Math and the Media: A Disconnect, and a Few Fixes, Emerge in San Diego Session

October 13, 2001

Sara Robinson (standing, left) moderates a panel discussion featuring enthusiastic if at times contentious audience interaction with panelists (from left) John Markoff (New York Times), Don Clark (Wall Street Journal), Rob Fixmer (Interactive Week), Mike Ross (IBM Almaden), and Joe Buhler (MSRI).
Sara Robinson

In 1998, SIAM participated for the first time in the AAAS media fellowship program, sponsoring a ten-week internship at The Dallas Morning News for Sara Robinson, then a graduate student in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. In the years that followed, her interest in writing deepened; articles about mathematics/computer/computational science appeared under her byline in several publications, including The New York Times, where she had a nine-month internship. She is now a freelance writer and part-time journalist-in-residence at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at Berkeley.

Robinson put her dual background to work for SIAM this summer by organizing and moderating a panel discussion on mathematics and the media, held at the annual meeting in San Diego; her impressions of the session appear here. The lively, well-attended session was co-sponsored by MSRI and SIAM. The members of the panel were Joe Buhler, a mathematician (MSRI), Mike Ross, a media relations specialist (IBM Almaden), and three journalists-Don Clark (The Wall Street Journal), Rob Fixmer (Interactive Week), and John Markoff (The New York Times).

At the session on mathematics and the media held at the SIAM Annual Meeting this summer, prominent newspaper journalists described what they considered newsworthy in science---and mathematicians in the audience were aghast. The journalists' criteria ranged from results that lead to substantial improvements in industrial processes and projects that involve vast expenditures of taxpayer dollars, to "good yarns" about scientific researchers.

Mathematicians in the audience said they were surprised and disillusioned at the journalists' attitudes toward science coverage. Science journalists should share their fascination with mathematics, they said, and want to communicate it to the public for its own sake, not because of the money spent or the people involved.

John Ewing, executive director of the American Mathematical Society, said later that the journalists seemed to feel no sense of responsibility for educating themselves and others about science.

"There is a problem with science reporting in the press, and I think it's wrong to place all the blame on the scientific community," he said. "Part of the problem is that the scientific community is awful at communicating, but the press is awful, too."

While I agree with Ewing that science and mathematics coverage falls far short of what it could be, I think it's neither useful nor fair to blame the journalists. The field of science journalism operates under a number of constraints: limited funding, deadline pressure, and the limitations of a newspaper as a communications medium. Only by recognizing these constraints and working within them can the mathematics community hope to improve the quality and quantity of mathematics coverage.

During my first journalism job, a summer internship with the science section of The Dallas Morning News, my editor told me that I was trying to educate my audience, and that I shouldn't. "Your job is to inform the public, not educate them," he said.

At the time, I thought my editor was spouting so much nonsense, since both words mean pretty much the same thing. Now, I think I understand the distinction he was trying to make. Many mathematicians seem to view newspapers as another medium for educating the masses about mathematics, where education means imparting a thorough understanding of the subject matter.

The purpose of a newspaper, however, is to impart timely information about important events---to inform. Informing is something less than educating, it's narrower and shallower, and it creates an impression, not an understanding. Newspaper readers don't expect to think too much about what they're reading. They don't want to be educated over their morning coffee---they want to be entertained and informed.

While I was an intern at The New York Times, John Markoff, a reporter who has been a superb mentor for me, told me the goal was to give the reader "an illusion of understanding" of the technical subject matter.

Not only is it inappropriate to make newspapers educational, it's just not practical. A typical newspaper has one science writer, who may or may not have a science education, and who must be able to write about virtually any topic in science. At larger newspapers, reporters can specialize a little bit, focusing on just the physical or just the biological sciences. Still, that's a lot of terrain in which to maintain expertise.

I have graduate-level training in math, but it didn't help me very much when I was asked to write articles on finance, genetics, and biology. I took great pains to ensure that my articles were as accurate as possible, but I never knew for sure. If I wanted to continue in my career, however, I didn't have the option of saying no.

It would be wonderful if major newspapers had cadres of science reporters with degrees in the subjects they write about. But with newspapers' current business model, this just isn't possible. Newspapers subsist primarily on revenue from advertising, and science doesn't attract many ads. This is why many newspapers have giant sections on entertainment and travel but very few have science sections.

Then there are the deadlines. With breaking news, a reporter often has to research, digest, and write a story about a challenging topic in a matter of hours. Even with feature stories, where reporters have a little longer to digest the material, they are under a lot of pressure to fill pages by cranking out many stories quickly.

In a conversation after the conference, Markoff said he doesn't think mathematicians understand deadline pressure. "You're talking to people who spent their life focusing on the science, and you, with a tiny bit of research in the time allowed, are trying to come up to speed," he said.

The world of journalism is very different from that of research mathematics, where every word is expected to be perfectly accurate. As a reporter, you have to do the best you can in the time available to you.

What is more, newspaper reporters aren't directly rewarded for clarity and accuracy, or for having a deep understanding of what they cover. Unless the editors are also experts in the topic, they won't recognize when a reporter has done a particularly good job of explaining a subtle issue. The more easily recognizable skill is to be first with news stories that have impact. Other measurable skills are the ability to tell a story in a compelling and colorful manner, and basic things, like being able to write a lot of stories on a wide array of topics very quickly.

Still, there are ways to improve the coverage of mathematics within the boundaries of the system. The key is to acknowledge that reporters have very little time and are unlikely to have expertise in mathematics, and to help them do a better job. Mathematicians and mathematics organizations can direct reporters toward interesting math stories and help them understand the mathematical content enough to write the stories effectively.

All the journalists at the workshop urged math organizations to take a more proactive role with the press. Rob Fixmer, editor-in-chief of Interactive Week and a former editor at The New York Times, suggested that every time there is news in which mathematics has played a role, such as the completion of the Human Genome Project, math organizations send out press releases explaining the role of mathematics and specific mathematicians in the result.

One recurring theme at the conference was that other branches of the sciences, particularly physics, seem to get all the attention in the media. One mathematician pointed out that particle physics and cosmology get frequent media attention, even though the results are often abstract and have little impact on industrial processes and taxpayer dollars. "My first impression was that these mathematicians are awfully defensive," Fixmer said later. "They kept comparing themselves to physicists and wondering why everyone loves physicists and no one loves them."

Asked why he thinks physics gets so much more attention, Fixmer said: "Mathematics has no emotional impact. What physicists do challenges people's notions of origins and creations. Math doesn't challenge any fundamental beliefs or what it means to be human."

I told him that mathematics does all these things. Still, Fixmer said, most people don't perceive mathematics as connected to them and the things they think about. While reporters cannot teach mathematics to the masses, mathematicians can teach mathematics to reporters. Markoff recommended that mathematical organizations address some of the popular misconceptions about mathematics by making an effort to educate some key reporters. He suggested having a few informal half-day events explaining the importance of mathematics, geared toward journalists.

"I would suggest an experiment," he said. "Target technology writing, rather than science writing, and pick two or three journalists who really have the ability to communicate. Keep it simple, mathematicians and half a dozen reporters in a morning colloquium, and cover the waterfront at the cutting edge of mathematics."

Don Clark, a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, stressed what he called "Communication 101." "Don't assume the average reader (or reporter) knows 'order of magnitude,'" he advises. "There's so much of academia that involves speaking in code. You have to assume absolute unfamiliarity with the subject matter."

Effectively condensing a complex subject down to its essence, as every teacher of mathematics knows, requires a deep understanding of it. Since science reporters usually have neither the training nor the time to get to that level, mathematicians should condense and simplify for them.

Mathematicians also need to reconcile themselves to inevitable mistakes.

When the issue of accuracy in science reporting came up in the session at the SIAM meeting, Joe Buhler, then deputy director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, told an amusing story about being misquoted in a New York Times article on juggling. He said to the reporter that he estimated about 40% of those attending a recent juggling convention at Columbia University to be "algorithmically inclined." In the article, "algorithmically" came out as "logarithmically."

Buhler said that while he was initially embarrassed when the quote appeared, Claude Shannon pointed out to him that, to the majority of New York Times readers, it was an interesting article and the misquote didn't make the least bit of difference.

An increase in the number of mathematics stories cannot come without an increase in errors. Indeed, I would go so far as to say an article that nicely conveys some of the essence of mathematics, but gets a few details wrong, is more valuable than one that gets the details right but the spirit wrong. (No eggs, please!)

There are tactics for minimizing errors. At the SIAM session, Mike Ross, a media relations specialist for IBM Almaden, said he prepares IBM researchers for interviews by helping them figure out a succinct way to summarize the main point of the research in layman's terms. This way, Ross said, if the reporter doesn't understand very much about the research, he or she will still come away with at least something accurate.

The few reporters who do have a mathematics background can do a lot as well.

Even so, one can do only so much by informing the public about mathematics. Educating the public about mathematics, the task of teachers, will always have a far greater impact.

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