|Posted on Nov 14, 2011 10:54:48 AM | Jessica Nimon | 8 Comments ||
In today’s A Lab Aloft post International Space Station Program Science Office Research Communications Specialist Jessica Nimon asks science writing professionals, “Why do you think the public doesn’t seem to know what NASA is doing on the International Space Station?”
I started writing science stories for the International Space Station Program Science Office over a year ago. During fiscal year 2010, I published or helped to promote the publication of 67 stories regarding research accomplished on the space station. Yet, in spite of the volume of stories going out, I continue to meet people who are oblivious to what NASA is doing with the space station.
With this in mind, I decided to tackle the question of why the public was unaware of what NASA was doing. The opportunity to canvas a group of science writing professionals from around the nation at the 2011 National Association of Science Writers Conference was too good to pass up. On the plane out to the conference, between seminars and at networking receptions I put my question to editors, writers and public information officers from various publications and universities.
Science writers from around the United States listen to a lecture on research that measures carbon levels in an area devastated by forest fires as part of the 2011 National Association of Science Writers Conference.
(Credit: Jessica Nimon)
First, perhaps I should explain the communications efforts of the International Space Station Program Science Office. Along with the various NASA Center Public Affairs Offices, we work towards the goal of informative story publications on NASA’s space station research and technology Website. We also maintain a blog, called “A Lab Aloft,” and put out weekly science updates. To spread the word of these efforts, we use the @ISS_Research Twitter account and the International Space Station Facebook page to share links to our publications, as well as various facts and notices, as they come out.
These efforts may not seem far reaching, but consider the investment return of compounding publication. In pure numbers, at the time I’m writing this post, we have 11,438 followers on @ISS_Research. If NASA’s Twitter account retweets us, we potentially reach an additional 1,507,108 followers! Every follower can choose to forward on our tweets, sharing our stories exponentially. This goes for the station Facebook page, as well, which has close to 40,000 likes. Then consider the various blogs and journalism sites on the Internet that republish these space station research and technology stories—the possibility to reach the public is vast!
So why does the message seem to be only reaching a few? Why do many people I encounter still mistakenly think that the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program meant the end of the space station? Some even wrongly believe NASA is closing up shop altogether. Here is what the science writing professionals at the conference had to say on the topic:
Audience Fatigue – Saturation on the topic
NASA makes the news on a fairly regular basis. Between satellites, climate studies, the space station, telescopes, lunar and Mars missions, etc., there is plenty going on and it can be hard to keep track. Those trying to maintain pace with everything NASA touches could burn out fast and may focus their attention down to a specific area of interest or stop following altogether.
Media Overload – Getting lost in the mix
With as many stories as NASA generates, just think of the glut the media as a whole produces! If people are awash in just one area, like NASA, you can imagine they are likely burning out in general. With limits to how many hours are in a day, many readers cherry pick their news based on headlines, which means that the vast majority of stories published get buried by other features.
Flashier Topics – Trumped by popular subjects
In the public’s media diet, not everyone will choose the fruits and vegetables of science topics when they have such easy access to the desserts of celebrity and entertainment? Likewise, when breaking news occurs, it can plaster the pages of publication Websites for days, even weeks. Everything else published during such times risks being overshadowed.
Space shuttle Atlantis and its four-member STS-135 crew head toward Earth orbit and rendezvous with the International Space Station on July, 8, 2011.
(NASA Image STS135-S-143)
Information Silos – Audience interest funneled elsewhere
Specialized media sites and topic categories can make it easier to follow up on the news that means most to a reader. The downside to these avenues of information is the resulting tunnel vision that can develop. It can be a challenge for readers to take a liberal arts approach to their media in an effort to maintain a well-rounded awareness in the world they live in.
Lost Interest – The station took over a decade to build; society stopped caring
Paying attention to a topic over many years requires a passion that not everyone may share. One science writer commented that he had covered space shuttle launches from the beginning of his career through the retirement of the program. He saw the same reporter faces age along with his own as they all continued to turn up for NASA press junkets. While the launches themselves were always exciting, he wondered how many of his readers continued a loyal following of the topic. As they also aged, did they tune out and refocus towards topics directly applicable to their daily lives?
The bright sun greets the International Space Station from the Russian section of the orbiting laboratory.
(NASA Image S129E007592)
Conquest – A desire for adventure in space, rather than utilization
Shuttle launches were exciting! There were rockets and flames and explorers flying into space. We still have launches to the space station, but they are now taking place off of American soil, which distances the experience from the national public. The link between the shuttle and the station was one that served to point eyes to the missions aboard the orbiting laboratory, but getting readers to consider the daily operations of a science facility as an adventure—even in the microgravity of space—can be a challenge.
Instant Gratification – A public used to instant results may not follow and wait
Many readers may not fully appreciate the time and various hoops research has to go through before results publish. It is also possible they do not understand the dangers of the valley of death in science studies. To follow the topic of space station research, the wait for results can be years or even decades. In this age of instantaneous information on the Internet, this delay can tally a cost in readership.
Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, Expedition 29 flight engineer, checks the progress of a new growth experiment on the BIO-5 Rasteniya-2 (Plants-2) payload with its LADA-01 greenhouse in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station.
(NASA Image ISS029E007686)
Research, however, cannot be rushed, so readers will have to develop the virtue of patience. The bright side? Since investigations have been ongoing from the time the space station began, we are indeed now seeing results from early studies and can look forward to a steady influx of publications highlighting the discoveries of space science. Part of the excitement is the compounding knowledge and the use capacity going forward for the facilities aboard the station, and perhaps serendipitous discovery.
The real question to ask ourselves now is what do we do about this readership dilemma? We may bring the story to the public, but we cannot make them read. I’m curious to see if the audience of this entry has their own answers to offer. What would you like to see regarding news of research and technology on the space station? How do you like to receive your news and what can we do to better engage the public?
Jessica Nimon, communications specialist for the International Space Station Program Science Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
(Credit: Jessica Nimon)
Jessica Nimon worked in the aerospace industry as a technical writer for seven years before joining the International Space Station Program Science Office as the Research Communications Specialist. Jessica composes Web features, blog entries, and manages the @ISS_Research Twitter feed to share space station research and technology news with the public. She has a master’s degree in English from the University of Dallas.
Tags : Conference Highlights, General, Guest Bloggers