Improving Public Understanding

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Twenty-five years ago, the chances were slim that a food and health-related study in a scientific journal would make the evening news or greet readers in their morning newspapers. Now, hardly a week goes by when a breaking dietary study doesn't make headlines.

There are a number of reasons why. Public interest in nutrition and food safety has increased dramatically. And food stories—because they are inherently so personal—make for compelling news. Just as important, scientists have much to gain from increased visibility. And the same holds true for the journals that first publish the studies or other communicators who have an interest in advancing public understanding of the issues.

But there's another reality about emerging science, the media, and the public. And that's confusion. Surveys tell us that the high volume of media coverage has not brought clarity to or improved understanding of a topic of such obvious impact. More has not always meant better.

Again, there are several reasons why. First, the public's unfamiliarity with the scientific process can make the evolutionary nature of research appear contradictory and confusing. Second, scientists, themselves, don't always agree on what constitutes scientific evidence sufficient to warrant changing recommendations to the public. And, perhaps most important of all, how emerging science is communicated—by scientists, the journals, the media, and the many interest groups that influence the process—also can have powerful effects on the public's understanding, on its behavior and, ultimately, on its well-being.

To examine these issues and assist the communications process, the Harvard School of Public Health and the International Food Information Council Foundation convened an advisory group of leading experts. Following the initial meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, a series of eight roundtables was held around the country involving more than 60 other nutrition researchers, food scientists, journal editors, university press officers, broadcast and print reporters, consumer groups, and food industry executives. (See Participants)

Based on input from the participants at these meetings, a set of guiding principles for the communication of emerging science has been developed. The first draft of guidelines was subsequently reviewed by a second meeting of advisory group members and revised, and the final draft circulated to roundtable participants prior to publication. At the heart of these principles is the belief that food-related science can be effectively communicated in ways that serve both public understanding and the objectives of the communicators.

Of all the questions surrounding the communication of food-related studies, perhaps the most basic is, should single studies be communicated at all to the public at large? Almost by definition, much of the information involved is preliminary, not conclusive, and therefore not a strong basis for change in public policy or behavior. Even so, these studies, and the news stories they spawn, can be useful in raising public awareness of key nutrition, health, and food safety issues—if they are expressed in enough context to enable the average person to weigh the information appropriately.

These guidelines are intended to suggest how that context can be provided. They outline the necessary data, disclosures, and contextual qualifiers to help the public evaluate a study's relevance and importance. However, there is no expectation that every news story will include all or most of the suggested information. Instead, these guidelines can help communicators focus on the most vital information the public should have in order to form the most useful net impression of a particular study's findings.

With each study, the information will vary. The key to evaluating one study may be the limitations of its methodology; for another, it may be an understanding of which population groups are most affected by the findings. These guidelines will help communicators ask key questions so that they can identify which specific answers will best inform the public.

The guidelines are presented in several groupings—first, general guidelines relevant for all, followed by more specific guidelines for scientists, journal editors, journalists, and interest groups. They purposely are expressed as questions, rather than imperative statements, to encourage self-inquiry and suggest measures of responsible communication. As such, they are intended to help ensure that sound science and improved public understanding are the ultimate guides to what is communicated and how.

Download the PDF of Improving Public Understanding: Guideline for Communicating Emerging Science on Nutrition, Food Safety, and Health.