April 10, 2002

NPR Journalist Discusses Many Disciplines

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National Public Radio (NPR) science correspondent Richard Harris gave a talk yesterday in Kennedy Hall about the difficulties of reconciling journalism, science and politics. Regularly featured on the NPR programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, Harris has covered stories for NPR across a range of science-related topics and has earned a number of important distinctions for his work in journalism.

Mixing personal anecdotes and humor with selected newspaper clips, Harris addressed the difficulties that journalists face when reporting on science.

News about science often will be misrepresented and sensationalized, he explained, because unlike scientists who emphasize detail, “journalists want a simple view of the world.”

“The first thing journalists want is novelty, and as a result they often ignore many scientific details because they are too dull,” Harris said. “It’s hard to convey complex information to the public and so [many journalists] end up simplifying a great deal.”

Where journalism strives to present a concise and coherent view of the world, “science is all about never having a complete story [about] never really knowing all that’s going on,” Harris said.

Support for scientific advances is not very common among voters, Harris remarked and, as a result, science does not get as much attention with politicians as do other issues such as religion.

“Scientists do continue to convince politicians that science is important but [scientific findings] still very rarely factor in on decision making,” he said.

One of the principle reasons that science gets funding from legislators, Harris added ironically, is that “science is used [by politicians] as an effective means of putting off decisions. Instead of making a decision in the face of ambiguity, [politicians] often claim they don’t know enough yet and that more research must first be done,” Harris said.

Commenting on the possibility for change in the process by which scientific advances are made, Harris said “ultimately things are driven by what people want. The public wants some science funding and they also want some of the results. I do try to change the way people look at the world subtly but it’s an uphill battle and I can’t go so far as to educate people,” Harris said. “Public myths have so much power and are often difficult to argue against rationally.”

The lecture was part of an annual Biotechnology Symposium co-sponsored by the Cornell University Institute for Biotechnology and Life Sciences Technologies and the New York State Center for Advanced Technology in Biotechnology.

Prof. Stephen Kresovich, plant biology, and the director for both the institute and the center, explained that communication across disciplines was the key goal of the talk.

“We have had biotechnology symposiums in the past that have been highly technically oriented, which is great but it’s important that all people understand the implications that developments in technology have for society,” Kresovich said. “Technology is moving so fast that the more we can engage the public the better.”

Archived article by Harrison Leavens