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Media's Role in the Public Perception of National Security

An Interview with Jeffrey Boutwell, PhD

Jeffrey Boutwell, PhD, is Executive Director of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and a former program director for international security studies at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and staff aide on the National Security Council during the Carter administration. He is the author of The German Nuclear Dilemma and a wide range of articles and other writings on international security issues. Dr. Boutwell received his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and M.Sc. from the London School of Economics.

What is the role of scientists in dealing with the media? What are the most effective ways in which scientists can communicate with the media about their research and findings?

Communicating complex scientific information to the media, or through the media to the public, is a difficult task. This is further complicated by the pressures to go to print early with important scientific discoveries, and by issues of partisan use of scientific arguments for political purposes. Progress has been made in some of the larger media outlets (national newspapers, tv networks, NPR, etc.) having full time science writers/journalists, people with science backgrounds who understand the material with which they are dealing. What scientists need to do in communicating information is to make it as understandable as possible, without "dumbing down" the information.

What, if any, is the role of Pugwash in terms of the media? What makes Pugwash effective in its communication with the media and/or how can it be

Like all non-governmental organizations (NGO's), Pugwash depends on the media to present independent analyses and opinions on national security issues, as an alternative to governmental/military sources. And, similar to other NGO's, it is important to maintain credibility [within the media]. Almost all NGO's like Pugwash have a particular stance or perspective on issues, but these must not be allowed to color the analysis or reports being conveyed to the media. Independence and objectivity are crucially important. Selectivity is also important, only releasing material to the media that is especially important and timely, and that reflects the comparative advantage that Pugwash has (intersect of science, technology and security issues) versus other NGO's.

Do you believe the media accurately reports on issues of national security? Is there bias in the media?

There is certainly bias among media columnists and commentators, but they are pretty up front about this. The main problem with other journalists is the need to get to print fast, without adequate checking of facts and alternate opinions. [For example] using government and Department of Defense (DOD) hand-outs without providing sufficient context or background to round out the story. A related problem is keeping tabs on issues as they evolve, to see how they change over time, so the public has a more complete view of security issues. One current example—several months ago DOD was touting Aegis-based missile defense as part of the layered national missile defense system, i.e., as having capabilities to destroy offensive missiles in boost phase. The word now from the Missile Defense Agency is that ship-based missiles will continue to likely have capabilities only against short-range missiles, and thus not be part of a layered-system against long-range missiles. Yet most of the public very likely believes that the US still has the capability to deploy an effective layered missile defense system, and supports it for that reason.

How have events such as 9/11 and the recent war with Iraq changed the public view of national security? Have these events changed the way in which scientists bring forth their perspective?

The terrorist attack of 9/11, and the ensuing"war on terrorism", has had a profound effect on how the media reports issues of national security, mostly negative. Almost all military and defense related issues, whether or not they have any relevance for combating international terror networks, are now viewed and reported through the prism of the war on terrorism. Large increases in the US defense budget are easier for the administration to pass because of 9/11, but the military capabilities being sought in many cases have little to do with fighting al-Qaeda and related terror networks. Similarly, something like missile defense is easier to sell to the American public in this post-9/11 climate of fighting terrorism. The media is not nearly so discerning as it should be in making the distinction between those military and intelligence capabilities needed to protect the US from terrorist attacks and those that are entirely unrelated to terrorism. While other national security challenges certainly exist (nuclear proliferation in general and North Korea in particular), the administration has gotten a free ride in being able to lump these together with the "war on terrorism" (e.g., claims of connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda). The media needs to do a much better job in putting into context what specific military capabilities can, and can not, do in terms of protecting US national security interests.

What is your perspective on the level of communication between scientists and the media and/or the government? What measures could be taken to improve
this communication?

By and large, scientists do not play the same role in communicating with and through the media, and in advising the government, that they did in the 1950s and 1960s. This is true both at the very senior levels (there is no one comparable to Professor Jerome Wiesner, former president of MIT and science advisor to President Kennedy) and at lower levels in the various government departments and agencies. Part of the problem is a mistaken notion that science and technology can ultimately provide technical fixes to most, if not all, of our problems, so that government proceeds with policies (like missile defense) at a pace far faster than the underlying technology would warrant. Another part of the problem is the chilling effect on scientific communication (especially in biotechnology) engendered by the post-9/11 environment, where information in the public domain could ostensibly be used for terrorist purposes. Respected scientific bodies, like the National Academy of Sciences, and organizations like the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, are needed more than ever to objectively evaluate different policy options for protecting national security, and to communicate these options through the media to policymakers and the public.

What general message would you like to send to the public regarding the media and/or national security?

Despite the unfortunate growth of the "news as entertainment" phenomenon, the public has access to alternative, credible sources of information through the web, that were unthought of a decade or two ago. No longer do people have to rely on the nightly news, or even their daily newspaper, for substantive information on important national issues. Even 15 or 20 minutes a day on the web can provide alternative views of major policy questions that will allow people to come to better-informed opinions on the important issues of the day. Far more than ever before, the public can go straight to the web sites of respected scientific organizations for first-hand information and thus reduce its reliance on either the media or government. Being able to independently access such information provides a firm context for then evaluating the information being disseminated by governments and the media.

Submitted by: Matt Mosgin, 2003 Summer Intern