Crossing the Great Divide

A reporter offers public advice on how to improve the media's coverage - and the public's understanding - of engineering.

By Jane Hill

To be remembered, "either write things worth reading or do things worth the writing."
-Benjamin Franklin

illustration by Bruce MacPherson A recent Harris poll told us what we already knew: Most Americans don't know what engineers do. Immediate blame fell on the media. I can't speak for book publishers, movie producers, or TV programmers, but I know from experience that the press can't organize a picnic, let alone a conspiracy. The problem has to be that reporters and editors don't know what engineers do, either.

Likewise, engineers don't really know what reporters do. Having done both, I'm convinced that when they understand each other, they can help each other.

To see for yourself how many people on an editorial staff understand what engineers do, call a local paper and ask to speak to someone about a newsworthy engineering development that you are working on. The metro editor, upon hearing the "E" word, will transfer you to the technology reporter, who evaluates new products. He will connect you to a science reporter, who invariably covers only health issues. Hearing that you are calling from a university, she will suggest you talk to the education reporter, who prefers to focus exclusively on school board issues.

In short, staff writers don't stray too far from their beats. Their jobs require them to fill a certain number of inches in a certain section of the paper on impossible deadlines every day. If they don't know what you do, they can't imagine why they should listen.

To try to educate reporters about the deeds that engineers do, it helps to understand the news business. A reasonable approach would include an awareness of these five truths:

Editors and reporters rely on outside information.
If you're doing interesting research, peer-reviewed or not, send a press release. Address copies to several people in the same newsroom if you're not sure who should receive it.

Editors and reporters constantly feel deadlines looming.
Give them information that doesn't require them to learn a second language. Your point has to be easily grasped by someone who probably avoided math and science in college. If technical terms are necessary, define them clearly in the same sentence. Few reporters understand how DNA works, but they write about cloning. If it can be done for genetics, it's possible for engineering.

Editors and reporters love breaking news, trends, and reaction from experts.
If any of your work is remotely topical, even if it's "old" news to you, it's probably news to everyone else. Send it in. If you have an "expert" reaction, submit an editorial.

Editors and reporters want to tell the story.
You only have to get them interested. Briefly identify who, what, when, where, how, and especially why. (If you are working to perfect a widget, will it mean improved gas mileage, a more accurate census, or longer-lasting paint?) True, not all projects have an immediate application, but whoever funds the research has a goal in mind. If that goal is not proprietary, mention it.

Editors and reporters need reliable expert sources.
Whether you're a seismologist or an industrial designer, reporters want to know you're available for comment or explanation. Provide your local newsroom with a regularly updated list of experts who are willing to talk to reporters on short notice. Include the experts' names, field of expertise, direct campus and after-hours phone numbers, and e-mail addresses.

If all this effort sounds beyond your job description, at least consider helping your own campus news staff do their job. When they come across a newsletter mention of Professor Kraft's paper on artificial microscopy diffraction lithography, they're afraid to pursue it. Talk to the news bureau periodically about activity in your department. Urge them to send engineering press releases to all news outlets, not just to trade journals.

Since the Harris poll indicated that people generally think highly of engineers, let's assume those people will want to read about engineering. Putting engineers in the newsroom is one solution; educating the media is another. It's a big job, but to paraphrase Mr. Franklin, if you are doing things worth the writing, tell people who can write about it.

Jane Hill, a former civil engineer, is a freelance writer in Falls Church, Virginia. Contact her via e-mail at: jsawyerhill@worldnet.att.net .

 

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