Boot Camps

Science essentials for political reporters

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What is a Boot Camp?

A practical primer for campaign coverage

In August 2019 SciLine hosted a 2 ½-day all-expenses-paid “boot camp” for political reporters at the Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Des Moines, Iowa. The event aimed to get these journalists up to speed on science topics relevant to the policy issues being debated by candidates on the 2020 campaign trail.

Science Essentials for Political Reporters grew from the recognition that political journalists play a powerful role in the U.S. election process by describing and analyzing candidates’ policy positions for the public. Although science per se is rarely central in politics, many campaign issues can be informed by science. Yet political journalists often lack a scientific background. SciLine trained members of this influential group of communicators with three main goals: (1) increase their awareness of the scientific evidence available to inform campaign issues, (2) prepare them to ask evidence-based questions of political candidates and identify common false or misleading claims, and (3) increase their confidence in including scientific evidence and context in their reporting.

Our August 2019 boot camp taught 29 political reporters from local, regional, and national news outlets across 18 states. The nonpartisan, policy-neutral curriculum was developed by SciLine over several months, based on research and interviews with political analysts, veteran journalists, and policy experts. Classroom sessions were taught by faculty from eight universities and covered: climate change basics; energy fundamentals; water quality; agriculture and the environment; the social and economic impacts of immigration; and the domestic impacts of trade policies. Sessions on the “climate-energy nexus” and the “water-agriculture nexus” served integrative roles, a dinner keynote covered the science of surveys and polling, and a lunchtime dialogue focused on tactics for issue-based reporting on the campaign trail.

To complement coursework, SciLine organized three field trips to sites where classroom content could be observed in practice: a working corn, soy, and cattle farm; a wind turbine technician training site; and a research farm studying nutrient pollution. On the final evening of the boot camp, SciLine hosted a free, public event in the planetarium at the Science Center of Iowa featuring a discussion with three state climatologists, moderated by PBS Newshour science correspondent Miles O’Brien. “Climate Change: Rising to the Challenge” drew a capacity crowd of 120 and was recorded for broadcast by C-SPAN.

Climate Change: Rising to the Challenge

This event included a candid conversation with three state climatologists whose professional experience spans four U.S. states—moderated by PBS science correspondent Miles O’Brien.

View the Video & Transcript

To measure success, SciLine collaborated with a social science researcher from the University of Oregon to design and conduct an Institutional Review Board (IRB)-approved study, including pre- and post-boot-camp surveys of journalist-attendees, in-depth interviews, and analysis of the scientific content in the journalism produced by attendees before and after the boot camp. After attending the boot camp, attendees reported feeling more confident in their understanding of all scientific themes addressed in the sessions, and all changes in confidence levels were statistically significant. Attendees also reported feeling more confident in their ability to find reputable scientific information and their ability to discern credible information from spin. Overall, 64% of attendees who responded to the survey said the boot camp exceeded their expectations, with 28% responding that it equaled their expectations.

Since then, the attendees have already begun to publish stories that directly tie to topics covered in the boot camp and SciLine is considering ways to extend this programming to reach more political and campaign reporters in the future.

Boot Camp Summaries

SciLine has created seven very short, clear summaries that distill the basics participants learned at the boot camp. Any journalist can use and pull from these summaries as needed for news stories.

View all 7 summaries