Gulf Between Scientists, Reporters Shortchanges Public, Study Says

January 30, 1998

A wide gulf between scientists and reporters is short changing the American public and could have significant societal impact, according to a yearlong joint study by a noted journalist and a senior space scientist.

They found that few scientists have confidence in the media's ability to report science accurately, while most journalists see serious shortcomings in the scientists' ability to describe their work in plain English.

The study was conducted by veteran newsman Jim Hartz and NASA scientist Rick Chappell. During his journalism career, Hartz has frequently chronicled science matters for NBC News and PBS. Chappell is a space physicist who has served as chief scientist for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and recently joined Vanderbilt University as director of science and research communications. They undertook the study as visiting professional scholars for The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt.

Hartz and Chappell found that the frequent inability of science and the media to communicate effectively with each other seriously undermines science literacy among the general public. This, in turn, creates an electorate ill-prepared to make informed judgments about major issues related to science, health and technology, such as global warming and human cloning, as well as multibillion-dollar federal investments in research and development.

"This study throws fresh sunlight on an issue that's been in the shadows far too long," said Vanderbilt Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt, who provided the impetus for the study.

"Fortunately, there are many positive signs this is one problem that can be fixed, although it will require much attention and work by all parties."

In addition to finding a wide gap between science and the press, the most comprehensive survey to date of scientists and journalists revealed a strong willingness by both sectors to improve the situation. For example, 81 percent of the scientists who responded said they would be willing to take a course to help them learn to better communicate with journalists.

Hartz and Chappell emphasize in their report that public understanding of science leads to support for basic research which, in turn, yields advances that improve the quality of life and strengthen the economy and national security. Without a healthy flow of scientific information, their report says, the United States could lose the material preeminence that was created in large part by the great scientific and technological investments and achievements of the past.

Among the recommendations included in the report are proposals for: journalists to increase their understanding of, and training in, the sciences; the scientific community to train its own members to speak for different scientific disciplines; and science institutions to make research papers and researchers more approachable.

"As with other major research universities, Vanderbilt has a responsibility to effectively report the results of its extensive research in the basic sciences, technology and medicine," said Vanderbilt's Wyatt, who also is acting chairman of the National Academy of Sciences' Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable.

"We are committed at Vanderbilt to strengthening the links between our laboratories and the public."

Vanderbilt's new Office of Science and Research Communications, which Chappell now heads, aims to make the University a national leader in fostering links between science, the media and the general public.

"We have the basic material -- the research -- and some of the most dynamic and accomplished scientists in the world," said Vice Chancellor for Media Relations Michael Schoenfeld. "Our challenge now is to develop the Hartz-Chappell findings into a model for research universities."

In addition, Vanderbilt will begin in fall 1998 to offer a new undergraduate course in science communication and is developing an interdisciplinary course of study in sciencecommunication in the College of Arts and Science.

Copies of the Hartz-Chappell report, "Worlds Apart: How the Distance between Science and Journalism Threatens America's Future," are available from the First Amendment Center at 615-321-9588. It also can be found on the First Amendment Center's web site at

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