Sanjay Gupta came to Charlotte to lecture in the Knight Theater as one of the Queens Learning Society’s semi-annual speakers in its lecture series on Wednesday, Feb. 20. I found the topic of his presentation to be relevant not only to life in general, but specifically to this class. “To Be Fair or to Scare: Science and the Media” was the formal name of his speech.
As both a reporter and medical doctor, Sanjay Gupta is uniquely qualified to comment on the intersection of science – specifically, medicine – and the media. His expertise is in news reporting, as the chief medical correspondent on CNN, as opposed to forms of media meant to entertain which we have been studying in class. He described the crossroads as “a fascinating place to be” and “an awkward dance sometimes,” which succinctly depicts the truth of the beast’s nature.
One point that Gupta stressed concerned the very limiting time constraints imposed upon science journalists, especially in the world of television. The two- or three-minute window given to interviewed expert sources or journalists themselves for one topic is, the doctor said, the source of most public misunderstanding of scientific concepts. What might otherwise be a workable timeframe is further narrowed by the necessity of engaging viewers. Gupta said that information given on the air has to be interesting and “actionable” – that is, captivating enough to prevent someone from continuing to flip through the channels and sufficiently frightening or rewarding to inspire them to change a behavior. More unskilled journalists, as well as those who might want to show a biased report, usually don’t know exactly what is the right level of interesting and inspiring. The result, we see, is viewers incorrectly piecing unrelated pieces of evidence together or quickly jumping to false conclusions. This scientific illiteracy is only compounded when such misinformation is communicated via social media and inaccuracy is forsaken for entertainment value in films and television shows.
As a journalist myself, I concur with and wholeheartedly endorse Dr. Gupta’s commentary. Reporting on events is difficult, even for a newspaper. An article in the Queens Chronicle has to adequately place a reader at the event being covered, engaging him or her as fully as possible – all within a roughly 500 word limit. Having worked at the Courier-Tribune, Randolph County, N.C.’s daily periodical, articles not to be featured often have a much shorter inch count imposed upon them. I cannot begin to describe the amount of times I heard the Healthy Living editor grumble about having to edit out “useless information” – usually important background for diseases or bodily functions – even on stories downloaded from the AP wire or official press releases. All, as the copy editor said, has to be done for spatial limitation.
All that is needed to properly educate a mostly scientifically illiterate society of media consumers is a journalism field willing to do so. Of course, informational content isn’t the most compelling and may take up valuable space on the page…but isn’t the outcome greater than the sacrifice?