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04/29/1999 07:00:00

Caltech/FACS launch science education program for journalists

PASADENA-The California Institute of Technology and the Foundation for American Communications (FACS) have launched a national initiative to improve the quality of news reporting on science and technology.

FACS noted that the media's impact on public opinion is most obvious in issues of medicine and health care. Nearly 60 percent of adult Americans said they had changed their behavior in response to having been exposed to a health news story in the media, according to a recent National Health Council poll.

"The news media are the central source of information for the vast majority of Americans, and I think we are seeing a trend toward more and more sophisticated science information being disseminated by traditional media outlets," said Dr. David Baltimore, Caltech president. "Caltech can perform a real public service by helping journalists stay on top of the scientific breakthroughs of the day. Our participation with FACS in this innovative project is the perfect way to do so."

Caltech and FACS agree that science coverage can be made even better by conveying to journalists the need to cover scientific and medical stories analytically. Such a transformation can be achieved, but it will require "that scientists and journalists gain a greater appreciation for how the other operates," according to a September 1998 report from the U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee. This effort requires that journalists learn not just the lingo of science or elementary principles of statistics and mathematics, but the difference between good science and bad, and an understanding of what real science is and how scientists think.

Alan Horton, chairman of FACS and senior vice president of newspapers for the E. W. Scripps Co., said, "The media play a crucial role in providing the public needed information about science and technology.

"No single factor in the past century has had a greater or more profound impact on the public welfare and the human condition than the prodigious advances in science, technology, and medicine," he said. "Science has not only changed the way we live, it has changed the way we think. It is critically important we in the media provide the public the information it needs about science and technology."

This project is supported by grants from news media, charitable foundations, and user fees. Many of the nation's leading scientific institutions, including the Council of Scientific Society Presidents and the National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure, will participate in the project. The first program in this effort will be the Jack R. Howard Science Institute for Journalists, to be held at the Caltech campus in June 1999. "The bottom line is that journalists need to understand and communicate the art and philosophy of scientific investigation," Baltimore said. "As Einstein once said, 'The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.'"

Contact: Jack Cox (FACS) (626) 584-0010

Robert Tindol (Caltech) (626) 395-3631