We are Writing, but is the Public Reading?

In today’s A Lab Aloftpost International Space StationProgram Science Office Research Communications Specialist Jessica Nimon asksscience writing professionals, “Why do you think the public doesn’t seem toknow what NASA is doing on the International Space Station?”

I started writing science stories for the InternationalSpace Station Program Science Office over a year ago. During fiscal year 2010,I published or helped to promote the publication of 67 stories regardingresearch accomplished on the space station. Yet, in spite of the volume ofstories going out, I continue to meet people who are oblivious to what NASA isdoing with the space station.

With this in mind, I decided to tackle the question of whythe public was unaware of what NASA was doing. The opportunity to canvas agroup of science writing professionals from around the nation at the 2011 National Association of Science WritersConference was too good to pass up. On the plane out to the conference, betweenseminars and at networking receptions I put my question to editors, writers andpublic information officers from various publications and universities.

Science writers from around the United States listen to alecture on research that measures carbon levels in an area devastated by forestfires as part of the 2011 National Association of Science Writers Conference.
(Credit: Jessica Nimon)

First, perhaps I should explain the communications effortsof the International Space Station Program Science Office. Along with thevarious NASA Center Public Affairs Offices, we work towards the goal of informativestory publications on NASA’s space station research and technology Website.We also maintain a blog, called “ALab Aloft,” and put out weeklyscience updates. To spread the word of these efforts, we use the @ISS_Research Twitter account andthe International Space StationFacebook page to share links to our publications, as well as various facts andnotices, as they come out.

These efforts may not seem far reaching, but consider theinvestment return of compounding publication. In pure numbers, at the time I’mwriting this post, we have 11,438 followers on @ISS_Research. If NASA’s Twitteraccount retweets us, we potentially reach an additional 1,507,108 followers!Every follower can choose to forward on our tweets, sharing our storiesexponentially. This goes for the station Facebook page, as well, which hasclose to 40,000 likes. Then consider the various blogs and journalism sites onthe Internet that republish these space station research and technologystories—the possibility to reach the public is vast!

So why does the message seem to be only reaching a few? Why domany people I encounter still mistakenly think that the retirement of the SpaceShuttle Program meant the end of the space station? Some even wrongly believeNASA is closing up shop altogether. Here is what the science writingprofessionals at the conference had to say on the topic:

Audience Fatigue –Saturation on the topic

NASA makes the news on a fairly regular basis. Betweensatellites, climate studies, the space station, telescopes, lunar and Marsmissions, 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 fastand may focus their attention down to a specific area of interest or stopfollowing altogether.

Media Overload –Getting lost in the mix

With as many stories as NASA generates, just think of theglut the media as a whole produces! If people are awash in just one area, likeNASA, you can imagine they are likely burning out in general. With limits tohow many hours are in a day, many readers cherry pick their news based onheadlines, which means that the vast majority of stories published get buriedby other features.

Flashier Topics –Trumped by popular subjects

In the public’s media diet, not everyone will choose thefruits and vegetables of science topics when they have such easy access to thedesserts 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 headtoward Earth orbit and rendezvous with the International Space Station on July,8, 2011.
(NASA Image

Information Silos –Audience interest funneled elsewhere

Specialized media sites and topic categories can make iteasier to follow up on the news that means most to a reader. The downside tothese avenues of information is the resulting tunnel vision that can develop. Itcan be a challenge for readers to take a liberal arts approach to their media inan effort to maintain a well-rounded awareness in the world they live in.

Lost Interest – Thestation took over a decade to build; society stopped caring

Paying attention to a topic over many years requires apassion that not everyone may share. One science writer commented that he hadcovered space shuttle launches from the beginning of his career through theretirement of the program. He saw the same reporter faces age along with hisown as they all continued to turn up for NASA press junkets. While the launchesthemselves were always exciting, he wondered how many of his readers continueda loyal following of the topic. As they also aged, did they tune out andrefocus towards topics directly applicable to their daily lives?

The bright sun greets the International Space Station fromthe Russian section of the orbiting laboratory.
(NASA Image S129E007592)

Conquest – A desirefor adventure in space, rather than utilization

Shuttle launches were exciting! There were rockets andflames 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 theexperience from the national public. The link between the shuttle and thestation was one that served to point eyes to the missions aboard the orbitinglaboratory, but getting readers to consider the daily operations of a sciencefacility 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 varioushoops research has to go through before results publish. It is also possiblethey do not understand the dangers of the valleyof 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 instantaneousinformation on the Internet, this delay can tally a cost in readership.

Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, Expedition 29 flightengineer, checks the progress of a new growth experiment on the BIO-5Rasteniya-2 (Plants-2) payload with its LADA-01 greenhouse in the ZvezdaService Module of the International Space Station.
(NASA Image ISS029E007686)

Research, however, cannot be rushed, so readers will have todevelop the virtue of patience. The bright side? Since investigations have beenongoing from the time the space station began, we are indeed now seeing resultsfrom early studies and can look forward to a steady influx of publicationshighlighting the discoveries of space science. Part of the excitement is the compoundingknowledge and the use capacity going forward for the facilitiesaboard the station, and perhaps serendipitous discovery.

The real question to ask ourselves now is what do we doabout this readership dilemma? We may bring the story to the public, but wecannot make them read. I’m curious to see if the audience of this entry hastheir own answers to offer. What would you like to see regarding news of researchand technology on the space station? How do you like to receive your news andwhat can we do to better engage the public?

Jessica Nimon, communications specialist for theInternational Space Station Program Science Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
(Credit: Jessica Nimon)

JessicaNimon worked in the aerospace industry as a technical writer for seven yearsbefore joining the International Space Station Program Science Office as theResearch Communications Specialist. Jessica composes Web features, blogentries, and manages the @ISS_Research Twitter feed to share space stationresearch and technology news with the public. She has a master’s degree inEnglish from the University of Dallas.

8 thoughts on “We are Writing, but is the Public Reading?”

  1. For me, the information overload from multiple sources is a huge problem, and I no longer try to keep up with everything that interests me. I have a limited time to read online (not 24 hrs/day) what with work and other responsibilities. I follow several NASA Twitter feeds, but I have other interests as well (none of them “entertainment”) All the Twitter accounts I follow include interesting links–if I followed every link of every interesting Twitter post, I’d be miles behind in one day. The same is true in my other areas of interest (grassland ecology, wildlife management, prairie restoration, neurology of developmental conditions such as autism, plus more in the area of science, politics–including the politics of space exploration & development, but also current issues I consider important, financial and Constitutional both, publishing and the future of copyright–as a published writer who depends on writing for income, I have a dog in that hunt.

    So the internet is a time-sink (um…wanting to learn things is a time-sink, too) and it’s easy to let the hours slide by and discover that I have work to do and not much time left to do it. Glancing at my browser’s listings, I now have 32 more Twitter posts I haven’t read, several dozen emails and listserv posts waiting (one, on a writer listserv, just asked for information I have and that writer needs–that’ll take awhile.) And I need to revise three more chapters on the current book today, plus work on next Sunday’s music for church, deal with the lamb stock currently simmering on the stove…

    And that’s why I don’t always know what NASA has published lately. I glance at them; I reTweet some of them; I follow links maybe 2-3 times a day if something juicier, from another scientist Twitter feed, doesn’t get there first. I used to think I was a data hog, capable of soaking up vast amounts of data–but I didn’t know then how much was out there. (And I wasn’t writing a book a year then, either.)

  2. I agree with the previous comment. There are just too many outlets, which means the message gets lost. The message needs to be more focused and better coordinated across all of the mediums and NASA topics. You’re doing a great job of getting info out “there”, but you have to ask: Where is “there”? Anyway, you are asking the right question. Keep up the good work.

  3. You say “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”. As a UK observer, I feel that NASA publishes largely for self gratification. The launch and docking of the most recent visit to the ISS was barely mentioned, while there was a flood of stories about other things NASA was doing, or about to do. A more balanced news feed would be welcome here, and might possibly be of interest to your domestic viewers.

  4. What you are doing in getting the information to the public is vital to the present and future of NASA and the space industry (which affects all of us in many ways). I’ve always been interested in science and space technology and I am one of those several thousand readers already “hooked”. So here is my suggestion: If you find that you only catch the same group of fish, try a different pond. Said more directly, reach out to people where they are at and where their focus lies. For instance, a NASA article about ISS research and advances in muscle, bone, or exercise studies should be found in popular sports magazines. Articles that share NASA findings related to biology should be in magazines targeting pet owners, gardening, hunting, …etc. Science and techie magazines have plenty of NASA related articles – just don’t stop there. Magazines are just one example of many forms of media (morning and evening TV and radio news, web news, TV special programs …etc.) where this approach can be successful.

    When most people I know hear that I work at NASA, even outside my NASA/techie circle, they enjoy asking me about what goes on in space and what it takes to get there. People in general like space, but to attract them you have to go where they are.

  5. As a long time follower of this blog, I think that when it comes to informing the wider public about ISS research, NASA needs to find new mediums with which to engage people, other than traditional text-based articles.

    For example, every week, informative articles about ISS research are published in the ISS features section of the NASA website. I always make a point of reading these features since I am a big ISS fan, and I wish to stay informed about the latest ISS research. However, I think that not even the wider space community (i.e. people who aren’t in-depth followers of ISS operations), let alone the wider public in general, read these features. There may be a number of reasons – some probably don’t know where to look for them, some maybe don’t have the time or inclination to read them, and some are maybe just not interested in science, even if they do think space is cool.

    Another example is the weekly ISS research summary published every Saturday in the ISS on-orbit status reports, and the weekly Lead Increment Scientist’s research highlights – I think these only reach a very niche, inch-wide-but-mile-deep audience.

    I think NASA should consider moving away from traditional text-based mediums, and consider things like a weekly ISS research podcast, to be made available on the NASA TV YouTube channel and the NASA Podcasts page on the iTunes store. NASA has recently started producing a “this week on the ISS” video, which I think is definitely a step in the right direction.

    Weekly ISS research podcasts should be short (no more than 3-4 minutes in length), and should focus on the main experiments performed on the station that particular week, or each week pick a particular experiment and focus on it. They should be made interesting by including short interviews with ISS Program Scientists or experiment Principal Investigators. Each week, maybe an on-orbit ISS crewmember could take a camera with them when they perform a particular experiment, and briefly explain what the experiment is and what it’s benefits are. The podcasts could be “spiced up” with quick fly-throughs of the ISS or views from the Cupola, in order to keep non-scientific or non-technical people interested.

    Or how about weekly competitions? Ask a series of questions about ISS research to the public, the answers to which are all available on the NASA website, and the winner of the competition gets a photo of his/her name floating in the ISS Cupola? Or maybe in each week’s ISS research podcast, the answer to the question (along with a physical demonstration of the experiment) could be given by an on-orbit ISS crewmember, who could also read out the name of the person who won the competition and congratulate them? This would make the wider public feel more a part of ISS research.

    These are just some of the ideas that I have, but there are surely other innovative new ways that NASA can engage the wider public through new mediums. People are inherently interested in pushing frontiers – those frontiers just need to be made interesting and accessible to the common person.

    Keep up the good work promoting ISS research – it is a difficult task since not all research is “exciting” or easy to understand – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not absolutely essential to our progression both on Earth and in space.

    -Pete Harding, ISS Reporter, NASASpaceflight.com

  6. As a young boy born February 1960 my brothers and I were always interested in the Apollo missions, still have newspaper clippings. Today with The Discovery, History and Science channels I get allot of the information I seek including current events with Nasa. I think we still have an iterest in Nasa but we need the quick fix such as the recent discovery of the Earth like planet 600 LYRs away. Nasa should buy a sports fanchise or have Lady Ga Ga visit the space station to help draw attention to the success of the space program, but I suspect Lady Ga Ga won’t go becuase she already lives in outer space…

  7. Seriously, this is a pretty amusing way to get people to plan for an unexpected post. Nice concept…

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