Brenna Burke describes herself on her blog:
I’m the mama of three, trying my best to live a green life, pursue greater health and well-being for my family and the planet, and teach my children well enough so that they will all grow up successfully and leave me…
I am passionate about children’s and environmental health. I do my best to pursue the best decisions for my family based on the latest, evidence-based research and watch out for when I get up on my soapbox.
I’ve followed Brenna on Twitter for quite some time now. If you look at her blog, you can see she’s like many online moms: smart, creative, and fiercely loyal to her kids. She tries very hard to live by the values she holds dear. So I definitely took notice when she had this to say:
Why indeed. So I pinged Brenna, and she responded:
As communication professionals, we find ourselves trying to earn the trust of moms like Brenna every day. After all, moms are life’s decision makers – they tend to decide everything from what’s for dinner to who should serve on the school committee to when it’s time to see the doctor. Today’s online moms are absolutely bombarded with news articles that are search-engine-optimized to send shockwaves to parents and mouse clicks to media sites. There’s arsenic in your rice! Toxins in your tuna! Chemicals everywhere you turn! And nearly every story cites “scientists” or the latest study that just must be true – until, six hours later, you see another story that questions it. Of course, the online world is also filled with conspiracy theorists who just plain deny scientific consensus on everything from vaccines to climate change to evolution itself. No wonder Brenna and online moms like her don’t know who to trust.
Welcome to the downside of the digital revolution, where everyone is a publisher and anyone can be an expert. As larger newspapers lost “market share” to social media sites, they made huge cuts in staff and entire news sections disappeared. One of the first news “beats” to go was science. So whenever there’s a real medical or science story to report that focuses on the latest research, the person most likely to report on it is inexperienced and unfamiliar with the topic. We’re at the point now where the most-read health science story isn’t necessarily written by the person who knows the material the best, but by the person who understands how to game the Google machine. (Lately these tend to be stories that inexplicably have the words “Lady Gaga” or “Justin Bieber” in the headline.)
As this trend continues, many of the scientists I speak with are increasingly reluctant to work with journalists. If reporters “get the story wrong,” researchers worry they’ll be perceived by their peers as trying to over-hype their own work – this effects their professional reputations, their ability to get tenure at a university, and their ability to get funding for further research. Worse still, it keeps substantive information away from people like Brenna, who need it to make smart decisions for their families.
Thankfully, there is a vibrant and growing community of science communicators trying to address Brenna’s concerns. Many of them are also moms – which means they share Brenna’s perspective and know how she feels. Each year the community gathers in North Carolina for the ScienceOnline conference. This year I’ll be co-moderating a panel with one of these brilliant scientist-science communicator-moms – Emily Willingham. She has a Ph.D. in biology and serves as a great media watchdog on science and medical reporting. Our panel will focus on developing strategies to overcoming denialism and making sure moms like Brenna can find people she trusts. I’ll be sure to share more information as the conference approaches.