Interviews for: Credibility of Science Communication - An Exploratory Study of Press Releases in Astronomy

 

A            Summary of Interviews

A.1         Peter Edmonds & Megan Watzke

A.1.1      Short Biography (Edmonds)

Dr. Peter Edmonds is outreach scientist for the Chandra X-ray Observatory advertising the wonderful science done with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. His main research interests are binaries and globular clusters, with an emphasis on Hubble and Chandra observations. He studied science at the University of Sydney as an undergraduate, followed by a Ph.D., also at the University of Sydney, where he studied pulsating stars using the Anglo-Australian Telescope. After losing too many battles with clouds he was keen to change over to space-based observing. He moved to Baltimore, Maryland for a postdoc at the Space Telescope Science Institute, followed by a postdoc at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

A.1.2     Short Biography (Watzke)

Megan Watzke has been press officer for the Chandra X-ray Observatory, which is one of NASA's "Great Observatories," since 2000. Prior to joining Chandra, Ms. Watzke was a public affairs specialist for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. Ms. Watzke earned a masters degree in science journalism from Boston University after graduating from the University of Michigan with a major in astronomy and astrophysics.

A.1.3     Statements from Interview

Watzke: "The review process at Chandra is pretty rigorous with up to six or seven scientists reviewing a press release – some of the many steps are necessary but perhaps not all."

                

Edmonds: "It is our job as communicators to try to see to that more astronomy and more Chandra get into the press and public consciousness – but that said, Astronomy does tremendously well compared to other physical sciences."

 

Watzke: "In the perfect world, good science communication is science that is conveyed accurately to the general public in such a way that it is easily accessible and digestible while not losing any of the accuracy of the initial result."

 

Edmonds: "Good science communication is a compromise – it must remain accurate and interesting at the same time."

 

Watzke: "Our press releases mainly target science journalists, who then repackage the content so that the end product can reach as many people as possible – however the general public can always access the press release directly at our website".

 

Watzke: "If you want your story to make it into TV, you must have simple punch lines."

 

Watzke: "We are not concerned about having a really simplified headline because the targeted media like New York Times, Science and Nature will not misinterpret this headline."

 

Edmonds: "As communicators we tell the truth, nothing but the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth."

 

Watzke: "As long as you are honest about how shaky or how firm the result is, there is not a problem."

 

Edmonds: "It is not embarrassing to put out a correction, because it will mostly be the scientist's mistake – it is the scientific process."

 

Watzke: "If you waited to everyone had iron proof evidence, you could never put a press release out – there is always uncertainty."

 

Edmonds: "Scientists get upset if something is oversimplified or if credit is not given to scientists who has done work in the field earlier – but then again we cannot mention everybody."

 

Watzke: "Some scientists still prefer just to communicate their science via public journals, but I do not see that very often any more."

 

Watzke: "We do not do anything without the scientist's agreement, even though we might strongly disagree with their ideas of about how to represent their result to the public."

 

Edmonds: "Scientists are to some extend concerned about being seen as one who steals the spotlight."

 

Watzke: "Scientists are not going to get a new job or more observation-time because we do a press release for them, but there is an acknowledgement of benefits if their work is better known."

 

Watzke: "It can be an institutional nightmare to do combined press releases with other observatories because of the rigorous review process of press releases."

 

Edmonds: "In spirit the whole community are in it together when communicating to the public, but you also want to see your name."

 

Watzke: "If a good science story gets to the public, it benefits everyone in the scientific community."

 

Edmonds: "I don't think there's a big credibility problem in science communication today – some scientists are being very careful and maybe too credible."

 

Edmonds: "NASA's 1998 extrasolar planet didn't really hurt credibility in the general public since not much about the mistake got very far."

 

Watzke: "NASA has a reputation as being very pushy and over simplifying".

 

Watzke: "Did we have any idea that the Quark-star would not come through in the press as we imagined? No, but maybe we could have guessed."

 

Watzke: "The Quark-star was somewhat controversial, but sometimes you must try to walk a line, because if everything has to be proven you cannot do anything."

 

Watzke: "You end up walking a line, because you want to be as interesting and provocative as possible with out being wrong."

 

Watzke: "The way science is reported is changing rapidly"

 

Watzke: "Scientists are upset to see a wrong message in the newspaper and complain. But it's not necessarily our fault."

 

Watzke: "A charter from IAU with broad outlines to set the tone would be a good idea."


A.2        Bob Fosbury

A.2.1     Short Biography

Dr. Bob Fosbury is head of Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility (ST-ECF) in Munich. He is currently chairman of the ESO Astronomy Faculty, the largest group of professional astronomers in Europe (and Chile), and is active in the close liaison between the ESO and ESA science programmes. He has published over two hundred scientific papers on topics ranging from the outer atmospheres of stars, the nature of quasars and active galaxies to the physics of forming galaxies in the most distant reaches of the Universe.

A.2.2    Statements from Interview

"I suppose credibility is a whole spectrum of truth or misinterpretation up to the question of the highest level of importance – a potential paradigm shift or whether one should have a look at this because it is cool."

 

"I believe there is a demand or a perceived demand for quantity of communication and perhaps less interest in identifying aspects of quality and importance in science communication. By satisfying the continuous demand one can blur the distinction between the important high significance events and the run-of-the-mill ones."

 

"When a professional in, I guess, any science sees a press release they think the organization must have a grant application review coming up and therefore they are trying to create some kind of event around this."

 

"To show that your idea is an important element while neglecting other important work is something we have to live with."

 

"I think it is important to expose the public to a scientist directly without the intermediate PR-professional, but aspects of credibility are more exposed in this direct contact, than in the processed contact."

 

"There is the whole question of misinterpretation of observations and discoveries. There are shades of correctness or credibility in misinterpretations. Necessarily mistakes will be made – if they are genuine honest ones, its fine."

 

"If one can get that idea of methodology over to the public I think one is doing science a tremendous service."

 

"If the public feel they are deliberately being misled, then I think their patience will run out."

 

"The public could easily remove itself from science as an intellectual activity. Technology is a different thing, but the public do not realise how closely coupled they are."

 

"It is difficult to determine what good science communication is when dealing with the general public. I think it is important to have a metrics to see the impact we have on the public. The people who listen to a talk can often understand much more than you give them credit for."

 

"Trying to explain without blinding people with technicalities or cleverness but not trivialising and not necessarily simplifying it."

 

"There is a problem with visibility of science in the media. People have a very short attention span. You have to try to reach as many people as possible without neglecting the high quality contact with small number of people."

 

"Many scientists involved in making a press release exposing their work are most worried by the reaction of their peers.

 

"It's certainly a problem that the science community do not understand the work of communicators. "

 

"If there is no scientific paper backing a press release there'd better be pretty good reasons and you must be prepared to suffer the consequences."

 

"A recommended code of conduct in the form of guidelines is a good idea, but rules are not."


A.3        André Heck

A.3.1     Short Biography

Prof. André Heck is a first-class Astronomer at Strasbourg Observatory in France and has a life-long devotion to astronomy and scientific public outreach. He holds a D.Sc. and a degree in communication techniques and more than 140 refereed and/or review papers on a broad range of themes. His editorial production is impressive with some 70 books as author or editor and more than 1400 papers, quite a few of them being directed to the public at large – a return towards the society that he never neglected. He has also launched a novel series of volumes devoted the organizational, strategical and sociological issues in astronomy and related disciplines. He produced quite recently an edited book on the multinational history of Strasbourg Observatory.

A.3.2    Statements from Interview

"Credibility occurs if the message that you conveyed has been received credible by the receiver."

 

"You can have a completely wrong message but, if it makes sense, then you are credible – bluff works that way."

 

"You can be credible without doing a good job – you can e.g. be an astrologer."

 

"You are largely responsible to tailor your message in a way it is well received."

 

"A credibility problem definitely exists, and it cannot be solved through golden rules."

 

"Many astronomers live in their own little crystal sphere and do not care about the outside world, which is a lack of social responsibility."

 

"The credibility problem lies at different levels – scientific information might not be expressed properly, the message might not be conveyed adequately, or the end-user does not understand it properly."

 

"Idealistic astronomers should be reminded about their social responsibility because the society has paid for their education and their salary is frequently covered by taxpayer's money."

 

"The general public rate astronomy first as what is most interesting science, but life science first as where to spend the money. That is why astronomy is getting less and less funds."

 

"The scientists try to get funds by either public support or citations – both can be influenced by non-objective factors."

 

"Science communication is a matter of quality not quantity."

 

"Some years ago, an announcement that life had been found on Mars made all the headlines and even triggered some words from the US President (Clinton). Interestingly this took place shortly before a NASA budget was to be approved by the US House of Representatives or by the Senate. Of course, no life has ever been found of Mars, but the subsequent rectification remained almost unnoticed in the news."

 

"The problem for science communication is that the public is retaining the big news even though it is wrong and possible subsequent rectifications remain unnoticed."

 

"A good press release informs accurately and is being well understood."

 

"The best message is the short message – short, flashy, attracting, teasing."

 

"Behind hype is the problem of visibility and recognition – the fight of organisations, laboratories or people for money."

 

"People who have benefited temporarily of hype can afterwards pay this very dearly, either because they either deserve it or because a lot of people are jealous."

 

"An ethical charter, not only from IAU, but also from all organisations, that would be of application to scientists and communicators would be highly desirable."


A.4        Robert Hurt

A.4.1     Short Biography

Dr. Robert Hurt is the visualization scientist (pubic affairs) for the Spitzer Space Telescope, part of NASA's "Great Observatory" program. In addition to his current work on Spitzer, Dr. Hurt has previously worked as a staff scientist on the Two Micron All Sky Survey, and a postdoctoral fellow on the ESA Infrared Space Observatory. Dr. Hurt received his Ph.D. in physics from UCLA in 1993, and his research interests include gas dynamics in starburst galaxies, local star formation, and luminous infrared galaxies.

A.4.2    Statements from Interview

 

"In order to make sure we keep credibility, everything has to be correct."

 

"In public affairs you are pulled between two poles, sensationalizing the results and correctness."

 

"Spitzer has a long review process that relies on the scientist's approval."

 

"I do not think there is a credibility problem, because most press releases are fairly much on the mark."

 

"If the science community loses credibility with the general public we face a significant danger of loss of interest and loss of ability of communicating important things they need to know."

 

"Science covers many things but for the public it is a small field – misrepresenting can hurt all scientific areas and have a kind of halo effect."

 

"The primary concern of scientists with regards to credibility is to lose credibility among their peers."

 

"A scientist must have a public identity before he or she is likely to worry about personal public credibility"

 

"If the scientists do not trust the communicators, they will not come to them again. And equally if the journalists lose trust in communicators, they are not going to print the story. The credibility has to be maintained."

 

"What ever you do, you have to keep your credibility with your collaborators."

 

"Good science communication is taking a scientific technical result and clearly communicating it to a non-technical audience."

 

"Engage the audience and give them flavour for the processes of science and then you have succeeded."

 

"We primarily target the larger mass media, but we also try to hit the more informed media."

 

"The most interesting and frustrating thing about press releases is the limited space for telling the actual science story – definitions of key terms and even some results often get left behind, because there is not enough space."

 

"We try not to compare Spitzer images directly with lower resolution or lower sensitivity ones from previous missions. This could be perceived as trying to "show off" and devalue the importance of prior work."

 

"We try not to put out a press release without a published refereed scientific paper, but sometimes you do not have a choice."

 

"You really have to clarify the nature of the sources when you do not have a refereed scientific paper."

 

"Hype has been beneficial to the scientific community, because reporters need to know why this is interesting to their readers."

 

"Science communicators have learned to find the hooks."

 

"It can be difficult to work under mandatory guidelines that are applied broadly to all releases. Guidelines can be helpful for consistency, but they should also reflect the real needs of journalists and be applied flexibly in situations where they can be counterproductive to communicating the story."

 

"Guidelines should be more how to deal with the critical phases."

 

"Any chink in the armour of credibility can make the entire scientific community vulnerable to attack."


A.5        Bruno Leibundgut

A.5.1      Short Biography

Dr. Bruno Leibundgut is head of Office for Science at European Southern Observatory (ESO) and an internationally recognized top researcher in astronomy within supernovas. He has, besides his production of many scientific papers, also written several popular science articles. He is currently chairman of the press review board at ESO who reviews the ESO and ESA/Hubble news and photos releases.

A.5.2     Statements from Interview

 

 "ESO has no formal obligation to communicate ESO results to the outside world."

 

"Time has changed – scientists now also have to do science communication."

 

"Science communication has become more and more important."

 

"Here at ESO we have followed the excellent example of STScI/OPO."

 

"I don't think a credibility problem exists at the moment. When reading a newspaper only in your own field do you see the shortcuts taken in the communication process. However, one cannot hide behind this really."

 

"You need to earn credibility every day."

 

"I don't think there is a large difference between the US and Europe with respect to credibility. The US is more aggressive, but do not necessarily do something wrong."

 

"The public communication works on different time scales than the scientific process."

 

"In our editorial board we cannot re-reduce the data."

 

"A press release targets both the public and the fellow scientists."

 

"Good science communication is about the delivery. It's about excitement. It's about answering the question why this is important for people. It's about beauty and attraction. Good science communication has to be correct. Analogies are for example often too simple or even wrong. And it is important to involve the astronomers. For the actual work it is a balance between the scientists and the PIO."

 

"No scientific result came out of a vacuum – they all build on previous results."

 

"There ought to be a scientific paper before the press release. The main reason for this is that someone has sat down and thought things through carefully. A refereed paper gives an objective opinion. If there is no paper, then the evidence has to be shown: graphs, data,

pictures . Whether a press release needs a paper depends highly on how complex the science is. Whether it is "on/off" or a "complex technical" result."

 

"If we lose credibility we lose support and people will get disinterested. It may lead to a long-term downsizing of the whole astrophysics."

 

"Fundamental science is more susceptible to the loss of credibility than applied science."

 

"Credibility in science communication is very important."

 

"Also PIOs can lose credibility with the scientists and this is very bad."

 

"A formal code of conduct may be good, but I am not sure how to implement it."


A.6        Mario Livio

A.6.1     Short Biography

Dr. Mario Livio is a Senior Astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute, and the previous head of the Institute's Science Division. He is an internationally known astrophysicist, a bestselling author, and a popular lecturer. He joined the STScI in 1991 as head of the Archive Branch. Prior to coming to STScI, he completed his undergraduate studies (majoring in both physics and mathematics) at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, his M.Sc. degree (in theoretical particle physics) at the Weizmann Institute, and his Ph.D. (in theoretical astrophysics) at Tel-Aviv University. He was a professor of physics in the physics department of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology from 1981 until 1991.

A.6.2    Statements from Interview

"A credibility problem does not exist in science communication today, as the review process is very heavily scrutinized due to several people checking the veracity of a press release."

 

"In the history of Hubble there have been very few problems with accuracy."

 

"Most press conferences are held after the arrival of a refereed paper. The few exceptions are indeed when the results are being transmitted live. During these live transmissions the emphasis is not at the results, as they do not exist at the point, but instead it is the drama of the observation that is in focus."

 

"The credibility question regarding live-events does not exist. Instead the question should be: Does the given observation qualify for live coverage?"

 

"Good science communication should be interesting to the public and make them able to understand exactly what the importance of the finding is."

 

"Good science communication enhances the public interest in science and encourages young people to go into science – we do not always achieve that, as the public opinion sometimes differs from that of scientists regarding the interest of a finding."

 

"When using words like "may", "could", "possible" etc. the news media does not find these stories to be exciting enough, and does therefore not print them. This results in press releases that sometimes have a very slim chance of being interpreted right."

 

"The one event which is always quoted being a failure in terms of credibility is the NASA 1998 Extrasolar Planet."

 

"The NASA 1998 extrasolar planet press release actual did had cautious words like "may", "possible" etc.. They did however not appear in the article presented by the journalist – in hindsight we should not have made that particular release."

 

"You can not avoid that something is proven wrong later – it is the way science progresses."

 

"Given all the information you have, you should be convinced that this looks correct. It then might be proven wrong later on."

 

"If fundamental information in your press release is proven wrong you might have to release a new press release regarding the revision of the results."

 

"It does not make sense to retract a press release that is proven wrong, unless this occurs within a short time of the emission of the press release. I do not believe that people remembers earlier releases."

 

"We always give credit to others who has done work before. If a specific telescope has some unique capabilities then we emphasise the observatory. However this only occurs if the foundation of the results is based on the specific capabilities of a telescope."

 

"We have a very long and rigorous procedure for transforming research results into a press release. It involves many people who need to approve the release."

 

"I do not believe that there exists a serious problem regarding credibility in modern science communication, and does therefore not believe that a common code of conduct is needed."

 

"It is very hard to gain credibility, and very easy to lose it. "

 

"Losing credibility would be a disaster as the public would not take you seriously and therefore you would achieve the exact opposite of what you were trying to achieve."


A.7        Dirk H. Lorenzen

A.7.1      Short Biography

Dirk Lorenzen is a senior science reporter for German Public Radio and major newspapers since 1994. He covers astronomy and space flight. Mr. Lorenzen graduated in astrophysics from Hamburg University. He authored five popular books about astronomy and has given hundreds of public talks. Mr. Lorenzen is a member of the executive board of the German Association of Science Journalists. In 2005 he chaired the Participants' Forum "Europe in Space: Taking off without the public?" at the conference "Communicating European Research" in Brussels, organized by the European Commission.

A.7.2     Statements from Interview

 

"I find my stories and news by checking web pages, checking press releases, reading Nature or Science or articles on astro-ph. In some cases I get in touch with astronomers and go to conferences."

 

"I do not really trust press releases – I always have to check them."

 

"It is the responsibility of the journalist to check the press releases."

 

"If someone issues a press release they want you to have a special view on a case."

 

"Press releases do not mention errors and sometimes they are published for political reasons."

 

"If I can not talk to the scientist I will not follow the story."

 

"I trust the scientific paper more than the press release, but the papers are done by humans and humans can be wrong."

 

"I do trust some organisations more than others – unfortunately."

 

"Peer reviewing is a slow process. I think you have to communicate fast."

 

"If you have a beautiful image then you do not need a refereed paper – Hubble does this perfectly, while ESA does not."

 

"If the press release is done in a perfect way it will start with some hype, but it is ok – it is journalist's job to question it."

 

"If based on sound facts hype can be beneficial."

 

"Credibility is about honesty and presenting your organization well."

 

"You are never allowed to lie – to me people who lie are dead to me and to my colleagues too."

 

"It pays in the long run to tell about mistakes. Only if the press release is entirely wrong, you should make a new one."

 

"It sounds very nice with guidelines and everybody will tell it sounds great, but it will not really work."

 

"The general trend is that the better and the younger scientists are, the more willing they are to communicate."

 

"Good science communication should tell a story and not communicate too many facts."

 

"Good science communication has to appeal to the public and needs a human touch that most scientists do not like."

 

"The Americans are better at communicating – but American scientists have also much more pressure to get their research in the news and sell the story."

 

"You have to be more careful if you read American press releases."

 

"We need a shift in the attitude towards science communication – it is not only a problem of the PR people but also of the scientists."

 

"Communication is important and it makes it worthwhile for all including the scientists, but the scientists do not realise that."

 

"Science communication is not visible enough for the general public and in science communication it is very important to communicate to the people that pay for it."


A.8       Claus Madsen

A.8.1     Short Biography

Claus Madsen is head of the ESO Public Affairs Department. In 1980, he joined ESO, concentrating on wide-field scientific imagery of the Milky Way, the Magellanic Clouds and the Local Group galaxies. Since 1986, he has focused on science and society issues, organising exhibitions, producing films and giving public lectures on astronomy. He is co-author of the book 'Exploring the Southern Sky' (Springer Verlag, 1987). Between 2000-2005, as European Affairs Officer he coordinated the relations between ESO and the EU. He participates in several EIROforum (a partnership of European intergovernmental research organisations) working groups on aspects of European science policy.

A.8.2    Statements from Interview

"As far as I know, we are the only organization, which provides an accurate description of the purpose, procedure and underlying philosophy behind press releases including their relationship vis-à-vis the original scientific paper – in other words a precise tool for the proper understanding of a press release. We do this to make this difference obvious to everybody and to support our credibility with the science journalists."

 

"The communication process at ESO is as follows: 1) Firstly, we normally require a scientific paper which has been accepted for publication in a bona-fide scientific journal. 2) The original paper is subjected to a further internal review at ESO by an internal review board, which consists of 5-6 members. Their job is entirely to evaluate the technical and scientific content of the paper. 3) Provided that the internal review board also 'accepts' the paper, we start preparing the first draft for the actual press release. This is done in close collaboration with the original authors, but may also involve other parties (graphics specialists, media people, etc.). 4) The draft press release is evaluated again by the internal review board. This time their task is to spot possible scientific mistakes or expressions in the release that might cause misunderstandings."

 

"The media – also in Europe – gives priority to NASA news and we have the impression that the media accepts nearly all that is published by NASA – because of this we have little chance to be heard if we send out a press release on a particular topic at the same time as NASA."

 

"When at the time of the ESOF International Scientific Conference we published the press release about the extrasolar planet in orbit around µ Arae, we made sure to make the journalists aware of fact that this particular press release was based on a submitted, but not yet accepted, paper. The urgency of publishing this release was due to series of external factors, but the scientific paper was in fact accepted shortly thereafter. This did not seem to bother journalists, but later at a press conference in the US we were heavily criticized for this – though indeed not by the journalists!"

 

"Given that NASA quite often appears to make news announcements, which are not supported by an accepted paper – which can of course be justified in the case of a scientific meeting for example – we're indeed puzzled by criticism from NASA when, on rare occasions, we publish a press release based on a submitted but still-to-be accepted science paper."

 

"Credibility is a principal asset of ours."

 

"Press work is work 'in the fast lane'. Occasionally, the lengthy procedures that we follow at ESO to prepare a press release, including the time needed for our scientists to verify our statements, entails the risk that we might be 'scooped' by others. However, this is a price we are ready to pay to maintain the trust of the media."

 

"One of the greater conflicts is within the search for extrasolar planets and gamma-ray bursts. Here there is very hard competition."

 

"Within the confines of science, proper referencing is an integral part of 'good conduct'. In the public domain, especially in hotly contested fields of science, we see that both PR people and some scientists find it hard to acknowledge achievements of colleagues."

 

"I do not believe that – per se – scientific research lacks public support, but it is not 'an unquestioning support'. The issue is confidence. It is important to remember that great advances always have two sides. This was seen in the last century, e.g. in nuclear physics, which of course also brought about the nuclear bomb. Today, it is clearly a problem in the life sciences where we see a great increase in ethical issues. Nanotechnology is an area which could pose similar problems."

 

"Vying for public attention is a struggle to be fought every day. Getting into the public mass media is not simply a question of the quality or merit of the 'news' itself. It is a question of understanding – and mastering – the 'news game' in a climate dominated by harsh competition with less ethical stops than we would sometimes wish. I am concerned of what this does to the credibility of science in the long run."

 

"If the claim put forward in a press release turns out to be wrong, we normally leave it at the webpage, but we do insert a 'disclaimer' so that the press releases can be read and understood in the light of more recent findings."

 

"A press release is not simply a document which describes results of research; it documents the fact that a research result (often associated with specific claims) has been publicized. In this sense, the data can be wrong, but the press release will still be correct. Science is a living process: something true one day may be proven wrong, based on new evidence, the following day. A press release is only valid as such at the time of its release and with the knowledge of the moment."

 

"It is important to realize that a press release is not a scientific paper."

 

"I believe that a code of conduct will be a good idea. It would not provide any guarantees, of course, just like the traffic code: If may be violated, but at least it provides a set of rules for everyone to go by."

 

"Because our fundamental task is to serve European scientists, I do not have any issues with other people being mentioned before us, as long as our role is still acknowledged."

 

"We are not afraid of referring to other research teams, organizations or results obtained by other scientists."

 

"As the search for extrasolar planets is directly linked to the search for life and as such is one the most fundamental interest of many people, this field is in great danger of being hyped."

 

"With respect to credibility, you can decide to implement procedures and standards just as we have done. But it must be understood that the mediation process operates according to its own rules and the normative idea that many scientists seem to entertain, that they should or could somehow decide on how a certain story is reported, is simply naïve."


A.9        Govert Schilling

A.9.1     Short Biography

Govert Schilling is a science correspondent and former programme leader of the Artis Planetarium in Amsterdam. He writes regularly on science topics for the Dutch newspapers de Volkskrant and Vrij Nederland, as well as the American and British magazines Sky & Telescope, Science and New Scientist. His previous books include Werelden naast de aarde (Worlds Near the Earth, 1990), De salon van God (God's Salon, 1993) and Tweeling aarde (Twin Earth, 1997). He is autodidact in astronomy and journalism and has written more than 40 books on popular astronomy and many more articles.

A.9.2    Statements from Interview

"I find my news by reading magazines. This is where I normally have my background stories from. The web is getting more and more important. I also subscribe to mailing lists and have many personal contacts. I talk to scientists at press conferences, lectures and sometimes the researchers call me"

 

"I do not use PIOs very often to get information. I meet them at the AAS meetings, and I know them, but I prefer to talk to the researcher instead. In this way I can do background checks."

 

"The difference between a normal journalist and a science journalist is that the normal journalist does not have the contacts and does not know whom to call."

 

"As a journalist you have to keep in mind that PIOs determine which topics get released."

 

"I am a trustful person and I trust the PIOs, but there is said to be a lack of trust between PIOs and journalists."

 

"It is very important to work together and it is important that journalist do not suspect the PIOs for lying."

 

"To me it is very important not to base a story on misinformation. I want to be sure that everything is accurate and I believe it is the personal responsibility of the journalist to get it right."

 

"As a journalist you have to be aware that PIOs will not tell you of competitive research, and it is the journalist's duty to check up on this."

 

"The difference between science journalists and normal journalists is that normal journalists do not have time to check the press release, because of deadlines – you can not blame them."

 

"Every serious science journalist knows that press releases are made by PIOs who emphasize their own organization."

 

"You can not expect the PIOs to also tell about the problems they encounter."

 

"It is important to get media response. This means that the amount of press releases increases just before the government is about to give out funding."

 

"The more the people from the government see your work, the more they can relate to it and the more money they will provide to the organization."

 

"NASA certainly would benefit from positive and frequent media exposure in a time when congress is deciding on things like Hubble maintenance."

 

"I believe there is a big problem with scientist not wanting to communicate their research. As a colleague said "I have never encountered an episode where a poet says, that "I am probably not the right poet to ask about my poem", this happens all the time with scientists."

 

"The scientist is afraid

  1. The communicator will simplify his work.
  2. To receive bad response from his colleagues.
  3. His colleagues will think that he is too eager to get in the press
  4. Being looked down upon by other scientists"

 

"Scientists do not understand why it is important to make simplifications, but it is the simplification that helps you get the message across."

 

"There are big differences between US and Europe, but the biggest difference is the willingness to communicate."

 

"In US you need to get money every couple of years. This makes it important to be seen in public, because this is where the senators see you, and they might recognize your work when the funding is being paid out."

 

"The younger scientists have grown up in a world of communication, but they have to be careful not to make mistakes while a mistake can damage their career."

 

"The topics that interest the public the most are black holes, extraterrestrial life, extreme physics and cosmology."

 

"It is not always that a scientific paper is needed, but if there is I will always have a look."

 

"I use the paper to look up literature on the subject, for background information and I check if it has been done before."

 

"Peer reviewing and a scientific paper give no guaranties that a press release is solid facts."

 

"If a press release turns out to be wrong you should put out a new press release and look for a good angle to make the mistake more positive."

 

"Terebey did everything right, she had a paper, a press release, and later a accepted peer reviewed paper and she published a new press release when it was proven wrong."

 

"In hindsight the NASA 1998 extrasolar planet press release was too strong and too confident, but because it was published at a NASA Space Science Update, everybody believed it."

 

"NASA should only have sent out a press release with an image and some background information for the 1998 extrasolar planet."

 

"The public do not care if the research turns out to be wrong – it gives the right view on science and that searching for extrasolar planets is a high goal."

 

"It does not matter if results are proven wrong – this is how science works."

 

"A code of conduct is not a good idea, since there will always be a lot of competition. Scientists and PIOs will always want to beat the other organizations."

 

"There will always be competition between PIOs and PIOs, scientists and scientists and journalists and journalists."

 

"There is hype everywhere and everybody is doing it."

 

"There is nothing wrong with hype – it opens new fields."

 

"Hype can in some ways be beneficial while it makes science less dull, because the exciting subjects are often being hyped."


A.10    Neil DeGrasse Tyson

A.10.1   Short Biography

Dr. Tyson has often been called "The Carl Sagan of our time" – he is director for the Hayden Planetarium in New York and has been appointed by President Bush to serve in the 9-member commission "Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy" in 2004. Tyson's contributions to the public appreciation of the cosmos have recently been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of asteroid "13123 Tyson".

A.10.2  Statements from Interview

 "What matters to one person, does not matter to another person."

 

"It is important to know whom you are speaking to, when you communicate. It matters to me what matters to them, because I will use this to communicate to them. It is harder now than ever before to know what matters to them, because people have so many different references to many different media."

 

"Money matters – NASA money is tax money, the National Science Foundation money is tax money and I believe that the scientists have realised this."

 

"The members of congress are not scientists, and this means, that when communicating to the public you are also communicating to the members of congress."

 

"After the Cold War, astronomy could not expect money from military funding any longer."

 

"In America the increasing capitalism means that the amount of money you make, defines your amount of success, which results in science communicators needing to adapt their press releases to reaching large crowds."

 

"A credibility problem doesn't exist in America anymore, due to Carl Sagan's appearance on Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show."

 

"People were astonished that Carl Sagan would reach that far into the land of entertainment and talk about science. Today I do that all the time, provided my content is real."

 

"My job description is partly to bring science to the public."

 

"Many American press releases exaggerate the significance of a finding, to the exclusion of other work, which may be of a good quality, but lacks the machinery to publish it. It concerns me, but not to the extent to take any action."

 

"Communicators need to get the attention of the media, but unless the press release includes superlatives, they worry that the press will not see it."

 

"Temptation is high to exaggerate findings."

 

"The temptation for hype is huge."

 

 "Good journalists will not only speak to you, but also to your competing group."

 

"You should only make press releases with enough superlatives to impress the public. It should not be to inform scientists."

 

"There is nothing wrong with being wrong, but you do not want a press release coming out in advance of a peer reviewed publication of an article. Then you are breaking scientific protocol."

 

"95% of news is local news"

 

"If I, in theory, send out a press release and the story turned out to be wrong, I should send out a retraction, if the story started to escalate."

 

"If you do not have a scientific paper backing your press release, it could turn out to be the end of your carrier – this happened to the scientists involved in the cold fusion"

 

"Scientists do not want it to look as if they are stooping to the level of the public in case one of their colleagues sees it."

 

"Scientists try to keep a high level, so they can still stay high up on the ladder."

 

"The publication of the retraction by Susan Terebey is a noble gesture which would normally claim high respect."

 

"Susan Terebey should have published the paper and not issued the press release, as she would still get credit if the results proved to be true. Publishing the press release before the scientific paper was accepted would not be tactical."


A.11      Ray Villard

A.11.1    Short Biography

Ray Villard has specialized in communicating astronomy to the general public for the past 20 years. As Public Information Manager for the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), he is responsible for disseminating news about the most recent discoveries made with Hubble Space Telescope. He previously was associate editor for Astronomy and Star & Sky magazines, and has written a variety of freelance articles. He holds an M.S. in Science Communication from Boston University.

A.11.2   Statements from Interview

 

"To ensure accuracy you will have to make sure that everything you make available to the public must be true and accurate."

 

"To make something interesting and glamorous is not hype – hype is when you take credit for more than you deserve."

 

"Scientists who hype will in time lose their credibility with their peers."

 

"The level of accuracy is irrelevant if no one pays attention."

 

"In the process of simplifying, or glamorizing, it is easy to introduce errors."

 

"If you hype, you will lose credibility."

 

"If you try to popularize science you risk being accused of hyping."

 

"The organisations have an obligation to share its information with the public."

 

"I do not believe that a credibility problem exists between science organisations and the media in general, however there are an issue regarding NASA who is often perceived as having a tendency to hype their results."

 

"Science communication needs to be exciting in order to get the public's attention."

 

"In good science communication, getting the public's attention is more important than accuracy. In order to achieve this you should use simple language, and make the subject relevant to their everyday life."

 

"Bad science communication is when you expect the public to understand difficult technical terms, and thereby do not get their attention."

 

"People are amazed of the beauty of pictures in astronomy, which adds another aspect within science communication."

 

"We translate the information to an appropriate level in order to make the public understand and to gain their interest."

 

"It is a great challenge not to look like you are diminishing other facilities when emphasising your own observatory."

 

"It is bad science communication if you choose to emphasize the least plausible explanation in order to make it interesting to the public."

 

"Science is a self correcting process, in which you are bound to make mistakes. About half the published papers need some degree of correction."

 

"Many astronomers accuse NASA of hyping, partly due to the Mars meteorite suspected of containing fossil evidence for microorganisms; I however believe that it is necessary to publish exciting results quickly in order to get the public's attention."

 

"Scientists can be overly concerned about the accurate reporting of their work due to criticism from their peers. However, regarding the public, no one complains about mistakes being corrected as they see it as a natural part of the scientific process."

 

"The biggest problem in science communication is the fact that many scientists disagree with the need to publish fast, due to criticism from their peers."

 

"A press release should not always wait for a peer reviewed paper, as some discoveries can be too important to remain secret for long."

 

"I do not put much credence in reviewed papers, as I do not think they guarantee accuracy. Peer reviewing pleases the scientists, but not the public. There are plenty of examples where peer reviewed papers turned out to be wrong."

 

"You can be more flexible with astronomy than other sciences such as medicine. At least if the result is later proven wrong it will not kill anyone."

 

"The scientist does not understand what the public comprehend and find interesting, and needs to accept what the public affairs professionals bring to the table."

 

"If you make a terrible mistake, you should make a correction, not a retraction."

 

"A long-term consequence of losing credibility is that reporters will not pay attention to you."

 

"Once credibility is lost it is very hard to achieve again."                        

 

"Science communication has to achieve certain balance in both simplification and accuracy."

 

 

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