Much ado about something: insights into the science communication process.

AuthorRachul, Christen
  1. Introduction

    The discussion of media and science communication is not a new one, and the roles of scientists and journalists in the reporting of health and medical research has long been analyzed, criticized, discussed and fussed over. Among the many areas in need of improvement, some say that the media is guilty of committing the sin of omission, (1) while others say that scientists are to blame for their poor lay communication skills. (2) However, one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the media has a big, albeit complex, impact on the public understanding of science. Moreover, public opinion plays a role - to varying degrees - in health care policies, in research funding, and in how members of the public make decisions about their own or families' healthcare. (3)

    Given the strong media interest in allergy and asthma research and education in Canada, (4) this area provides an opportunity to examine the science communication process. Insights from this process may help to inform future communication strategies, including the development of relevant research policies; educating patients, caregivers and the general public; and addressing issues in allergy and asthma in general.

    While health news may arise in many contexts, a common venue for media coverage of health research is scientific meetings. In order to further explore media coverage in the field of allergy and asthma, I took advantage of a recent expedition to New Orleans for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI) to observe this one process of science communication in action. Through observations of poster presentations and media interviews, as well as unstructured interviews with an academic researcher and a media representative, a rough sketch of one particular forum for science communication emerges. (5)

  2. Background

    In some fields, asthma and allergy included, the scientific meeting is a crucial mechanism for knowledge dissemination and networking and is also a common site for media attention of new research findings. Some have questioned the usefulness of media reports from scientific meetings, mainly due to the preliminary nature of much of the results being presented in this context. One study found that a quarter of the abstracts that receive media coverage are never published in peer-reviewed journals for a number of reasons ranging from rejection to manuscripts never being submitted for peer review. (6) A later study found that a very small percentage of news stories that reported on abstracts from scientific meetings reported limitations, risks, and more importantly, the preliminary nature of the results being presented. (7) Another useful point to mention is the use of press releases as a source of information for journalists, common practice at large scientific meetings. One study of press releases from U.S. medical centers found that a considerable amount of media...

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