A Perfect Blend
The School of Communication and Journalism breaks new ground to take the lead in communication education.
By Lori Kie
Photography by John Griffin
With so many serious issues facing our society and our planet, now more than ever scientists, government officials and the media need effective communication skills so they can deliver messages that will be easily understood and, most important, accepted by the public. That’s no easy task when mistrust is at an all-time high, as some recent surveys from Pew Research Center have shown.
To give students the knowledge they need to meet the challenges posed by today’s information-questioning consumers, Stony Brook’s recently renamed School of Communication and Journalism (SoCJ) is expanding its programs and philosophies. The school recently added a Bachelor of Science in mass communication and a Master of Science in science communication. A mass communication minor started earlier this spring. Students can enroll in the new programs beginning Fall 2021.
“Issues like climate change, the coronavirus vaccine efforts, reliable and renewable energy — all of these things require effective communication and accurate science,” said Laura Lindenfeld, dean of SoCJ and executive director of the Alda Center for Communicating Science. “Graduates of this new master’s program will combine scientific understanding and strategic communication to help individuals make decisions and take actions that are in their best interests and in the best interests of society as a whole.”
The graduate science communication program, offered in partnership with the Alda Center, will clear a career path for people with scientific backgrounds to become professional communicators. Increasingly, organizations seek professionals with experience in science and communication, yet there are no straightforward path to gaining such experience. Most academic science programs spend little time on communication, and few communication programs incorporate science. Yet employers need people who can do both. This program solves those issues.
“This degree program will be one of the first globally that values scientific and communication skills equally,” said Lindenfeld, who is also vice provost for academic strategy and planning. “We know these skills matter. People want to hear from the experts, and the experts need to be prepared to engage with them as equal partners.”
At the undergraduate level, the mass communication program will ground students in critical communication theories and give them opportunities to test their knowledge by designing and contributing to original research projects. The program will help students move into productive careers across a range of industries.
“Mass communication affects nearly everything that people know, or think they know, in our society,” said Lindenfeld. “Students in this new program will learn how messaging shapes information and discover what aspects of communication work and why. With this degree, graduates will be informed media consumers and empowered to create effective communication.”
Students also will have the opportunity to apply their knowledge of theories and social scientific research methods skills to mass communication and science communication projects, according to Ruobing Li, assistant professor of mass communication.
In addition to the new program facilitating science communication, the Alda Center is expanding its collaborations across a wider range of Stony Brook researchers. In several large National Science Foundation-funded projects, faculty will train scientists to understand and collaborate through Alda Center programs, and work with community members and other stakeholders to build momentum and public engagement with the research.
“Not only do scientists very much want the public to understand what it is they do, but much of basic research is supported by federal taxpayer dollars,” said John Mak, professor, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “Therefore, it is incumbent upon the scientific community to communicate effectively how the findings and new knowledge benefit society as a whole. An educated public leads to an understanding of the benefits of scientific research.”
While the school is expanding to bring researchers and communities together, it is also educating its journalism students to look critically at efforts to fix societal problems.
Led by Barbara Selvin, associate professor, the school joined the Solutions Journalism Network, which espouses a new approach to the role journalism plays in democracy. Solutions reporting examines data and other sources to tell stories about attempts to fix large, systemic problems like child hunger, homelessness, low voter turnout and community health outcomes.
“We’ve all read stories that are so disheartening,” said Selvin. “Yet there are people out there looking for ways to improve lives. When you read the 75th story about hunger, you feel powerless. But when you read a story about a group of people who have found a way to redistribute food, you feel hope. Solutions journalism is an approach that benefits everyone: the reporter, the news organization and the citizen.”
Selvin has been discussing solutions journalism in her classes for several years. This semester, she took the lead in incorporating the new approach across the program, and in helping her fellow instructors to do so in their classes.
Amber Lewis, a sophomore journalism major from Dix Hills, agreed that journalism often presents problems without offering readers an option about what can be done to solve them. “Solutions journalism presents this hope factor,” said Lewis, who is also minoring in digital arts and music. “It’s a great way for journalists to show we’re not giving people fake news. We’re trying to inform them in the best way we can. Journalists sometimes die for what they write. They go down for the public, and I think that solutions journalism is a great way to restore that faith and that credibility in what we do.”
With an emphasis on building trust through communication and bringing disparate disciplines together, SoCJ is preparing to do more than educate future journalists and communication professionals. It will bring communities and cultures together to then identify and solve pressing societal problems.
“By partnering with communication experts, scientists can help government officials understand the impact of a particular policy, or help people make better decisions for their families,” Lindenfeld said. “This work matters, because the people whom science impacts matter.”
Lori Kie is the Communications Manager for the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and the School of Communication and Journalism