For as long as I’ve been a behavior analyst, members of my discipline have cared deeply about its portrayal in the popular media. Sometimes we worry because behavioral work is described inaccurately — this is a real problem, but one for a different discussion. More often, behavioral work of great promise is simply ignored in the popular press. If, like me, you’re a consumer of science journalism, it can feel as if every minor development in astronomy or physics or medicine is breathlessly celebrated while nothing much is written about potentially world-changing developments in behavior analysis.
I would, of course, like to see behavior analysis get its due, but the stakes are higher than that. Our world is in a perilous state, with challenges so big and pressing as to threaten the stability of society and even human survival (e.g., see here and here and here). It can be frustrating to see discussions about the world’s big concerns focus on demonstrably ineffective (nonbehavioral) approaches, or worse, to see those discussions proceed as if nothing is known that could make an appreciable difference when we, as people who know behavior, know better..
Rapid growth in science journalism has only made the problem seem more acute. Not only do traditional newspapers and magazines regularly discuss science; a host of websites devoted exclusively to science journalism now exist (a few examples: Science Daily, Nautilus, Hakai, RealClear Science, and Quanta). Some of these generate their own content and others are “aggregating” operations that collect, or provide links to, stories in other publications. All told, however, it’s safe to say that never before has more science been translated by more science writers for the benefit of everyday people.
You might think this would open new opportunities for coverage of the exciting work behavior analysts are doing. And yet even on this expanded stage it seems that the science of behavior struggles to earn even bit parts. Here’s a concrete illustration of the problem: According to the database of Altmetric.com, the majority of behavior analysis journals have failed to generate an average of even one mention per year in news stories over their respective publication lifetimes. Let that sink in for a moment. Across all of the articles published by most journals in a year, you can’t depend on even one receiving news coverage from the 5000 or so news outlets tracked by the database. Where news coverage is concerned, it would seem that behavior analysis is pretty hard to sell.
Behavior Analysis Articles that Got News Coverage
And yet occasionally it does sell. This table shows nine 2022 behavior analysis articles that received news coverage, according to the Altmetric.com database. Here “stories” refers to unique news stories. In today’s journalism landscape it’s common for a single story to be reprinted by multiple news outlets. Thus, for instance, as I’ll explain in a future post, 37 unique stories on the Clay et al. article resulted in that article appearing in the news over 800 times!
(according to Altmetric.com)
Speaking of news, this is a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that some articles got attention, and we would be wise to think about what made them different from all of the other articles that didn’t. And there is probably more news coverage of our science than the table suggests. The Altmetric.com database monitors only certain kinds of digital news sources that specifically mention a published scholarly article. It excludes non-textual sources, such as radio and television spots with no written equivalent, and it may fail to detect the link between some news reports and published journal articles (e.g., consider an interview with an expert who has published studies on some socially important topic).
Even acknowledging these limitations, the bad news is that, of all of the articles published in all of the journals devoted to behavior analysis, a total of only 60 unique news stories was detected for only these nine articles. Let’s be realistic about what these numbers convey. According to the Altmetric.com database, many Psychology journals achieve more news coverage than all of behavior analysis combined. For 2022 articles, consider American Psychologist (over 5,000 news mentions), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (17,000+), and Psychological Science (27,000+). Outside of Psychology, the counts can range even higher, for instance Journal of the American Medical Association (168,000+). Science in general does not seem to be as hard a sell as behavior analysis.
Three Things That Help Attract News Coverage
So, accepting the realities, let’s accentuate the positive. An article like Clay et al. (2022), in Behavior Analysis in Practice, shows us that when the conditions are right, news outlets are interested in our stuff. But what are those conditions?
- The topic matters to lots of people. News outlets are businesses that, in order to support advertising sales that keep them in business, seek to attract as many eyes as possible. Therefore they prefer to cover stories that lots of people care about. And, for better or worse, people care about what they care about. For instance, based on internet traffic it would seem that people care more about funny cat videos than they do about, say, inadequate funding of the public schools. This is not to say that behavior analysts should drop everything else to start making funny cat videos, only that we should be cognizant of where mainstream audiences exist. What behavior analysts get excited about working on simply may not excite lots of other people — or, therefore, news outfits.
Altmetric data provide a handy way to estimate the amount of public enthusiasm that might exist for a research topic. For instance, using the Altmetric Explorer tool, I conducted a search for all mentions across all years of the Altmetric.com database for 10 topics featured in the titles of articles in the Winter, 2023, issue of Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (so, this is mentions of the topic in all journals, not just JABA). I restricted the search to several kinds of sources likely to be authored by people who are not scientists or professionals like therapists (news articles, social media platforms, and blogs). The results (below) show that some behavior analysis topics are more popular than others. For instance, the Good Behavior Game has over 800 total mentions in the database, which makes it a stronger candidate for news coverage than, say, procedural fidelity or response-independent schedules.
Yet everything is relative. While 800 mentions may sound like a lot, the topic of the Clay et al. (2022) article, therapy animals, yielded nearly 8000 mentions. It’s an actuarial fact, therefore, that people care about therapy animals a lot more than they do about destructive behavior or vocational skills, much less procedural fidelity or response-independent schedules. Journal articles that effortlessly forge links with the things people care about may be the best candidates for news coverage.
Some journals seem more attuned to the public’s interests than others. For instance, according to the Altmetric.com database the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science has averaged about 26 instances of news coverage per year across its publication lifespan. Why might this be the case? Consider some of the topics addressed in titles of JCBS‘s January, 2023, issue: postpartum depression (more than 21,000 total mentions in the Altmetric.com database, using the same search parameters described above), gastrointestinal cancer (almost 31,000), obsessive compulsive disorder (36,000+), gambling (170,000+), and stress (1,760,000+). Objectively, researchers who publish in JCBS study things that lots of people care about. This may not be true in all behavior analysis journals.
- The article’s messaging is effective. As Nature Careers podcaster Adam Levy notes unironically, “making your paper readable will help people read your paper.” Savvy use of certain tricks of composition, such as catchy titles and accessible language overall, might better link behavior analytic work to the things that people care about.
Even with great messaging, however, the fact remains that behavior analysis journals have a limited readership that probably does NOT include journalists and other gatekeepers of the news, which brings us to the final condition…
- The author understands how journalism works. Here is a short version of a longer story: The circumstances under which news outlets become interested in a story are fairly predictable, and there are things you can do to increase the chances that your work will receive news coverage. On the flip side, what almost never works is to passively wait for those in the news business to stumble upon what you do. It’s critically important to understand that writing the news is someone’s behavior — behavior that is under the control of particular discriminative stimuli and reinforcers.
People who complain that behavior analysis gets too little love in the news media typically fail to acknowledge the practical steps that behavior analysts (those who bother to learn how the news industry works) can play in getting their own work covered. That’s the topic of an upcoming post. Stay tuned.