Episode 9 – Scott Lewis On Bias And Communication

Scott Lewis, CEO of San Diego’s “Voice of San Diego” publication, helps us understand how bias has consequences on our audience’s ability to relate to our message – in journalism and in science.


Guest Starring Scott Lewis, CEO of San Diego’s “Voice of San Diego”

Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield

Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE

Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE

Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:

Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation

Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League

Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory

Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC

The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.


“All The Best Fakers” by Nick Jaina is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Ultima Thule” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License. (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Pxl Htra” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License. (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Deliberate Thought” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) is Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/



Welcome to The Great Communicators Podcast presented by The MIT Office of Graduate Education, a professional development podcast expressly designed to bring lessons from the field to our graduate student researchers.

My name is Adam Greenfield and when it comes to disseminating information, part of that process as an audience member is determining the credibility and accountability of the communicator. Sometimes it’s easy to spot these things; other times, not so much.

In this episode, we’re going to spend time discussing why and how the onus is on the speaker to be perfectly clear on the reasons for both the research and the communication of the research. We’ll also hear how calling yourself unbiased might not be all that true after all.

This episode’s guest’s work doesn’t go through the rigorous process a scientist’s work might go through but just because he communicates it several times a week to a growing number of audience members, that doesn’t mean his feet are held any further from the fire than a scientist’s feet. Because of this, he’s got a bit of a more immediate burden to be responsible and culpable when he communicates with the world.

You know, we’ve done many corrections based on feedback we got through Twitter or anger or different critiques that made sense…

That’s Scott Lewis.

…and that really is the way you hold yourself accountable.

Scott is the CEO of a non-profit investigative news source called Voice of San Diego. A lot of their work is online but they employ various mediums for reporting news, from podcasts to radio to even television. So Scott is pretty familiar with that feeling of a much more public review than just a peer-review alone might give you.

You publish a story and you grit your teeth and you see how it- you try to anticipate everything people are going to say about it, all the critiques that will come, but you can’t anticipate it all. You’d never publish if you were going through every possible thing people would say. That function of people providing feedback is how you hold yourself accountable.

Now, this, of course, applies to journalism. When it comes to scientific research, Scott is sure to note the difference.

I think, and I may not be correct, but I think that scientific and academic- mostly scientific- publishing is peer reviewed in a more systemic way and emerges as accepted in a more system way and a more formatted situation. There are steps it has to go through to become part of the consensus in a way investigative journalism doesn’t. Also, investigative journalism, its success, its impact, its influence, its value is really dependent on how much it captures attention, too, and how much it tells a good story. And so I think that there are- there’s a lower bar for storytelling with scientific publishing but a higher bar for accountability and method.

There are some commonalities between a scientist and a researcher, though, and one of the ties is this ongoing search for an answer to a question or a problem or even, perhaps, a truth. You know, if there is such a thing as an absolute truth.

I don’t know that we can ever stab perfectly at truth but we have to try. So we have to build systems to make sure we’re always trying to get there and holding ourselves accountable. I think that what we’ve tried to do is be a little more- well, a lot more transparent about our algorithm and how we figure out truth and that means we are open about our ways of doing investigative journalism, ways about funding that investigative journalism, because so much of that suspicion about journalism is rooted in that, you know, where are you- what’s your agenda? And then be open about our agenda.

This sort of brings us to the point where our personal experience and biases may be inescapable in our work. To Scott, even just choosing a particular subject to research and investigate comes with preconceived reasoning to do so.

I mean, the moment you decide to do a story you have made a subjective decision. You have said that this story is more worth than something else to cover. A truly objective coverage would be just a- thousands and thousands of pages of data reflected back to the community everyday about what’s going on and no filter of what’s important or not. You literally lose all objectivity the moment you decide to cover something. You’ve made a subjective decision.

Now, Scott and Voice of San Diego as a news outlet make it pretty clear where they are coming from, what their goals are, and how and by whom they are financially supported in order to pursue knowledge and truths that are difficult to ignore. Being transparent is a great way of earning the trust of an audience.

Still, Scott warns against claiming to be unbiased, how it can seem insincere or deceitful to the people you’re communicating with.

I think it’s naïve and disingenuous to say that you’re objective because I think that you, as a person living in a community with kids and houses and whatever, you are a person in this world and you have biases. Journalists will admit, even the people who will say they are the most objective people on Earth, will admit they have a bias against murder and against domestic violence and against racism and against a lot of things that they’re not- literally not objective about. So I think to say we are objective is to also- they say, they are implying under that they’re- “Oh, we’re objective after we accept a bunch of facts, after we accept a bunch of values.” If they were truly objective they would hold he-said, she-said stories and discussions about whether murder is good or not. They are not- they’re not having that. They’ve accepted that. So what we’ve tried to do is gather all of the things that we’re- that we carry with us to these discussions.

When it comes to the kind of service and communication he and Voice of San Diego provides, Scott has no patience for the naysayers and people who feel certain tactics in communication are borderline deceptive.

What I think has to be done is we have to recognize that the marketplace for ideas and writing and research has been completely democratized. There is now one voice per one person. You can now make your case as an individual. You don’t have to have access to the printing press, you don’t have to use the newsroom. You are now- you have all the tools that every journalist has. In that world, we have to compete, we have to thrive. So we have to recognize that you can be as snobby as you want about entertainment but you now compete with other people who are willing to do different things to be more entertaining or to be more engaging. So what are we gonna do? What are we gonna create that is as attractive, as engaging but has the standards and the ethics and the integrity and the transparency built into it that we need in order to keep that cohesive discussion going? We have to embrace that and we can not just stop at nostalgic concern about it.

So according to Scott Lewis, as communicators, there’s a pretty high bar to meet when it comes to accountability, especially in the world of science and research. The ideas and concepts and facts and figures we send out into the world, including our own reasons for why we’re on that path, will be scrutinized for reliability, and just as they should be.

And when we meet that bar, it strengthens the audience’s trust in who we are and what we’re communicating to them. So how do we meet that bar? First things first, be clear in your intentions. Perhaps it’s a personal reason that drives your research or your research is being funded by a specific group that has the same goals as you. Either way, transparency is important.

Also, Scott reminds us that claiming to be unbiased will come off as insincere. It’s okay take a stance on a topic or discussion, and even make it engaging for others to hear and absorb, so long as you retain some ethical standards and don’t force a conclusion when the data doesn’t support it.

Thanks for listening to The Great Communicators Podcast brought to you by The MIT Office of Graduate Education. My name is Adam Greenfield, and feel free to talk amongst yourselves.