Four MSU alums among journalists, lawyers, scientists improving communication of uncertainty

Four Michigan State University alums now practicing journalism were among those who recently tried to resolve the challenges of communicating uncertainty.

The Washington D.C. workshop they participated in brought together about 45 scientists, lawyers and journalists from across the nation to discuss how each of those groups try to resolve and express uncertainty. They explored the professional ethics that make it difficult to communicate environmental issues as diverse as genetically modified crops and global climate change. Continue reading

The opportunities and challenges of using drones for gathering news

David Poulson explains the use of drones in journalism.

David Poulson explains the use of drones in journalism. At right is Bruno Basso, an MSU professor of geological sciences who uses drones for agricultural research. Image: Karessa Weir

Drones are a low cost way of getting news video and photographs to illustrate environmental stories, but journalists need to tread carefully through legal and ethical considerations, a Knight Center faculty member said.

David Poulson, the senior associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, was a panelist for a recent discussion on the opportunities and challenges of using the aircraft in a variety of ways. The session was sponsored by Michigan State University’s Environmental Science and Policy Program.

“I can’t write a sentence with that kind of impact,” Poulson said, as he showed aerial images of a controlled prairie fire. Continue reading

MSU researchers publish study on how scientists communicate

Perry Parks
Perry Parks

Scientists are increasingly encouraged to communicate their work to the general public in ways that engage audiences respectfully rather than talking down to them.

One way scientists can connect with everyday citizens is to write op-ed commentaries in major newspapers like The New York Times. MSU Media and Information Studies doctoral student Perry Parks and Knight Center Research Director Bruno Takahashi have published a study examining how scientists communicate about science.

It is called “From Apes to Whistleblowers: How Scientists Inform, Defend, and Excite in Newspaper Op-Eds.”

The study, in the journal Science Communication, used a rhetorical frame called speech act theory to consider how scientists commit ethically to certain communication roles as they seek to inform people about science, defend science from misinformation, excite people about science and tailor messages to

Bruno Takahashi

Bruno Takahashi

specific groups. Parks and Takahashi found that most scientist op-ed writers use research-based information to make policy arguments in their commentaries, drawing on personal experiences, anecdotes and descriptive passages that are often excluded from academic writing.

In this way, the scientist-authors assumed personal and professional vulnerability for their stories and arguments, acknowledging readers as active evaluators of both the message and messenger.

The study’s framework and findings can help explain the ethical commitments scientists make when they reach out to the public in this way, in addition to helping science communicators think more strategically and systematically about how to craft scientific messages that inform while also inviting critical reflection in readers.

Knight Center researcher wins top poster award for study on El Niño

Jack Nissen with research poster.

Jack Nissen with research poster.

Knight Center researcher Jack Nissen received top honors at the University Undergraduate Research and Arts Festival  (UURAF) at MSU.

Nissen’s poster titled  “Tackling uncertainty: How do journalists report the ‘what ifs’ of el Niño” placed first in section one of the Communication Arts and Sciences competition.

Nissen, a journalism junior at MSU, conducted this research project under the guidance of Knight Center Research Director Bruno Takahashi. Nissen analyzed the concept of scientific uncertainty used in news articles that talked about El Niño in three publications in California from October 2015 to January 2016.

The research was presented on April 8, 2016 in the MSU Union ballroom. This was the first time Nissen presented a scholarly project. Discussions with the judges of the event centered around the challenges of analyzing news articles, as well as gaining a better understanding of what ambiguity and uncertainty mean in the media.

Nissen will next work on an academic article based on this study that will be submitted for publication later in the summer of 2016.