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Do journalists believe the public is incapable of understanding science stories? Or that readers won't tackle difficult subjects, biotechnology chief among them, unless the reporting is dumbed-down and sexed-up? MU's Glen T. Cameron fears the answer to both questions is yes.

"Dumbing down intellectually is almost inevitable," Cameron says. Why? Because, he says, science journalists writing for a general audience feel obligated to try to reach as many audience members as possible.

Nothing wrong with that. "But," Cameron adds, "dumbing down emotionally, or shirking a duty to make the tough call in place of pseudo-balance, is counterproductive to science understanding. It's a matter of having the guts to make a stand, based on substance, for what the reporter thinks is the best current scientific understanding without being a cheerleader or a friend to industry."

Cameron grew up on a Montana ranch where, as a boy, he watched his family lose a wheat crop while neighbors using up-to-date seed strains entirely avoided the blight. The conflict between nature and applied science, seen up close and personal, planted a life-long fascination in Cameron's mind.

As he matured, Cameron came to realize that most of what he knew, or thought he knew, about science came from journalists. During his doctoral studies at the University of Texas-Austin's College of Communication, Cameron began researching the realm of managing conflict, including how science controversies play out in the media.

In 1998, he arrived at MU to fill the newly endowed Maxine Wilson Gregory Chair in Journalism Research. He has since conducted numerous projects that have contained the seeds of scholarly disagreement. But when he and former MU doctoral candidate Mugur V. Geana decided to survey U.S. science and medical journalists, they did not foresee controversy arising. They expected only to publish a descriptive article about the characteristics of the responding journalists. Geana, who has earned an MD degree in addition to his recently granted doctorate, is now an assistant professor of strategic communication at the University of Kansas.

Of the science journalists selected for the survey, 304 chose to participate -- an unexpectedly high response rate of 67 percent. These eager respondents provided a wealth of potentially important insights into how working journalists believe their biotechnology reporting is perceived by editors, sources and, most importantly, by the reading public.

       
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©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.