Communicating Science to the Public: Assessing the Promise, Potential, and Pitfalls of Social Media
Social media have taken the world by storm. The innovative way of networking and communicating has become a daily (if not hourly) activity for millions people across the globe; it’s become a necessity for entertainment and expression, as well as news organizations and media outlets to gain followers and share news stories. Sharing is the theme throughout all forms of social media. Unfortunately, not all news can be popular.
Tell that to scientists, and they’ll probably agree. For as long as “media” has existed, scientists have had difficulties communicating their findings to the public. Science, as a whole, does not receive the attention from media like other topics do (sports, entertainment, etc. arguably soak up more of the sun in the media), which makes it hard for both news and concepts to be circulated among the masses. It doesn’t make things easier when scientists and journalists don’t always agree on the “most important aspects” of an experiment, research, or new discovery.
Problems in science communication are widespread, and the gap between scientists and the general public is often blamed. Socially, that gap is enormous; although scientists may be intelligent and ground-breaking individuals, most aren’t socially connected to the public, meaning that their level of communication often flies over the heads of the general public, which is often the reason science is unapproachable. Francis Crick, in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis, went as far as to say that “there is no form of prose more difficult to understand and more tedious to read than the average scientific paper” . Because of the hard-to-understand words and phrases that are often used, most scientific papers are subject to a limited audience. The average person would neglect to continue reading past the first sentence if they see vocabulary that they cannot comprehend. The writing cannot be meaningful to just experts . Because scientists fear summaries (for the reason that they do not want to simplify their work or leave details out), they do very little to decrease the communication gap. When journalists/websites/media outlets do summarize works in an attempt to relay them to the public, they often go for the “wow factor” – less information, more graphics, and a focus on the eye-catching results.
The divide between scientists and journalists was viewed in an article  by David Gates, who, in 1960, covered a Science News Writing Seminar at the University of Colorado. There, he discovered that journalist’s and scientist’s ideas pertaining to the difficulties of communicating science to the public were extremely different. Scientists generally believed that science reporters should know the field, accurately report it, have an abundance of resources, and report science equally (meaning not just writing about the “breakthroughs”). They also believed not enough space was allotted in newspapers for science of any kind. Journalists, on the other hand, believed that scientists should be more cooperative, be more general and socially connected to the public, and understand that science is just one topic that must be embraced by the media.
Public interest, however, is the biggest problem in relation to science communication. How exactly can a writer make a science article interesting, and how can a scientist generalize his information to make it more accessible by a wider assortment of readers? The answer lies in the question itself – to get the public’s attention, the article has to be interesting, and the scientist has to understand that. Especially in today’s society, with the number of options people have, a science article has to be interesting and enlightening in order to get the attention of the masses. It has to be easy to read and written without the advanced jargon and scientific terms. An attention-grabbing headline or focus on a groundbreaking study is necessary, but it should also include further more-specific details that don’t sacrifice the quality and thoroughness of the research.
It isn’t just the scientist or the writer that’s to blame, however. Science can be better communicated if more media attention is focused on it. With everything that journalists must report on and write about, from celebrities to politics to the daily news, science often gets pushed to the back-burner. Very few science articles, if any at all, are published in local and nation-wide newspapers, covered on news telecasts, or put in major news feeds online. If science articles are published, they usually focus on the “usual” topics: global warming, stem cell research, and “shocking” studies, just to name a few. Science-specific magazines and websites are becoming the only sources of science news for the public, and that is certainly a negative in communicating the news to a widespread audience.
Perhaps this is the reason that science articles are often complex and hard to understand – writers simply have given up on getting average, everyday readers to read them. They focus simply on people who want to read them, appealing only to individuals who can understand the enhanced vocabulary and scientific terms. Oblivion can also play a role; it could possibly be that writers and journalists aren’t aware of the latest advancements in science, or that they don’t understand the important of science news when it’s published. At the same time, however, this “giving up” is turning off readers that might happen to stumble upon an article, or readers that are going out of their way to read about science news.
The means of stumbling upon an article in today’s digital age is drastically different than 50 years ago. The fact that a person can literally “Stumble Upon” a science article summarizes today’s technology in a nutshell. Social media, specifically, can be broken down into four categories: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs/other websites. A major purpose – and a key selling point – of Facebook is the ability of people to express themselves. The problem here is that people would rather read about what someone is doing than rather than read a news article. A user can, however, post an interesting science fact that can gather interest of friends or post a description to a link that leads to a science article. The description must be catchy; it must grab people’s attention. This is the only way that the link will actually be clicked and the article actually be read. This has enormous potential, because each person has about 200 friends on average. If one person posts a science link to 200 people, the potential readership could be in the millions. Of course, the chances of many people posting the same link is small, but it is possible.
Twitter is very similar to Facebook but different in a few ways. The goal of spreading science news and information might be better achieved on Twitter because more people go there to find news. Science news could easily be spread with the presence of science news organizations on the site. If they write an article, tweet it out, and maintain a growing base of followers, the news could easily be spread and read. National Geographic and Discovery Channel are examples of organizations that do this, while numerous Twitter accounts like @ScienceNewsOrg are specifically created to share science news and information. On Twitter, it’s easy to gauge interest, since people are only going to add science organizations if they want to read the information they tweet out. Of course, keeping the description interesting is still key, but in this case, the description can only be 140 characters, which can be a difficult task. A pitfall to both Facebook and Twitter is that the posts can easily be overlooked. New posts are constantly being made, which means each post constantly descends the news feed.
YouTube is by far the more creative outlet, considering that science information must be transmitted via video. If the video is fun and entertaining, but at the same time informational, people will watch it. Interest can be captured by the number of likes/dislikes and comments on the video. News reports that are also done, relating to science news, can also be posted. The most viewed and most popular videos are by far the ones that are the most engaging and most creative. The top 5 YouTube videos in the Science category of YouTube for 2011 included two visual illusions and two earth-space-related videos, one being a simple orbital spin of the Earth (as viewed from the space; it took the top spot with over 6 million views) and the other being a space shuttle launch (as viewed from an airplane; it managed to get nearly 5 million views). If this proves anything, it’s that videos using great graphics are that are visually stimulating and unordinary are the most widely viewed, with the best chances of going “viral”; Other educational videos that receive a decent amount of views come from well-known organizations such as National Geographic. A video titled “Birth of the Solar System” , for example, remains one of their most popular. It includes outstanding graphics and sounds, but also narrations and professionalism, which adds to the video’s value. The same is applied to other popular videos, including “Star Size Comparison”  and “Symphony of Science – The Quantum World” , which includes music in its appeal to a wide viewing audience. A length of 3-5 minutes seems to work best when a specific science topic is being examined.
Measuring the success of a YouTube video can be done in numerous ways, the most obvious being the number of views it has. As videos get more views, especially at a fast rate, more people are likely to watch it (after all, people want to watch what everyone else is watching). This is an easy and successful way to get a science topic or news across to the general public. The likes/dislikes counter also displays a video’s popularity among viewers. The more likes, the better the video, according to YouTube videos. Comments display what the viewers think of the video, and offer short, colloquial critiques. Websites like http://www.vidstatsx.com measure the popularity of recent videos; this is a great way to view the growing success of a video in any YouTube category (on this website, science and technology videos are lumped together, but news vs. conceptual videos are easy to separate).
One good thing about a YouTube video is that it automatically has the appeal of a wide, generalized audience. It isn’t going to include complex jargon that only scientists can understand. It might simply scientific concepts, but not at the expense of getting the point across. Another positive is that a YouTube video can be “shared” via Facebook and Twitter; all three forms of social media can work together in this case. Blogs work similarly, as they can embrace all forms of social media. Blogs usually gain devoted followers. If the blog is devoted to science, the followers will be as well. Information can be posted in word, with creative descriptions and catchy headlines. They can be entire articles, or they can link to the actual article. YouTube videos can be posted, while Facebook and Twitter accounts can be linked.
The best medium with which to communicate science would definitely be one that combines multiple forms of social media, one that allows creativity but also centralizes the information to be on-point and specific. YouTube offers many possibilities. With stunning graphics and a high level of professionalism, people are sure to watch. But is this really the best way to transmit information? For teaching purposes, perhaps it is. For communicating science news and research, a simple Twitter post may be the way to go, although the Twitter audience can be limited, especially to people who don’t put science tweets on the top of their viewing list. With a sufficient amount of followers reading, and with an interesting description attached to the link, the article is sure to be read.
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