Who’d a thunk designing a summer science communications — but not science journalism — program was sort of like trying to mentally undo a 21st century Gordian knot?
Not me, at least initially, and not the people I have been working with trying to make such a program for one of the Toronto-area colleges. Essentially we don’t want to start another journalism program because there is, if not a myriad of them, then for sure a heap: 10 undergraduate, five graduate, 26 college, and nine joint college/university journalism programs across the country. And in an epoch when we hear the words “the end of traditional media” and the “collapse of journalism” almost every day, we don’t want to provide yet another educational highway — I think the following hyperbole is absolutely appropriate — for lemming-esque students to travel en route to a career cliff over which they can hurl themselves into a stinking sloe of rancid debts and putrid disappointments.
Rather, we would like to give students science communications skills they can use even if legacy media withers into a dead, forgotten nothingness. And that means having to, if not completely rethink, then at least seriously reconsider what was supposed to be the basic elements of science (and many other area) communications.
Let me just give you a couple of examples.
In a print-only 20th century world, the second sentence of this blog might well have told you readers something like “the Gordian knot was the knot holding a cart which Alexander the Great came across when beginning his conquests. Legend had it that whoever undid the knot would conquer Asia. After trying to undo it all night long Alexander suddenly picked up his sword and cut it apart. This has become known as the Alexandrian solution to difficult problems.”
Or more likely a print editor would have viewed that as creating a literary knot and cut it to read: “the Gordian knot was a knot Alexander undid by cutting it with his sword and thus gave rise to the notion that you can solve a problem by cutting through it.”
But today should one accept that the lingua franca of the 21st century is hyperlinks and so the first sentence should simply have linked to this Gordian knot site or this or this?
So the question becomes: Can you just let the reader click on a link and figure out for him or herself how much to read about what was being casually referred to? You’d think so but hyperlinking creates its own knots. How do science communicators judge what sites should be linked to and which not? The “not” being both a measure of authenticity and equally importantly an awareness of when too many links turn a piece into something nauseatingly Gordian. Not to mention how do you write assuming in the same piece that some people will hyperlink and some won’t?
On top of this as an even more fundamental communications rethink. If there is a first principle all journalism students are taught it is: Learn to tell a story. And indeed narrative is seen as so important that there have been articles which pound the drum for storifying itself as being intrinsic to the human psyche and to humans’ bio-neurological understanding of the world.
Unfortunately it doesn’t look as if internet-linked people understand that the story is the only way to learn, think of the last time you went to some party and somebody said did you hear about that category 5 hurricane in New York? And somebody else said, yea, wow, but how do they give hurricanes their numbers? And then everyone took out their cell phones or tablets and zipped through the web to find out what hurricane classifications mean.
That is to say in the 21st communications world journalism and story-telling have conflated with reference texts — those things that used to be called encyclopaedias and dictionaries and now are called Wikipedia and its comrades.
The joining occurred because sometimes people want to learn by narrative and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they want facts and information now and — here is the heresy — a story can get in the way of what is called The Stream. This would seem hyper-obvious, many people coming out of the j-school-English-lit-story-fying high church of communication can’t accept that sometimes we just want to know stuff and that “stuff knowing” doesn’t need a story. It needs accuracy and it needs timeliness and it needs ease of access, but it doesn’t necessarily need Homer or Shakespeare or any science journalist as its voice.
All of which leads me to circle back to the college science communication’s program. It doesn’t yet exist and is aimed at scientists and science students who may want to do different things with their lives.
I’m proposing a course that teaches several things.One is how to approach the writing of science blogs. What voice do you use? If you are writing about the same topic to different audiences, how do you do it? How do you hyperlink and to what? And do you write thinking always about someone doing a Google search looking for information? I want to see how conscious I can make students of the relationship of message to media, in an epoch when we are still trying figure out what the Internet media best does.
And another part of the course would be to try to take a complicated Wikipedia science entry — see this and this — and using a Wiki model make it simpler and more accessible to non-scientists. It’s like a Wikipedia Junior on the model of what was once known as The Encyclopedia Britannica Junior. And having done that — and this is extremely important — see if you then can get Wikipedia to mount your version.
Finally try to see if there are principles and practices for commenting on stories, blogs, Facebook pages and the like. Can one make a comment that changes an Internet discussion like pithy comments change the flow of discussions in our daily non-digital conversations? Are there more effective tones to comments, and to links in them? Can a tweet or a series of tweets change a readers mind about anything scientific?
And do all this within the context that while the story isn’t dead, if you are going to be communicating science outside of existing traditional media, you might have to conceive of yourself as an Internet Alexander, someone who deals with the knottage of a digital information world by cutting through the ties of storytelling and cleanly just says what is there.
I say all the above and then in a very humble and non-Alexanderian way ask any CSWA members who read this posting: Does what I am proposing make any sense to you? And if so — or if not — please comment upon the ideas as I am still considering what and how to teach.