researchers are experts may help to develop researchers' ability to communicate. The general public is not stupid, and their approach to knowledge and ways of understanding problems may differ to that of scientific experts. For example: while scientific risk assessments normally relate to specific effects, such as the number of deaths or how frequently a disease occurs, the laity's assessments will often be based on perceptions of right and wrong. The strong reaction by the British population to the outbreak of BSE (mad cow disease) did not only stem from the health risk that the disease posed to humans; reactions were particularly stirred up when it was revealed that the cows did not graze in pastures "as nature intended", but were fed with meat and bone meal from sheep (Jasanoff 1997). Thus, non-experts tend to make a comprehensive assessment of risks; an assessment based on social norms and views on how the world should be.

The conversation about science would be better served if researchers considered the public domain more as a place to examine whether the expert's approach to problems is socially acceptable. The need for scientific specialists to take into account people's "common sense" or "good sense" in order to have their work realised and applied is likely to increase.

Good communication requires researchers to take into account a different communication situation from the internal scientific community. Researchers can learn about each other's work through media representations, but no one is served by the public stage primarily being used to garner recognition from colleagues. Researchers are good at this kind of "communication leak" (Røe 1990), i.e. addressing themselves to a public other than the one they should be addressing. Writing and talking publicly entails interaction with the world outside the research community. Loyalty and engagement need to be shown to the public. This entails breaking loose from ideals in academic prose, such as: "Complex sentences are more precise and intelligent than simple ones" and "Passive language is more objective than active language because active language entails highlighting a party that is often a person". Using direct, personal and active language (not "it was shown", but "we (or I) showed that") without nominalisation ("we took under consideration" can be replaced with "we considered") or jargon (translate what it means "to establish a uniplex emotional relation to an object") is a much more inclusive way of communicating.

Seeing oneself

Some researchers have become skilled at adapting to a public communication situation, and some are actually so skilful that it results in an ethically questionable practice. What they have learned to do is disseminate different versions of scientific uncertainty to different recipients. Depending on what they want to achieve, researchers can flexibly interpret and present research as having a greater or lesser degree of uncertainty.

Assertions of uncertainty can be used rhetorically by researchers in different contexts. Internally, it will strengthen the credibility of the researcher if she is transparent about all aspects of the research that entail uncertainties. In media representations, however, assertions of uncertainty can be accompanied by a time schedule for resolving the uncertainty. In this way, the uncertainty can be portrayed as something that will be removed within time frames that are unlikely to be considered valid in the research community. However, the rhetoric is modified because it is aimed at a different recipient, with whom the researcher aims to achieve a different effect. Such modifications of the message are often done in the knowledge that potential sponsors of the research are important recipients of the information. Thus, the message becomes: "Under certain conditions and given resources, we will solve the problem."

However, research is also dependent on public confidence. There is a risk of jeopardising this confidence with this type of flexible representation of what the research can achieve or predict. In the Swedish press, where alarmist reporting based on research findings has been even more prevalent than in Norway, two members of the association Vetenskap & Allmänhet (Public and Science) commented during a debate based on a survey conducted by the association: "Unrealistic hopes for immediate solutions to all kinds of problems lead to disappointment and misunderstanding. People are tired of alarmist reports - 80 per cent do not want new research results to be disseminated to the general public until they have been confirmed by other studies by other researchers!" (Hjelm-Wallén and Modéer 2004, our translation)

An important task of researchers is rather to make uncertainties, limitations and values inherent in their research visible. Why? The answer lies in integrity and trust. We must be able to assume that responsible science communicates scientific uncertainty. Researchers who acknowledge the areas of uncertainty in their knowledge base and are transparent about them have greater credibility than those who pretend to have almost all of the answers. Confidence in the experts' knowledge depends on how aware they are of shortcomings and uncertainty in their subject and how clearly they convey this.

Researchers need to view themselves and their research in a wider social context. However, that is not to say there are no limits to what can be said in public as a researcher. Realising their limitations means deferring to others when they receive enquiries that should be answered by someone else.

Seeing the journalist

But how can an ethical media practice be realised as long as researchers have to relate to journalists? It is true that journalists are subject to organisational frameworks that offer little scope for different perspectives and uncertainty in research. Standard phrases in journalism are "new research shows" and "researchers have found that". "Discoveries" and "breakthroughs" are brought to the fore, and the language and angle often emphasise the "dramatic" and the "strange". The pressure to produce good copy within a tight deadline goes some way to explaining the use of such frames and formulaic language. Journalists also want to appeal to readers by explicitly describing the value of the research being written about.

At the same time, however, journalists' understanding of their job in relation to research is evolving. Where they previously considered themselves to be popularisers on behalf of selected research groups, they now also see themselves as critical investigators who want to highlight the uncertainty and ethical dilemmas that arise in connection with research (Hornmoen, Meyer and Sylwan 2006). Journalism's range of genres – from commentaries, feature articles and news reports to profiles – is flexible enough to allow for a type of article that is likely to become even more widespread in the press in the future, not least in the weekend supplements of newspapers. These are "multi-voiced" articles, which use a variety of research sources to provide different interpretations of findings, or different analyses or opinions of the social consequences that certain types of research may have, such as in the fields of biotechnology, military research or environmental research.

An ability and willingness to reflect on the basis for their assertions is something that journalists are increasingly likely to demand from researchers. This ought really to be an excellent challenge for researchers; they can contribute to an exciting public dialogue that illustrates how they can have fundamentally different ways of thinking about a phenomenon, different theories of how knowledge is produced in a research field.

But then it is also good to know that according to journalistic norms in Norway, interviewees do in fact have certain "rights": the source should be informed about the context in which their comments will be used. According to agreement, they can also check before publication that their comments have been accurately represented ("quote check"). However, that does not mean it is the researcher who should control the journalistic product. Seeing the journalist implies respecting his right to exercise control over the formulation of the journalistic product. It is the journalist who gives the story its angle. The opening paragraph (the "lead"), headline, sub-headlines and captions are also the responsibility of the journalist or the editorial staff, and not something that the source should meddle with.

Temporary truths

Ideally, the public media is a place where research and the related priorities, ethics and cultures can be discussed. Researchers are faced with the challenge of helping to expand this forum into a platform for exchanging knowledge about research. Inviting reflection on the fascinating fact that our understanding of the world is continuously evolving is also a part of this. Science is, after all, a never-ending project of temporary truths: what is true today may not be true tomorrow. Learning to understand that is perhaps the greatest stimulant of all.

(See also The politics of research ethics and Research and society.)

This article has been translated from Norwegian by Carole Hognestad, Akasie språktjenester AS