Science and the Media

Published in The Scientist
Letter to the Editor of The Scientist

Your May 10, 2004, editorial [1] brought to mind an experience I had about 40 years ago when I was a graduate student in biochemistry at Penn State University. I got a call from a person in the Public Relations Office who wanted to interview me about my research. It was my first such request and I was delighted to meet with her and proud to tell about what I was doing: studying the biochemical basis of a rare inherited disease in chickens involving vitamin B2 (riboflavin) metabolism.

I carefully explained the research but the woman kept pressing me to explain the "practical value". Finally, I responded by saying that this work would help us to better understand normal cell processes that may be altered in diseases like cancer. That seemed to satisfy her and she promised to send me a copy of her story.

A number of weeks went by and no "story" was forthcoming and I pretty much forgot about it. Then I received a reprint request for an article of which I had no knowledge. After getting it tracked down, I found to my horror that a scientific newsletter publication had printed an account of my work stemming from this interview under the title "Penn State Scientist Seeks Cancer Cure." The first section of the article was a fairly accurate account of my research but the closing section said, in effect, "Therefore, these scientists expect this to lead to a cure for cancer." Dismayed, I took the article to my boss who told me that he had referred the woman to me because he didn't want to talk to her and that now I should be able to see why. "Never try to explain your work to a reporter," he told me. "They will make a mess of it every time".

Did I take his advice? No. In fact, I have spent much of my career explaining my specialty, sickle cell disease, to the media and to lay persons. I believe I have enjoyed some success in that endeavor but I have learned to choose my words very carefully, to define specialized terms and never, ever say "cancer" unless I really mean it.

William P. Winter, PhD

Deputy Director, Center for Sickle Cell Disease
Howard University

1. R. Gallagher, "Science and the mass media: A clash of cultures," The Scientist, 18[9]:6, May 10, 2004.

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