Science news, spot news, or both? Managing and covering science protests

By Meghan D. Rosen

How should writers respond to public concerns about controversial science? Is it better to defend research using blogs and social media, or to post data online and let the research speak for itself?

Saturday’s workshop featured two very different scientific controversies and the strategies used to address them.

It all started with a gay sheep

When Andy Dworkin first covered the ‘gay sheep’ finding from researchers at Oregon Health and Science University, he didn’t think it would be controversial. The research was basic: scientists were trying to understand why some rams preferred to mount other rams instead of ewes. They tracked sexual preference to a specific nerve bundle within the brain (rams who mated with rams had a small bundle, and rams who mated with ewes had a large bundle).

His story was picked up by different news outlets, and many misreported or embellished the facts of the study. Then PETA got involved. A simple article about basic research turned into cruel scientists killing sheep to find a ‘cure’ for homosexuality. In two weeks, Jim Newman, a public information officer at OHSU, received 14,000 angry emails.

OHSU responded to the controversy by blogging, talking to reporters, and doing every radio interview they could find. Eventually, they changed public opinion, but it took years to play catch-up.

Now, OHSU takes a more proactive approach to publicizing research. They keep an open door to the media, bring people into their animal labs and publish USDA inspection results.

“I learned that when you are a science reporter, controversies are really about how science and society interact with each other,” Newman said.

But he’s kept his sense of humor about it. At the end of the talk he posted his favorite headline about the story: Brokeback Mutton.

The truth about 9/11

After three World Trade Center buildings fell on 9/11, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) embarked on an investigation to discover how and why the twin towers (WTC 1 and WTC 2) and a third building in the complex (WTC 7) collapsed. Their goal was to improve public safety and security. The investigation, which was supposed to take two years, ended up taking six.

NIST collected thousands of videos and photos of the towers’ collapse, examined twisted ruins of steel, tracked fire and smoke pathways, and used computer modeling to help visualize the planes’ impact. They also developed a plan to keep the public informed about the investigation’s progress.Throughout the entire investigation, NIST strove for transparency.

Michael E. Newman, the spokesperson for NIST’s 9/11 investigation, knew some people would disagree with their findings. Because 9/11 was a global event, NIST predicted there would be many different beliefs and viewpoints. “But,” Newman said, “I didn’t know how prophetic that would be.”

After NIST released its reports for the twin towers and WTC 7, it was inundated with counter theories from people who insisted NIST was lying. “I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve been told to roast in hell,” Newman said.

But NIST refused to debate with conspiracy theorists. Instead, it put 10,000 pages of documents online and let the data do the talking. Newman thinks their strategy was successful — since the report was published, building codes in throughout U.S have been changed to reflect NIST’s safety recommendations.

“We knew we would never convince the alternative theorists,” Newman said. But that’s not who the agency was trying to reach.

For more information about homosexual rams or the WTC check out:

October 16, 2011

Biedler Prize for Cancer Journalism