Monday, August 26th, 2002
Math and the Media:
A Disconnect, and a Few Fixes, Emerge in San Diego Session
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
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
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
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.
©2001, Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
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).