Science Is Only Half the Story: Know Your Audience

Luis Quevedo

Reporting on the #SciWri15 #OtherStories session.

If I were hard pressed to choose the one, single principle underlying effective communication, I'd put my money on 'know your audience'. I say that because no matter your expertise in the topic being discussed -- your skilled writing or the interactive plots that you produce -- if you do not tailor your message to the eyes, ears, and brains of the audience, then the message will not work. Full stop.

The 2015 ScienceWriters conference panel Other Stories: Exploring Alternative Narratives was a magnificent example of how that sensibility is put to work. The kernel of the session was the necessity to go beyond the comfort zone we have as scientists or science writers. We must venture beyond the mere facts of science results to tell stories that will accomplish important tasks -- engage an audience previously impassive to our message or even be instrumental in discovering unknown aspects of the very reality that we were trying to describe.

Panelist Sheila Jasanoff, Professor at the Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University, started by remarking how important storytelling is for science reporting, as she has realized acting as a mentor in both the Nieman and Knight journalism programs.

Jasanoff's field of study is Science Technology and Society (STS); and, she argues from the perspective that no one knows the right answer to a scientific problem when two or more interpretations are being debated. Often, what controls public opinion is not outright science denialism or ignorance but instead the fact that people have concerns that go beyond the binary truth/falsehood that science offers. For instance, we might know what the correct and scientific answer is to the question 'what course of treatment should patient X follow' but that might be leaving out sensible social aspects that go beyond health recovery such as the mental well-being of the patient and her family members.

Another description of this is the 'deficit model' -- the assumption that there's a group with knowledge (the scientists) versus another, larger, group without expertise (society). According to Jasanoff, such a model just will not suffice. She prefers a 'knowledge-able public' description where people might not already have all the information necessary; but, they can acquire it if needed.

Another panelist was documentarian and Columbia Journalism School Professor June Cross who shared her experience producing the documentary, Wilhemina's War, about the unusually high prevalence (and terrible prognosis) of HIV positive African American patients in the southern U.S.

What Cross discovered was a radically different reality wherein the basic knowledge and resulting worldview that we often take for granted did not exist. The story of Wilhemina Dickson showed that the HIV-AIDS problem could not be addressed with public health measures developed for the parts of U.S. society that have few African Americans.

Journalist Mary McKenna defended the need to leave the security of our office for the 'shoe leather journalism' that brings an investigative reporter face-to-face with reality. As a health reporter, she speaks for those who feel voiceless when dealing with power structures that we take for granted.

She offered one illuminating example, while reporting about the bird flu in the early 2000's in Asia, she met a local, young university student who did not abide by the government recommendations to buy dead, plastic-wrapped chicken from the supermarket instead of live poultry from the wet market. The rational was clear, dead meat significantly lowers the risk of contracting the flu whereas a live chicken carried serious risks. The young graduate argued that it was tradition to cook chicken for your ancestors in a special dinner. Using a dead animal that the student had not personally examined would have been disrespectful. Thus, someone who perfectly understood the science behind an infection risk still chose to act based on another rationale of higher personal relevance.

The key to what McKenna brilliantly and eloquently shared was to tell stories about people experiencing science -- do not just describe only the science. I believe that this is a powerful take-home message for science journalists.

Finally, panel organizer and journalist Maggie Koerth-Baker shared a recent published story about a particular kind science versus the public tension in the case of reintroducing sex offenders to society [Koerth-Baker 2015]. The science says that accepting sex offenders in society by giving them support and a job will decrease the likelihood that they will repeat their sex offense. However, that is not what the public wants to do. Only seven U.S. states have such rehabilitation programs; and, all have a hard time recruiting volunteers. Koerth-Baker masterfully told the story of a town in Canada that chose to organize and support a sex offender that was going to be released in their community.

Thus, Koerth-Baker's example and the panel as a whole demonstrated the ethical importance of examining science stories from different perspectives including that of the audience.

References or Relevant Literature

M. Koerth-Baker (2015) There's a Reliable Therapy for Sex Offenders -- But Nobody Wants Them to Get It, Gizmodo, October 1

Wilhemina's War (2014) Living a Life of AIDS Without Shame; A Grandmother's Story, June 29

Image credits: Tweets from Matthew R. Francis, PhD and Emily Mullin.

The citation for this article is:
L. Quevedo (2015) Science Is Only Half the Story: Know Your Audience. DiverseScholar 6:8

Luis Quevedo has a degree in Biotechnology from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Master in Communication at Pompeu Fabra University of Spain. His audiovisual work has been internationally recognized for its quality and innovation, most notably the documentary film "Searching for the first European". Quevedo is now directing and hosting the Spanish language, international, daily TV show on science and technology, "CST", available across the US and the Americas on NTN24. He is a regular science and health contributor to the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. Quevedo attended the ScienceWriters 2015 conference on a DiverseScholar NASW Diversity Travel Fellowship. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Originally published 31-Dec-2015

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