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NPR’s Palca discusses state of science reporting

Nov. 1, 2012, 10:18 AM

NPR’s Joe Palca, Ph.D., talks about communicating scientific research during his Discovery Lecture last week. (photo by John Russell)

Overly enthusiastic reporting about the promise of scientific discovery has contributed to a “backlash” against science in this country, NPR Science Correspondent Joe Palca, Ph.D., said at Vanderbilt University last week.

“We’ve over-reported,” Palca said to a packed School of Medicine lecture hall during his Flexner Discovery Lecture.

“People have heard all these great stories about what science is going to do … and it’s not happening.”

Palca’s lecture, entitled “News and Science: A Marriage of Convenience,” explored the mismatch between the incremental nature of scientific progress and the news media’s demand for stories that are happening now.

“We miss a lot of the important stories,” he said, “… and we over-report some of the unimportant stories.”

Palca said he is trying a new tack — focusing on the people and process of science, “how scientists go from not knowing something about the natural world to knowing something about (it).

“Stories about people are what people remember,” he explained. “My role is to intrigue people to want to learn more.”

Another positive development, Palca said, is that science journalism is becoming less traditional and more diverse.

While newspaper coverage of science is shrinking, new voices and new sources of accurate science news are proliferating on the Internet.

“There’s a democratization of science writing that’s going on,” he said. “I think there are some really terrific (websites) that are starting to pop up.”

Palca admitted that the Internet is full of allegations about science and health-related research that are simply not true.

But the digital age also has made it easier to find the latest and most accurate information. That, he concluded, “is part of the reason things will get better.”

For a complete schedule of the Flexner Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to

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